Hungry hedgehogs

Ironic that it was Hedgehog Awareness Week last week, because here in our small back garden in Hampshire we have been becoming increasingly hedgehog aware. It started as a bit of a mystery. Every morning we would find the cage on top of our bird ground feeder knocked askew, and the remains of the birds’ mealworms and suet devoured. A ratty visitor perhaps?

Who’s poo?

But then, more distinct telltale signs: shiny black droppings, not just one or two, but tens of poops around the lawn. Most of the literature on hedgehogs states that their stools are distinctly cylindrical, sometimes slightly tapered at one end and about 5cm in length, but I can confirm that hedgehog poop comes in all shapes and sizes, and in vast quantities.

Hedgehog poop – shiny, black, generally cylindrical ... and lots of it!

Hedgehog poop – shiny, black, generally cylindrical … and lots of it!

In the flesh

And then we finally caught the culprit in the act. Instantly recognisable – short tail, long legs, small ears, pointed furry face, small black eyes … a lot of spines … and terrible table manners! Those of you who follow this blog will know that our last sighting of a hedgehog was back in the summer of 2015 (see Huffing Hedgehogs), so you can imagine our excitement.

Hedgehog in garden

Instantly recognizable

We immediately got down to the serious business of leaving the right food out.

Feeding hedgehogs

Hedgehogs are omnivores but over 70% of their natural diet comprises beetles and other insects, worms and a tiny number of slugs and snails. You can supplement their evening dinner with:

  • Meat-flavoured tinned cat or dog food (chicken in jelly is the best – no fish flavours or meat in gravy!)
  • Specific tinned or dry hedgehog food, available from garden centres and pet shops
  • Cat biscuits (but not fish flavoured)
  • Cooked meat leftovers – chopped up finely as they have tiny teeth and cannot chew or tear big pieces
  • Chopped or crushed peanuts (the sort you put out for the birds – not salted!), dried mealworms and sunflower hearts (not whole sunflower seeds)
  • Sultanas and raisins

And if the guzzling in our back garden is anything to go by, they will appreciate it!

Do not give them:

  • Bread or milk – they can’t digest them!
  • Salty meats such as bacon or corned beef

And make sure you provide:

  • Water – they drink a lot!
  • A sloping exit out of ponds so they can get out if they fall in.

Lawn of many hedgehogs

So, for the past 4 weeks we have been putting the food direct onto the lawn after dark between 9 and 10pm, when there are fewer marauding moggies around to sneak a crafty snack. This seems to have encouraged more hedgehog visitors to the garden, and as they are not territorial they seem to be content to share the food without too much squabbling. In fact, we have now seen up to four hedgehogs together at any one time on the lawn.

 

Hedgehogs feeding

Erinaceus europaeus – three caught on camera – enjoying the buffet

Even if they are not around on the lawn, then we can usually hear them through the night, either huffing at each other in our herbaceous borders or in our neighbour’s garden. Yes, the courting rituals have started (hedgehog breeding season is April through to September) and we have our fingers crossed for hoglets later this summer.

Look after your hedgehogs

Hedgehog numbers in the UK are continuing to decline. According to the People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) 1 in 3 of all British hedgehogs have been lost since the year 2000. They are on the endangered species list, so if you find them in your garden, look after them!

For more information on hedgehogs go to The British Hedgehog Preservation SocietyThe Mammal SocietyPrickles Hedgehog Rescue or Tiggywinkles Wildlife Hospital.

Do you have hedgehogs in your garden? I’d love to hear from you. Leave a comment below or let me know on Twitter @15greenmins

Sparrowhawk attack

Earlier today my usually quiet front garden resembled a scene from Hitchcock’s horror film, The Birds, as dozens upon dozens of rooks and jackdaws circled above my house. The noise was astounding and the sight quite phenomenal, if not a little surreal. I was baffled as to what was going on, until I honed in on a panicked squawking emanating from the ivy beneath my beech hedge, where a sparrowhawk was locked in a violent tussle with … a jackdaw!

Sparrowhawk vs jackdaw

Sparrowhawk vs jackdaw

Given our extremely healthy population of blue tits and house sparrows, we are used to seeing the occasional sparrowhawk pop in for a ‘snack’, but I have never seen them tackle anything bigger. I was impressed, especially as I was pretty sure the sparrowhawk had the upper hand.

The jackdaw was still making a horrendous noise – it was far from dead – and the mob above was maintaining its rowdy protest too. But the sparrowhawk had it well pinned down.

