Native Bird Life at Belfast Zoo

Belfast Zoo plays host to many species of native wild birds

Visitors to Belfast Zoo will be familiar with the zoo’s extensive collection of rare and beautiful birds, including cockatoos, pheasants and waterfowl. However, they are probably less aware that the zoo plays host to many species of native wild birds.

With the help of fellow keepers, I have recorded a total of 57 native species, of which 23 actually breed in the zoo grounds. These are impressive numbers by any standard, but the main reason is not hard to guess—namely an abundance of food! Natural food includes the shrub cotoneaster for thrushes and warblers, beechmast and seedling weeds for finches, and small invertebrates such as spiders and flies for wrens, wagtails and swallows. Of course, many birds take full advantage of the free meals available from the animal enclosures. For example, greenfinches, blue tits and house sparrows will often fly into the parrot enclosure to help themselves to sunflower seeds and other grain. Robins—always remarkable for their boldness—will often hang about when animals are being fed, hoping for a morsel of cheese or even a piece of fat from the tigers’ lunch!

Another attraction for the birds is the security provided by the extensive plantings within the zoo perimeter. This provides cover for small birds escaping the attentions of predators such as sparrowhawks, as well as offering nesting opportunities. Some species, such as swifts, song thrushes and even house sparrows, are in serious decline in both Ireland and
Britain from a combination of loss of habitat and changes in farming. The range of species at Belfast Zoo includes both our tallest and smallest birds, namely the grey heron—1m long and more common in wetlands than Cave Hill—and the goldcrest—at 8.9cm, slightly smaller than the wren. Five species of birds of prey have also been seen, including the sparrowhawk, kestrel, peregrine and long-eared owl. All of these breed within the vicinity of the zoo, and at least one pair of sparrowhawks breed in the zoo grounds.

© Raymond Robinson 2001. Reproduced with kind permission the Cave Hill Conservation Campaign