A Case of the Tail Wagging the Bird

Grey Wagtail (Dave Bartlett, Birds of Berkshire Atlas)

Grey Wagtail courtesy of Dave Bartlett, The Birds of Berkshire Atlas.

Pied Wagtail Male Lisa Carter

Pied Wagtail (male) courtesy of Lisa Carter

If Eton High Street ever wanted to adopt a bird as its mascot, I would select the incredibly adaptable Pied Wagtail over the annoyingly cosmopolitan Pigeon.  They are often seen searching for their preferred food of insects and other small invertebrates on the High Street and pavements and are familiar sights in car parks such as Meadow Lane and at local supermarkets.  They will feed off insects knocked down by cars but will also forage a crumb or two when hungry.  They are impressively bold and have even been known to pick insects off vehicle grilles.  Not surprisingly, around bird feeders they favour mealworms.

Our local Pied Wagtails are resident over winter but like to take advantage of communal roosts to stay safe and keep warm.  For example, flocks numbering well over 1,000 birds are seen at Heathrow, enjoying the safety from predators conferred by the extra illumination when daylight is at a premium.  They benefit from the warmth emanating from buildings which are used virtually 24 – 7 as well as their own collective body warmth.  In the breeding season, wagtails rely on cavities of any kind for nest sites and they can be surprisingly hard to locate.

When not in an urban setting they love to forage across gardens and short pasture, flushing out their prey by walking briskly and then taking flies on the wing once disturbed.  They often follow livestock in paddocks, living off the flies associated with horses and cattle.

The Latin name of the wagtails, Motacilla, reflects their habit of running about briskly. Motare means ‘to move about’.  Their characteristic habit of tail-flicking is not fully understood but there is evidence that such wagging increases in the presence of potential predators and indicates a level of awareness in the birds concerned. This also seems to be true for moorhens, too.  Pied Wagtails are almost exclusively British and Irish, being one subspecies of the White Wagtail which has a number of races occupying the Northern Hemisphere.

Other wagtail species are also found in Eton.  The Grey Wagtail, which is far more colourful than its name suggests, likes to forage in my riverside garden during the winter, attracted by the fast-flowing water of the nearby mill race.  It has distinctive lemon underparts in the winter and a much longer tail than its Pied cousin but is not to be confused with Yellow Wagtails!

 George Fussey FRSB FZS FLS


On the Spot – some thoughts about Thrushes

Mistle Thrush (002) Mistle ThrushSong Thrush (002) Song Thrush

Photos courtesy of Gordon Langsbury (deceased) of Bucks Bird Club.

Throughout the hot weather that we enjoyed this summer, I was ever conscious of how difficult it was for the birds in Eton to keep hydrated and maintain the quality of their diets.  Two ever-presents for me were both from the thrush family.  We tend to think of all thrushes as having plump breasts with spotted feathers, but in fact thrush species come in many different colours and not all are spotty, by any means.  For example, Blackbirds are included in the thrush family, and so were European Robins until very recently.

In my riverside garden, the Song Thrushes love to catch invertebrates and especially snails.  These, along with the blueberries and blackberries they steal from my bushes, must provide much-needed moisture to their diet.  At least they keep the slug and snail population down and help protect my soft leaved border plants!  In the Eton Natural History Museum, there’s a great display showing that some snails are far easier to catch than others.  It turns out that the colour and stripiness of snail shells have a huge camouflaging effect on which ones can be seen and caught by thrushes. They break open snails by smashing the shells against a convenient stone, called an ‘anvil’.  This habit allows us to know which snail shell patterns they find easier to catch merely by counting the broken shell fragments next to an anvil.  As their name suggests, Song Thrushes are renowned for their singing, especially their habit of repeating a variety of phrases.  They are also widespread.  Settlers Down Under transported the Song Thrush to New Zealand in 1862: they have now become one of the commonest garden birds on both the North and South Islands.

On South Meadow and the nearby Recreation Ground, there have been a handful of Mistle Thrushes around all summer, searching for small invertebrates.  Worms retreated so far underground in the dry weather that the thrushes have been restricted to gathering insects.  Mistle Thrushes are considerably greyer than the Song Thrush and notably larger.  Their outer tail feathers, which are white, are very distinctive in flight.  In the winter when resources are scarce Mistle Thrushes are renowned for guarding fruitful bushes from all-comers.  Their name is said to come from their love of mistletoe!

George Fussey FRSB, FLS


Life is a Cabaret! The Plight of Seed-eating Birds

Redpoll 21-02-08_

Photo of a Redpoll courtesy of Phil Tizzard of Bucks Bird Club.