Sparrowhawk covers her 'kill' having brought down a jackdaw

The sparrowhawk appeared to have things under control …

Plucking

… she even started plucking out the jackdaw’s breast feathers

Until she spotted me. Thanks to my paparazzi-style intrusion, this was one hearty lunch she didn’t get to tuck in to, because in the few seconds that she focused on me, the jackdaw started fighting back.

Jackdaw vs sparrowhawk

Fighting talk

In fact, in a flash, it completely turned the tables and had the sparrowhawk pinned on her back. Talons locked, they tumbled across the lawn before both taking off into the sky.

The black plague circling over the roof swiftly dissipated too. Nothing like a bit of gore and mayhem to liven up a Thursday lunchtime!

The sparrowhawk is a small bird of prey, well adapted to hunting birds in confined spaces, like my front garden! This was a female, as she had a brown back and wings. The females are larger than the males, which have a bluish-grey back and wings and orange-brown bars underneath.

The magnificent sparrowhawk (Accipiter nissus)

The magnificent sparrowhawk (Accipiter nissus)

Huffing hedgehogs

I was walking around the garden last night. It’s amazing how much unseen activity there is after dark: plenty of rustling in the borders, small rodents no doubt, or perhaps a few larger ones! Then I heard the ‘huffing’, a loud persistent raspy panting or puffing. Which could only mean one thing … we have hedgehogs back in residence.

Hedgehog in garden

And here’s the proof. Erinaceous europaeus!

It has been several years since we have seen any hedgehogs in the garden. Our cosy straw-filled hedgehog boxes have gone unused for the past two winters, so I was thrilled to find they were back.

I quickly threw a few hedgehog treats onto the lawn in the vicinity of the activity (we actually still had some hedgehog biscuits left over from the days when they were coming in regularly – see below), and low and behold a hedgehog emerged. After all that huffing, he (or she) was hungry!

The huffing happens when two hedgehogs meet, and is part of a hedgehog’s courtship behaviour, where they huff and circle each other. So we can but hope for hoglets later this year. Watch this terrific piece of footage on YouTube of hedgehog courtship behaviour to see and hear the huffing behaviour for yourself!

Feeding hedgehogs

Hedgehog numbers in the UK have declined by more than a third over the past decade and they are now on the endangered species list. So if you find them in your garden, look after them!

Hedgehogs are insectivores; over 70% of their natural diet comprises beetles and other insects, worms and a tiny number of slugs and snails, but you can supplement their evening dinner with:

  • Meat-flavoured tinned cat or dog food (chicken in jelly is the best – no fish flavours or meat in gravy!)
  • Specific tinned or dry hedgehog food, available from garden centres and pet shops
  • Cat biscuits (but not fish flavoured)
  • Cooked meat leftovers – chopped up finely as they have tiny teeth and cannot chew or tear big pieces
  • Chopped or crushed peanuts (the sort you put out for the birds – not salted!), dried mealworms and sunflower hearts
  • Sultanas and raisins

Do not give them:

  • Bread or milk – they can’t digest them!
  • Salty meats such as bacon or corned beef

Make sure you:

  • Provide a source of water – they drink a lot!
  • Provide a sloping exit out of ponds so they can get out if they fall in.

For more information on hedgehogs go to The British Hedgehog Preservation SocietyThe Mammal SocietyPrickles Hedgehog Rescue or Tiggywinkles Wildlife Hospital.

Do you have hedgehogs in your garden? I’d love to hear from you. Leave a comment below or let me know on Twitter @15greenmins

Watch the birdie

Nest box update

Monday mornings are always a struggle for me, but as I brewed the first of several mugs of tea this morning I spotted movement in the ivy opposite the kitchen window. What a joy to know that robins have returned to our recently cleared nest box!

Female robin, starting the nest building process

Female robin, starting the nest building process

At present, the female is busy toing and froing with leaves and moss; she will do all the nest building, but the male is close at hand, and will be supplying her with food while she toils (‘courtship feeding’).

Sparrow entertainment

Meanwhile, we also have a wonderfully entertaining flock of 50+ house sparrows (Passer domesticus) in our garden. It’s hard to put an exact figure on their numbers, as they are constantly on the move between the bird feeders and hawthorn tree, the flowerbeds and hedges, the shed roof and pond, exploring every inch of their domain.

Small groups of house sparrows congregate at different feeding stations around the garden

Small groups of house sparrows congregate at different feeding stations around the garden

These gregarious little birds start chattering at dawn under the eaves of the house, and their noisy squabbling rarely abates before dusk. It is fascinating to watch the different ‘characters’ in action, such as the bolshy males who assert their authority over the feeders (until a starling or woodpecker arrives on the scene!), or the younger, more curious, members of the flock, who are fascinated by pretty much everything, especially the glass roof of our conservatory.

