Where have all the redwings gone?

Every year since my arrival in Leeds 1970, I have watched and partly counted the redwings that feed and roost around the University of Leeds and the city centre. They arrive in late October or early November and feed on the cotoneasters, hawthorns, ornamental cherry trees and other berry bearing shrubs that grow along the streets, parks, squares and in the gardens of Woodhouse, Headingley Hill and Hyde park to the north of the city centre. Woodhouse Moor is the principal day roost and loafing area for them; secondary roosts are Woodhouse square and two churchyards. After Christmas, in mid to late January as the berry crop runs out, the birds switch to an insect diet and up to 300 feed on the grassland of Woodhouse Moor, favouring particularly a wet area where the Guy Fawkes public fireworks display is held, retreating to the fringing limes and ashes when disturbed by dogs and people When the temperature rises somewhat in February or, in bad years early March, the flock remains in the trees all day with small parties from it dropping to the ground to forage. While in the trees the birds engage in a continuous twitter, a pre-courtship sub-song. Towards the end of their stay, they depart usually by mid-late march, the occasional full song may be heard among the twittering.

I have watched this late winter courtship for 46 winters. But this year no birds came! None fed on the berries of North Leeds and there have been no birds to entertain with their courtship behaviour. I have not seen a single bird in North Leeds this winter. I am told that redwings have appeared as usual in other parts of the country, e.g. Hampshire and Cornwall, so it cannot be that the migration did not get as far west and south as normal. But somehow Leeds didn’t feature in the tour-guides. Am I witnessing an abandonment of urban areas for wintering birds? but surely there is more feeding, more shelter, probably less disturbance and higher night temperatures in and around the big cities than in open countryside.

I am writing to ask whether my experience has been replicated in other parts of Yorkshire. I would also welcome any ideas as to the causes of this dramatic change in behaviour.   

John Bowers


Photo credit: Redwing at WWT Slimbridge, Gloucestershire in November 2013 taken by YNU member Ken White

(6th February 2018)