One benefit of extreme weather is that unusual visitors are drawn to my Nyjer seed bird-feeder.  Recently, a Lesser Redpoll fed voraciously for a couple of days, happily displacing a charm of Goldfinches that normally enjoys dining rights.  Redpolls, like so many small seed-eating birds, have declined massively in the last fifty years.  Studies show that the British Redpoll population has dropped by 86% over the period 1970 – 2013, along with similar declines for species like Yellowhammers, Linnets, Bullfinches and Tree and House Sparrows.  These declines are largely due to changes in agricultural practices, especially the widespread use of herbicides on arable land.  The trend for planting autumn-sown cereals rather than spring-sown has also had a huge effect because fields are no longer left as stubble over winter as they once were.  The loss of traditional meadows has also hit these species hard, reminding us how lucky we are locally to be surrounded by hay meadows still managed appropriately by the College.  Even the efficiency of modern farming methods has reduced the availability of spilt grain to birds: for example, the average grain spillage from combine harvesters decreased by 90% in the period from 1970 – 2000.

It is not all doom and gloom, however.  There are new food sources: oilseed rape seeds form in May and are available for seed-eating birds until they are harvested in July.  As well as feeding on farmland seeds, Redpolls also love feasting, sometimes in large flocks, on Birch and Alder seeds, especially by the riverside.  In Berkshire, Redpolls have also enjoyed the coniferous plantations and adjacent mixed scrubby heathland.

Redpolls have one of the most glamorous Latin names, by the way: Carduelis cabaret.  With a name like that, I am more than happy for this species to put on a show in my garden!

 George Fussey


Black Swans

Black Swan Black Swan 2

Many residents will have noticed the Black Swan that has been on the Thames in recent weeks.  Black Swans were first brought to England in 1791 as ornamental birds (just like peacocks and golden pheasants) but like many other captive species they occasionally escape and breed in the wild.  The first recorded breeding in the UK was in 1902 and there is a well-established feral population on the Norfolk Broads.  Black Swans bred at Great Meadow Pond in the Great Park in 2004, though it wasn’t until three years later that they successfully fledged.  According to ‘The Birds of Berkshire’ (2013), they are occasionally found at local gravel pits and as many as ten have been seen around the junction of the Thames with the Kennet in Reading in recent years.


In fact, the iconic Black Swan is native to the wetlands of south-western and south-eastern Australia and Tasmania.  It is the state bird of Western Australia and features on its flag and coat of arms.  However, this species has now naturalized in New Zealand where it was deliberately introduced (in 1865) to clear Watercress, itself an alien species.  In New Zealand, Black Swans soon spread in the absence of any competition and has numbered 200,000 in recent years, becoming a considerable agricultural pest in the process.  Evidence from New Zealand populations is that breeding success becomes greater as the sizes of flocks increase and so it is entirely possible that, in time, Black Swans could compete with, and displace, UK native species.


The spread of species around the world, often aided by man, and not always with any consideration of the consequences, is a familiar tale. Our own Mute Swan has founded wild populations in countries as far apart as USA and Japan.  Keeping an eye out for changes in the ranges of species, natural and otherwise, will become ever more necessary in a world of changing climates.

Peregrine Falcons at Eton


The Museum hosts an annual Secret Life of Birds Family Learning Event for Windsor schools.  Always a sell-out, it’s one of my favourite events mostly because, to round off the day, we hire a local falconer to come and fly hawks and falcons around the splendid new McCrum Yard.  The children love the spectacle, the chance to get up close to these superbly adapted animals.  By the end of the event the children are all able to tell the difference between a hawk and a falcon.  Hawks have broad wings without sharp tips, designed for manoeuvrability and kill prey with their talons.  Falcons, on the other hand, have narrow wing-tips designed for extreme speed and they generally catch prey with their talons whilst in flight and then kill the prey with their beaks.

The Peregrine Falcon has the distinction of being the fastest recorded animal on the planet, reaching speeds of over 200 mph in the vertical dive (or ‘stoop’). It usually tries to hit one wing of its prey so as not to harm itself on impact.  In recent months we have enjoyed sightings of a Peregrine on the south-side of College Chapel. Boys and Masters have also recovered the scant remains of Ring-Necked Parakeets which it has caught. Given that the Parakeets can displace native species from nesting sites and compete with them for food, some local ornithologists are not unhappy to see the Parakeet population under threat!

