The year’s first broods have only just dispersed, but second attempts are already underway. For most garden birds this is nearly impossible, but some are better able to exploit this summer’s bounty.
If we imagine that the breeding season is a play, then the last couple of weeks of June can represent something of an interval. But now, in July, Act Two opens and it promises many twists and turns of fate and fortune, as every play should.
We know some characters by now – the robins that brought up four young from a nest deep in our hedge and the blackbirds who lost their brood to an April frost.
We will watch and care about their story in the second half of the season, too. And we will meet new characters, including one or two of the most villainous kind.
End of the season
A few of our players have left the set because, to all intents and purposes, their breeding season is over. Young carrion crows have abandoned their treetop fortress and will join a local flock of non-breeding birds.
These bands roam around like estate street gangs and can be just as violent and troublesome as the human kind, harassing everyone around them, including members of their own species.
Tawny owlets are plonked upon perches, cuddly as teddy bears, asleep by day and incessantly demanding by night. It will be months before they are fully independent and their parents can stop feeding them.
Young magpies have fledged from their family dome and face the world with short tails but good prospects.
The breeding season has also come to an end for tits. These are small birds and, as such, you would expect them to have several broods, but tits stake everything on the glut of caterpillars that comes, reliably enough, in late May and early June.
Because of this, they bulk-produce once a year. Having cared for as many as 10 young in the course of a few frenetic weeks, their breeding efforts are spent.
For some, the first act of the garden drama has been personally disastrous, because they failed to breed successfully or, worse still, failed to breed at all. But July could offer new opportunities – there is still time remaining. Failed pairs can try again.
And, for those who did not breed at all, the pause between broods almost always allows for a little reshuffling of the breeding pack. Pairs split up, through death or divorce, allowing other partnerships to form and make a late start.
In July there is a reprise of song among males who have new territorial details to thrash out.
Occasionally, the odd rogue male doesn’t bother to wait for the splitting up of a pair – he brings about the break-up himself in the most violent way possible. You might expect him to murder the rival spouse, but that’s not the case.
A few unpaired and angry males, at least among swallows and house sparrows, commit infanticide instead.
When both parents are away from a nest full of young, they steal in and grab the hapless occupants, dispatching them over the side of the nest one by one. The pair returns to find their breeding attempt shattered.
The couple inevitably breaks up and, surprisingly perhaps, the divorced female almost always seems to pair with the liquidator of her dearly departed young.
But these incidents are rare and, for most birds, a July breeding attempt is something of a bonus. Remember, the best of the season is now passed.
Even for those individuals that were successful with their first attempt, a second brood at this time of the year is usually a less fulsome affair than the previous one.
The nest will be less sumptuous and more quickly constructed, and the female will lay fewer eggs. Blackbirds and song thrushes reduce their output because, with the soil drying out, worms will retreat further underground and become harder to find, making it more difficult to sustain high numbers of young. There are also fewer caterpillars for robins and chaffinches.
For a few species, though, July represents the height of the breeding season, with abundant food supplies triggering a spate of reproduction. In rural areas, for example, July is boom time for the woodpigeon, coinciding as it does with the harvest and the grain gravy train.
Woodpigeons take full advantage, and successful breeding seems to come ridiculously easy to them at this time of year.
They build the most rudimentary of nests, constructed from a platform of twigs thrown together on a fork between branches – an effort worthy of the worst cowboy tradesman.
They lay only two eggs and once these hatch, they do not rush to and fro, like most other birds, with beaks crammed with offerings. Instead, they go and gorge, as they customarily do, on our birdtables or fields and let their metabolism get to work on providing for the young.
Cells in their crops fill up with nutrients and are then shed to make a kind of soup or milk, which is fed directly to the squabs. The concoction is highly nutritious and gives the young a great start in life.
The other breeding birds that blossom in late summer are the finches, and the reason for this is simple – seeds, their principal food, are becoming more abundant.
The chaffinch actually feeds its young entirely on invertebrates, but this species is the exception among the finch family – the rest feed their nestlings on regurgitated seed paste, admittedly garnished with a small but nutritionally important number of insects.
But finches need seeds, and as these become more widespread and numerous, so parties of goldfinches and greenfinches scour the neighbourhood in search of them.
It’s all in the bill
July is an excellent month to see these brightly coloured and sprightly birds in the garden. Goldfinches, with their tiny bills, specialise on wild composites, such as thistles, burdocks and dandelions, though they also come for lavender and, on birdfeeders, stuff themselves with nyjer seed.
Greenfinches have much broader bills and a broader diet to go with them. They are able to crack sunflower seeds and can regularly be seen adorning the heads of these huge flowers in the July sunshine.
Seed- or grain-eating is thirsty work, and the bird bath is often the best place to catch up with our characters in the midst of Act Two of the breeding season.
On a hot July afternoon, the garden’s water feature can be as busy as a post office on pension day, and an hour or two of watching can be extremely entertaining for the garden-bird enthusiast.
Most birds come down to drink warily and at some speed – a quick scoop or two of the bill and they’re off. But pigeons take things more slowly.
Alone among our garden birds, they can suck up water, rather than simply filling their bills and lifting their heads to let gravity do the work. So pigeons linger as they quench their thirst.
A pigeon visiting water will sometimes be overcome by temptation and simply plunge in then and there for a much-needed bath. Most other birds are more circumspect and hesitate by the water’s edge, looking around carefully before committing themselves, as coy as an English beach-bather changing behind a towel.
The way a bird bathes can be quite diagnostic: swallows simply dip into larger bodies of water in flight, whereas starlings, once finished, flap their wings with satisfied vigour before taking off again.
Pigeons bathe in the rain, house sparrows in the dust. And once they have had their dip, the birds exit stage left and right.