CSI Garden Edition: Who newt this was a cold-blooded killer …

A few weeks ago I was saddened to step into the garden to find a puddle of black feathers near the base of one of the bird feeders. It didn’t take a forensic team to determine what had likely happened: a sparrowhawk had snatched a blackbird in mid-air. These speedy raptors are masters at navigating hedges and trees and, just a few days before the grisly discovery, one had flown directly in front of me, chasing a small bird across several nearby back gardens. I don’t know if it was successful that time, but the evidence at the feeder indicated that it had made a kill early that morning. Case closed.

Yet you can’t help but feel sorry for the small garden birds when something like this happens. Robins, blue tits, long-tailed tits, sparrows, blackbirds: they bring joy to millions of people across the country, and there is a long history of bird protection in the UK. The RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) was founded in 1889 as a reaction to the trade in bird feathers for ladies’ hats and clothing. Today, up to £300 million is spent every year on feeding wild birds in the UK and, in an increasingly urban country, garden birds are the wildlife we are the most familiar with.

But, back in my garden, it didn’t take long for the hunted to become the hunter.

Since spring has well and truly sprung in the UK, with sustained sunshine for the first time in months, the birds and the bees and various other critters have become incredibly active. It’s the time of year when the birds in particular turn their thoughts to raising the next generation: nest-making activity had been evident for some time, with the occasional territorial squabble breaking out in the hedge.

Then, this past week, it happened: the blackbird eggs hatched. At least, I’m assuming they hatched because suddenly both the male and the female could be seen running frantically across the garden, stuffing their beaks full of worms and insects to bring back to their hatchlings. Somehow birds know that their growing young need protein, and they will run themselves ragged to catch insects, only stopping to feed themselves with seeds or fatballs at a feeder.

So far, so normal. This is a scene that has repeated itself in our garden every year since moving here, and this year we have had more time than usual to watch the comings and goings of our usual cast of characters.

  • Woodpigeons: They can act quite dopey, but they excel at hoovering up any food that falls from the feeder.
  • Robins: Bold as brass with an attitude in inverse proportion to their size.
  • House sparrows: Chirp and cheerful visitors that can make a bit of a racket; you definitely know when they’re around!
  • Blue tits: One of the clowns of the bird world, these brightly coloured balls of energy are a British favourite.
  • Long-tailed tits: Nicknamed flying teaspoons for their tiny bodies and eponymous long tails, they like to hang out in flocks; when you see one, there’s probably another five lurking nearby.
  • Green woodpecker: This visitor to our garden is welcome to eat as many of our ants as it would like.
  • Greater spotted woodpecker: The black, white, and red cousin of the green woodpecker makes an occasional appearance at the feeder but is not so helpful when it comes to insect control.
  • Corvids: This avian family includes some of the smartest birds to appear at a bird table—magpies, jackdaws, and crows. They’re not always welcome in UK gardens, but we enjoy watching them.

And then there are the blackbirds. These are bold birds who don’t mind my presence, and I had been amused over the past month to see how one of the resident blackbirds ignored the water dishes scattered around the garden to bathe in the pond instead. Little did I know then that it was plotting a truly cold-blooded crime.

It happened this past weekend: I noticed the male blackbird investigating the pond then make a quick pounce into it. It emerged with something in its beak, which it tossed onto the ground and pecked at it until it stopped moving. I then realised it had captured a newt. This was shocking for several reasons.

First, I didn’t know the pond had newts in it. The winter storm known as the Beast from the East barrelled through in 2018, dumping enough snow and keeping the temperatures low for long enough to kill the hibernating frogs. We haven’t had any frogs or frogspawn in the pond since. I had occasionally caught sight of the flicker of a newt’s tail as it dove out of view, but it had been months since I even noticed those rare appearances.

Second, it was a blackbird catching a newt. A garden bird going after an aquatic amphibian. This was not something I can ever recall seeing on Springwatch. A quick search on Google turned up other instances of it occurring, with writers just as surprised as I was. It brought up so many questions: how common was this? How did blackbirds learn to do it? How do they even see the newts?!

And, a question I’ve been asking myself: are there any newts left? Because Easter weekend turned into a massacre. At least five newts were caught and eaten by the blackbird that I was aware of; how many were taken when there weren’t any eyewitnesses? The old cliché is true: you never newt what you have until it’s gone.

If you’re looking for even more bird and garden-centric posts (and few bad puns), check out:

Off the Beaten Track Wiltshire

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1 Comment

  1. June 1, 2023 / 10:36 am

    Enjoyed the quote look over your shoulder” visit to the British Museum. I have spent many hours there and wish I could take in this exhibit. Thanks for sharing the story and the pictures.

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