Birds in Burial Grounds Part 125th January 2019
Guest blog by John Arnfield, Chair of Shropshire Ornithological Society
The UK’s birds are in trouble and burial grounds can help. Turtle Dove have experienced a 93% population decline since 1970. Over the same period, other species with spectacular “crashes” in numbers include Spotted Flycatcher (86%), Starling (78%), Nightingale (73%), House Sparrow (71%), Cuckoo (63%), and Song Thrush (50%), along with many other familiar and well-loved birds. The reasons for this are many (climate change, intensification of agriculture, environmental pollution in various guises and illegal persecution) but habitat loss is among the most significant. Birds require a habitat that will provide food, shelter and a suitable nesting site: such amenities are provided by nature reserves as well as a range of non-traditional habitats such as gardens, military bases, motorway verges and railway embankments. Among these desirable habitats are burial grounds!
Why are these areas attractive to birds? Most obviously, they are often ‘islands’ of enhanced biodiversity in a surrounding ‘sea’ of often impoverished habitat. This is clearly the case for an urban churchyard, for example, surrounded by paved and unvegetated land uses, as in the inner city or industrial areas. However, it may be equally true of a rural site if surrounding fields support intensive types of agriculture with heavy pesticide and herbicide use. Burial grounds are, of course, usually relatively small compared to the area used by a highly mobile creature like a bird, and will act as production and dispersal sites, ‘seeding’ the surrounding areas with more unusual species. They will also receive incomers from poorer habitats, so that what constitutes a ‘churchyard bird’ will depend as much on the surroundings as the characteristics of the churchyard itself.
Burial grounds are frequently quiet and undisturbed habitats, ideal for nesting and rearing young. They are also often stable ecosystems (many having been unchanged for centuries) with ancient trees and pastures, and have escaped the excesses of fertiliser and herbicide use characteristic of farmed land and even gardens. They typically have mature tree cover, both native and exotic, broad-leafed and conifer, with tree groupings, hedges and sometimes a shrub understorey. All of these provide a variety of food sources and nest sites. A mixture of tree types is valuable to birds that raise several broods in a breeding season, which start early and may use a conifer as a nesting site for the first nest, when deciduous trees are leafless, and may switch later in the season. The best sites offer a wealth of nesting, feeding and roosting sites including external building walls with buttresses, gargoyles, grotesques, ledges, nooks and crannies, towers and spires, moss- and lichen-covered memorial stones, walls and crypts, ivy-covered trees and stonework, lawn-like short grass, meadows, shrubs, ‘untidy’ areas and fruit- and seed-bearing plants.
What bird species are commonly found in churchyards and burial grounds? Remarkably, there are not many surveys available but those that I found mention 66 species. Among these are:
• The thrushes – Blackbird, Song and Mistle Thrushes and winter visitors, Redwing and Fieldfare, Robin, Goldcrest, Wren, Dunnock, House Sparrow, Spotted Flycatcher, Nuthatch and Starling, Blue, Great and Coal Tit.
• Finches – Greenfinch. Siskin, Goldfinch, Chaffinch, Brambling, Redpoll, Hawfinch, Bullfinch and Linnet.
• Pigeons and doves – Woodpigeon, Stock Dove and Collared Dove.
• Crows – Carrion Crow, Rook, Jay and Jackdaw.
• Various raptors – including Barn, Tawny and Little Owl, Peregrine, Sparrowhawk and Kestrel.
• Swift, Swallow and House Martin.
• Warblers – Blackcap, Chiffchaff, Whitethroat and Willow Warbler.
• Great and Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers.
On this list alone, there are nine species on the Red List of Birds of Conservation Concern and eleven on the Amber List – clearly burial grounds have the potential for nurturing some of our more threatened bird species while supporting healthy populations of our commoner, much-loved species. As such, they are in need of protection and improvement.
Read Part 2 for ideas on how to improve burial grounds for birds. Photo by Swift Conservation