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The Early Risers

An Article by Mike Stentiford, MBE

WHETHER it’s about the cost of living, car ownership or what grows best in our gardens, surveys of all shapes and sizes now take place on a regular basis.

While the majority of these studies have a serious outcome, others might appear to be undertaken for no other reason than curiosity.


Take the one once carried out very early one winter’s day when some 6,000 bird-watching volunteers stepped out into their gardens to record the earliest rising bird!

 Known as the ‘Shortest Day Survey’, the exercise was a partnership between the British Trust for Ornithology and BBC Radio Four’s Today programme.

Some might have said that while the rules of the game were quite simple, the requirements for entry were somewhat socially inconsiderate as participants needed to be focusing their attention on their garden bird-feeders before the break of day.

Held in city, town and village, volunteers were simply asked to write down the arrival times of each visiting garden bird.

What transpired was that urban birds were much more inclined to have a lie-in than their countryside counterparts.

Apparently, it’s all to do with temperature and the fact that towns and cities generate a great deal more protective warmth – up to 8C in some cases – than the contrasting coolness of the open countryside.

In other words, a blackbird, having survived a cold, rough winter’s night in the countryside is far more in need of a full English breakfast than a blackbird that’s enjoyed a good night’s kip in the comparative warmth of a town.

Not so surprising, perhaps, were the results showing that birds with large eyes – blackbird, robin, and song thrush – got off to a much earlier start due to their ability to deal with dawn’s low light levels.

However, birds’ of a more shy and retiring nature, such as the dunnock and the wren, wisely made sure that their arrival times didn’t coincide with the general rough and tumble of the most aggressive species such as starlings and greenfinches.

All jolly interesting stuff although I’m wondering if a bird’s Saturday night out would make a difference to any Sunday morning survey – just a thought!

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