Male house sparrow in breeding plumage

Male house sparrow in breeding plumage

Strangers in our midst

A few weeks ago some unusual behaviour caught my eye: a stand off between a robin and a male house sparrow over a ground feeder (or so I thought). The robin was getting stroppy and, unusually, the house sparrow wasn’t backing down. I’ve seen male house sparrows throw their weight around within their ‘family’ groups, but rarely with other species, so I picked up the binoculars to see what was going on. Imagine my surprise to find out we had a male reed bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus) in our midst: very similar to a male house sparrow from a distance, but that characteristic white drooping ‘moustache’ meant it could be nothing other than a reed bunting.

Male reed bunting

Male reed bunting

He’s been a regular visitor for a few weeks now, never coming too near the house and too wary to join the larger groups of house sparrows on the bird tables. Instead he has been feeding alone on a caged ground feeder on the lawn or in the company of a  few select sparrows on a log at the bottom of the garden. And this week, a female joined him. I could easily have mistaken her for another female house sparrow, but there was that tell-tale moustache again!

Female reed bunting, feeding in isolation away from the house

Female reed bunting, feeding in isolation away from the house

Traditionally birds of reed beds and wetlands, it’s a real treat to have them in the garden for a little while. No doubt they’ll be moving on to a suitable nest site soon.

And it just goes to show, you might think you know which birds are frequenting your garden, but it’s worth picking up the binoculars from time to time just to make sure, especially if you notice any ‘out-of-character’ behaviour.

The Big Garden Birdwatch

Did you take part in the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch this weekend? If you did, and you’ve submitted your results, then you can proudly claim to have taken part in the biggest annual ‘citizen science’ event in the UK and the world’s largest wildlife survey. Around half a million people now take part every year, and last year over 7 million birds were counted.

According to Steve Ormerod, Chair of the RSPB Council, 115,000 sets of results were entered by midnight last night –  12% higher than the previous best.

House sparrows - Big Garden Birdwatch

“Do you come here often?” House sparrows (Passer domesticus)

Unfortunately, my hour of twitching didn’t reveal any major surprises; in fact, totalling only 13 species, a few of my regulars were rather noticeable by their absence. In particular, ‘the black plague’ (as I affectionately call them) were nowhere to be seen. Usually, within minutes of loading up the tables and feeders, my  garden turns into a scene from ‘The Birds’, as rooks and jackdaws descend from all directions. But this weekend, they must have been busy shovelling up someone else’s hi-energy no-mess seed instead. Just 3 jackdaws made an appearance, and not a rook in sight.

Blue tits - Big Garden Birdwatch

Heaven is a  nut holder filled with nuts … for blue tits (Parus caeruleus)

Our house sparrows  and blue tits were, as always,  the stars of the show, manically flitting between nut holders and bird tables, and squabbling over the tastiest grains. We have a flock of 40-50 house sparrows, which breed every year under the eaves and in the ivy on the front of the house, and we’ve had blue tits fledging from the nest box on the shed for the past 4 or 5 years, so  numbers have been building steadily.

That’s the good news. On the downside, we’ve noticed a dramatic decline in the number of starlings over the past 20 years (I was happy to see 3 yesterday!), and this year the goldfinches seem to have disappeared altogether. Last year I could barely keep up with the nyjer seed refills, but so far this winter the nyjer feeder hasn’t needed a single top up.

According to last year’s survey, the top 10 birds occupying our gardens were:

  1. House sparrow (Passer domesticus)
  2. Blue tit (Parus caeruleus)
  3. Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)
  4. Blackbird (Turdus merula)
  5. Wood pigeon (Columba palumbus)
  6. Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs)
  7. Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis)
  8. Great tit (Parus major)
  9. Collared dove (Streptopelia decaocto)
  10. Robin (Erithacus rubecula)

Apart from those awol goldfinches, I was able to tick off all of these, plus those jackdaws (Corvus monedula), a dunnock (Prunella modularis) a magpie (Pica pica) and, at the very last minute, a great spotted woodpecker – a species that, having started to appreciate the benefits of garden nut holders, made it into the top 20 for the first time last year. We now have a regular pair visit us, and they bring the ‘kids’ in later in the year to show them how the amazing food-bearing metal contraptions work.

Great spotted woodpecker - Big Garden Bird Watch

Just in time for the count

It will be interesting to see if the top 10 has changed at all this year. Don’t forget to send in your results – you have until 16th February to submit them. And keep an eye out for the overall findings in March. In the meantime, please leave a comment below and let me know what you get in your garden.