However, for much of the twentieth century, the Peregrine population has itself been taking a tumble.  After the onset of the Second World War, large numbers of Peregrines were killed because they were thought to pose a threat to the military use of homing pigeons with the result that their population was reduced by nearly 50% by 1944.  Peregrine populations next suffered in the 50s and 60s from the widespread use of organochlorine pesticides such as DDT.  So, all in all, we should take the College Chapel falcon as a welcome sign of recovery.

Photo credit: Mark Fielker

Ragworts in Eton’s Meadows

Nearly a quarter of the 17,000 specimens in the Eton Natural History Museum collections are dried and pressed flowers.  Our herbarium dates back mostly to the 1830s and it represents an amazing record of plants, many of which used to be common but have since become rarities, or even extinct.  Some plants, however, have increased their numbers over the years and have even become troublesome.  One such plant is the group of daisies known as Ragworts.

At the end of August this year, the College made hay on its local meadows.  One of the prettiest flowers in the fields is Ragwort, with its bright yellow flowers.  Before the hay can be cut, the Eton groundsmen make sure that they pull out all the Ragwort, a really laborious process.  The reason is that it is highly toxic to livestock.  Fortunately, horses and most other grazers will not eat the living plant but they will after it has been cut and dried out.  The plant is said to be responsible for half the stock poisoning incidents in Britain and in sufficient quantities it can and does cause fatal liver damage.  However, there is one moth, the Cinnabar Moth, whose black and yellow caterpillars eat Ragwort with relish and use the poisons it contains to protect themselves from bird attack by making themselves particularly distasteful.

One species of Ragwort is known as Oxford Ragwort.  Old Etonian Sir Joseph Banks, the founder of Kew Gardens and botanist on Captain Cook’s first circumnavigation, first noticed it growing in the Oxford University Botanic Garden in the 1770s.  Its natural habitat is the volcanic rock around Mount Etna, but somehow it found its way to Oxford.  Its downy seeds soon escaped the gardens and eventually made its way to Oxford railway station by the1830s.  From there it grew easily on the clinker of railway tracks and has spread, carried along by the slipstream of trains and courtesy of the Great Western Railway, to every part of urban Britain where it likes to grow on any waste ground.

Photos courtesy of Karen Phillips at Taste’s Deli, Eton High Street.Ragwort (Senecio jacobaea)Ragwort (Senecio jacobaea)

The Old Eton Bird Sanctuary

Bird sancold bird sanctuary boys

This nature reserve was started by Eton boys in 1934 on the site of old osier (willow) beds on a site on the north bank of the Thames.  It’s easily missed as you walk along the tow path heading west just before you go under the Windsor Relief Road.

The site was the focus of interest of what was at that time a very active College Natural History Society.  A small pond was dug out by the boys and there is a photo below of them wallowing in mud, glorious mud!

There is a comprehensive bird species list from that time and details of nests and hatching success, plus details of the sort of habitats that were created to encourage birds.  46 species were recorded during its first decade and the boys counted 41 nests produced by 16 species in 1937.  At that time there were numerous Reed and Sedge Warblers.   Interest of boys in the site waned progressively from the 1970s onwards and it is only in the last fifteen years that efforts have been made to conserve the area and conduct surveys.  Recent surveys show that the number of bird species has declined to 27, largely due to the habitat drying up.  The most notable species now are Reed Buntings, Chiffchaffs, Garden Warblers and Whitethroat.  Two snails on the site are listed in the Red Data Book, meaning that they are very rare.  They are Perforatella rubiginosa and Lacinaria biplicata.  Moth surveys have shown a decent species list and one nationally rare species, the Cream-bordered Green Pea (Earias clorana).  There are four nationally scarce spiders on the reserve and six nationally scarce beetles and a rare ant (Lasius brunneus). The cutest species seen was a Harvest Mouse (Micromys minutus) which appeared one evening whilst a moth survey was being carried out!



One of the best things I have added to my garden in recent years has been a bird feeder holding Nyjer seeds.  The seeds of this African yellow daisy are rich in oil and protein. Their fat content gives small birds the energy they need to survive the winter and the protein helps them renew their plumage for the breeding season.  Goldfinches adore my Nyjer feeder and queue up in numbers to eat their fill.

This April, though, I was surprised to see a male Siskin feeding, my first in 30 years!  Though they do like to feed on the seeds of riverside Alders and Birches this was still a great sighting in my riverside garden.  Movements of Siskins are quite complex, something that can be worked out from the recoveries of birds which have been ringed.  Scottish birds are thought to make up a significant proportion of the English wintering population, though some come from Europe as far afield as Norway.

