Wildlife watch: Chiff chaffs

Chiff chaff perched on branch of a hawthorn tree. Getty Images

A little brown bird with a big personality, the chiff chaff is named after its song, which sounds like it’s saying “chiff chaff, chiff chaff”. You can hear this in spring and summer when they’re breeding, the rest of the time they make a contact call that sounds like it’s saying “hweet, hweet”, which I associate with the onset of autumn. Typically a summer migrant, most chiff chaffs spend winter in the Mediterranean and West Africa, before returning to the UK to breed. However, increasingly, more are overwintering here due to the milder winters and the availability of insects to eat.

Found in areas of woodland and scrub, and occasionally parks and gardens, the female lays up to six eggs in a nest close to the ground among dense vegetation, in May or June. The chicks hatch after a fortnight and fledge two weeks later. They eat insects, including aphids, flies and caterpillars.

In autumn they spread into more urban areas, possibly as they fly south before crossing the Channel. Listen out for their “hweet, hweet” contact call and keep an eye on your roses – unusual birds picking aphids off the leaves could well be migrating chiff chaffs.

How to help chiff chaffs

While chiff chaffs don’t tend to nest in gardens, they may take a chance on a large garden with a significant wild patch. They nest on, or close to the ground, hidden among brambles or nettles. If you have a large garden then consider setting aside an area for them where they might nest. Allow this to become completely overgrown and cross your fingers.

However, you can still help them even if they don’t nest with you. Each spring and autumn chiff chaffs become ‘passage migrants’ and may drop in to your garden to feed up before continuing their journey to or from Africa.

Chiff chaffs eat aphids and other small insects, so the best way to help them is to not remove aphids and other ‘leaf munchers’ from your plants. Don’t spray aphids, don’t rub them off with your fingers, don’t prune them out. Simply leave them. It might take a bit of getting used to if you regularly control populations of these insects in your gardens, but the results are well worth the effort of just doing nothing – you may be visited by chiff chaffs! And who wouldn’t want that?

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