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RSPB explains how to help migratory birds this spring

Spring heralds the beginning of bird breeding season – and along with it, the return to the UK of many thousands of migratory birds. The RSPB explains what to look – and listen – out for, and how we can help them after their epic journeys.

From March onwards, birds are busy finding mates, building nests and bringing up broods, and there’s a host of ‘new faces’ in our gardens, woodlands, countryside and along our coastlines.

Many of these returning migratory birds have flown hundreds, often thousands of miles from wintering grounds in more southerly, warmer countries. These include truly iconic species such as cuckoos and swifts – but sadly, these birds have seen sharp declines in their numbers over the last two decades – in some cases, by more than 50%.

Here’s five migratory birds synonymous with spring – and how to spot them:

  1. Cuckoo – everyone knows this beautiful delicate call. Much more likely to be seen than heard. Listen out in woodlands, especially the edges, from mid-April onwards. Renowned for laying eggs in other birds’ nests, they’re one of the first migrant birds to leave again, as they have no chicks to look after.
  2. Swift – amazing, aerial acrobats, swifts spend the majority of their lives flying. They like to nest way up high, in nooks and crannies of old buildings, so look up to see them. They have a distinctive crescent shape and make high pitched calls when they’re in a group, searching for nest sites – called screaming parties. Look out for them from early May.
  3. House martin – sometimes confused with similar looking swifts or swallows, especially when flying high in the sky, where they’re catching insects.  Though both are light underneath, house martins don’t have the long trailing tail of the swallow, whilst swifts have dark undersides and thinner, sickle-shaped wings. House martins return in March and April, and build distinctive round nests made from mud, under eaves.
  4. Turtle doves – With such small numbers, you’re only likely to see these migratory birds if you are on the east coast of England or in southern parts, and again, you’re more likely to hear these shy doves. They make a gentle ‘turr turr’ noise and have amazing patterned wings. They favour hedges and scrub, close to farmland.
  5. Little tern – These seabirds are the UK’s smallest terns, found around our coastline where there’s suitable beaches to nest on. They’re noisy when together in colonies and really fast in flight. They have a distinctive yellow beak with a black tip. Males have an impressive aerial display to attract a mate, which includes carrying a fish and showing off their gliding skills.

How can we help our threatened birds?

Many of our migrant bird populations are under threat, affected by changes in climate, loss of nesting sites and reduction in food supplies. But here’s some of the things you can do to help:

  • Put up nest boxes or cups – swifts and house martins were both put on the red list of birds recently, meaning they’re in danger of extinction. They need suitable places to nest when they come back to the UK to breed.
  • Plant to attract insects – having an insect-friendly plot will help with a range of things from pollination to providing much-needed food for many birds.
  • Put away the pesticide – using chemicals to kill dandelions and aphids also impacts on a whole range of insects in our gardens. In time, this affects the very things you were trying to protect – plants, soil and wildlife.
  • Watch your step when out and about – lots of people don’t realise many birds nest on the ground. Little terns nest on shingle beaches, so put dogs on leads and be careful not to disturb nests if visiting the coast from April through the summer months.

For help IDing any birds you see or hear this spring, more details about all our migratory birds and lots of things you can do to help, visit the RSPB website at

Images from Pixabay

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