Siskins were always scarce in this part of the country until the Forestry Commission started to plant conifer plantations in the Thames Valley.  Gradually, the Scottish population then expanded southwards.  Ironically, the trend is now for the authorities to remove conifers to restore broadleaf woodland, so it may well be that Siskins will become even rarer in future.

Siskins do have years when they are especially common even in Berkshire and, remarkably, our records go back over 150 years thanks to records made by a 16-year-old Eton boy named Alexander Clark Kennedy.  He wrote the first ever book anywhere in the world containing photos of birds, and in it he stated that there were abundant flocks of Siskins in the years 1857/8 and 1866/7.  You can see his book, and a Siskin, in the Eton College Natural History Museum!

The photo has been kindly provided by Brian Clews of the Berkshire Bird Atlas project www.berkshirebirdatlas.org.uk


George Fussey


When is a Blackcap not a Blackcap?

Eton’s Natural History Museum in South Meadow Lane was built to hold the Thackeray Collection, one of the largest collections of stuffed birds in Victorian Britain. Much of that collection is still in the Museum, over 160 years later.  One of my favourite stuffed birds is our Blackcap, and one of the quiz questions that we ask children when they are doing the ‘treasure hunt’ around the Museum is to answer the question, what colour head does the female Blackcap have?  The answer, of course, is not black (that would be too obvious!), but a beautiful chestnut brown.

Blackcaps are warblers that have markedly changed their behavior over the last fifty years or so.  Prior to 1960 it was very rare to see a blackcap in winter in the UK, but the RSPB now estimate that some 3,000 birds overwinter here compared to the 1 million or more pairs that take up residence in summer.  So though they are widespread throughout Berkshire in the summer, I was delighted to welcome a male Blackcap as a regular visitor to my garden birdfeeder (containing sunflower hearts) over the Christmas period.  It is also partial to the fallen apples that I leave on the lawn.  In the summer Blackcaps typically feed on insects before transitioning to berries and other fruit in the autumn.


The Berkshire Bird Atlas notes the species arriving in the county in November and December.  Many of our overwintering Blackcaps come from Central Europe and, in particular, Southern Germany.  These migratory movements are known from ringing studies.  These involve captured birds being fitted with a uniquely-numbered, lightweight metal ring on their leg that can then be read and reported if they are ever found or caught again.  Studies show that our summering Blackcaps, on the other hand, arrive from March onwards and then depart for Southern Europe and North Africa.  Some ringed birds have been recovered from as far as Senegal, though Morocco and Tunisia are more common destinations, apparently.

Few of us give any thought to the amazing journeys that some of our garden birds make in one calendar year!

 George Fussey



Photo courtesy Brian Clews.

Yellow Rattle and Eton’s Meadows

etonnhm.png Yellow Rattle Yellow Rattle

Photos of Yellow Rattle on College Field taken by Karen Phillips of Tastes Delicatessen, High St. Eton

When we think of the treasures of Eton we tend to think of the architectural heritage that surrounds us around the College and along the High Street.
The fact is, however, that one of the jewels in Eton’s crown is its Lammas land, the extensive meadows which are owned by the College but which commoners were allowed to use for pasture following the harvest following 12 August (Lammas Day). Hay meadows with a rich variety of flowers are important habitats for insects, birds and other animals and they are just as much in need of conservation as our architectural heritage.

Meadows are a rich mix of grass and wild flower species in competition with one another. If fertiliser is added to meadows, grasses will tend to grow at the expense of the flowers. For this reason, fertilising meadows cuts down biodiversity and allows just a few grasses to take over. Fortunately, year after year the hay is cut and removed after the harvest and this helps remove nutrients from the meadow. The resulting lack of nutrients depresses the growth of the grasses and encourages the meadow flowers to flourish.

As well as continuing to make hay, and ensuring that no fertilizer is ever put on our hay meadows, some species can single-handedly help promote biodiversity. A plant called Yellow Rattle (Rhinanthus minor) that flowers at the end of May is actually a parasite that draws water and nourishment from the roots of nearby grasses. This weakens the grasses and so helps the flowers to thrive. Its name derives from the fact that when it sets seed (in July) you can hear the seeds rattle in the hollow dry seed-cases as you walk through the meadow. Its rattling was often taken as a sign that a meadow was ready for the harvest. You can find this species around Eton, though it has disappeared from South Meadow in recent years. If it makes reappearance, it could play a vital part in maintaining this meadow, and its rich diversity, for years to come.