Birds that returned to Moscow after overwintering

May 21
Parks and pedestrian areas

Spring has finally come to Moscow: migratory birds have returned to the city from the south. We will tell you which of them can already be heard now and which ones will soon fly back after overwintering. Nikolai Kudryavtsev, head of the Environmental Education and Wildlife Survey Department of Mospriroda, a state nature conservation organisation in Moscow, helped us grasp the fundamentals of birdwatching.

About 90 species of migratory birds live in Moscow. Right now they are returning after overwintering in Africa, Southeast Asia, Europe, southern Russia and neighbouring countries.

Starlings, chaffinches, common terns, waterhens, house martins, hedge sparrows, common sandpipers, whinchats, redstarts and others have already returned from their “winter holidays.” Some of them are included in Moscow’s Red Data Book.

“The yellow-headed wagtail, which is listed in the Moscow Red Data Book, is classified as an endangered species. It is a modest-sized slender bird that is 15 to 17 centimetres long. Its maximum population during the count periods does not usually exceed 25 couples. Some of these rare birds have already flown to Moscow. Recently our specialists watched one of them preying on worms,” said Nikolai Kudryavtsev.

Another Red Data Book bird that has already returned to the city and can be heard in the bushes is the whinchat. This songbird is about 13–14 centimetres in size with a mottled brown head, whitish abdomen, and orange-buff neck and breast. Unlike whitethroats, goldfinches, bluethroats and, for example, Blyth's reed warblers, which are busy building nests, whinchats do not rush to set up their homes, but instead wait for the meadow grass to grow plentifully.

The wren is one of the smallest migratory birds living in Moscow. It looks like a fluffy ball on legs with its tail sticking up. Its Latin name has nothing to do with its appearance: troglodytes, meaning “a cave dweller,” is the name of an ancient tribe. Apparently, wrens make ball-shaped nests with a round entrance resembling a cave entry. Wrens can be found in forests and woody parks. They especially like damp places and uprooted trees where a lot of insects live.

Closer to people

Other birds, on the contrary, can be frequently seen and are well adapted to the city environment. You can encounter (and hear) them not only in parks or forests, but also in yards. Such birds include chaffinches, starlings, black swifts and robin redbreasts. Of course, we mean green yards with plenty of tall trees.

“In Europe robin redbreasts have long inhabited urban areas, and the same is happening here. This bird has a white abdomen, orange face and breast, and greenish-grey upper parts. Their flute-like song is considered one of the most beautiful, and in rare cases, both males and females sing together, although females have a less diverse range of notes. Chaffinches have been making nests in green yards more and more often in recent years, and people can hear their song not only in the forest but also from open windows,” said Nikolai Kudryavtsev.

Those who live in blocks of flats built before the 1980s, where tall birch trees, bird cherry trees and other trees grow, have a better chance of hearing the robin.

Starlings, which returned in April, have already settled in nest boxes and are busy foraging for food. House martins started building nests, and they often prefer service balconies in panel buildings to trees.

Black swifts are about to come back and inhabit attics and vents. They fly high and catch insects. Many people mistake them for sparrows, but despite some semblance it is an absolutely different species. The black swift is more closely related to hummingbirds than to sparrows.

“In recent decades, great tits and nuns have learnt to make nests on street light poles. Actually, many birds adapt. Of course, protected areas have a much more diverse bird population, but some birds find the city environment good enough. And such species have started to outnumber the others. The city lacks ‘housing’ for cavity-nesting birds as a rule, so you are welcome to put up a nest box in your yard or even on your balcony – it will certainly become a home for a bird,” the expert noted.

The icterine warbler’s African trills and the oriole paradox

Moscow is expecting rosefinches, corncrakes, black swifts, icterine warblers and orioles any day now.

The rosefinch is a small bird in the Fringillidae family related to chaffinches and bullfinches. Males are totally red, hence their name. The rosefinch is one of the last to appear in the central part of Russia because it has to fly from afar, from Southeast Asia. According to the expert, it is a numerous species in Moscow, which prefers river valleys and abandoned orchards to forests. “There are many of them in the Valley of the Setun River wildlife sanctuary because it has the right biotope.”


Icterine warblers, on the contrary, like the forest, especially birch tree groves. You can find them in Izmailovsky Park. While they overwinter in tropical Africa, the warblers memorise the trills of exotic birds, and once they return, interpret them in different ways.

“Orioles are few and far between in Moscow. We can say that they are tropical birds. Males are lemon yellow, and females are green. However, despite such bright colouring, they are hard to notice, but easy to identify by their song:  they sing very loud flute-like notes. The paradox is that in addition to a beautiful melody, orioles produce a very unpleasant sound that interrupts the song. The sound resembles the yowling of a cat whose tail was trod on,” explained Nikolai Kudryavtsev.

The first nightingales, whose singing is believed to be one of the most tuneful and loud, also returned to Moscow. Together with nightingales, experts consider throstles, blackbirds, bluethroats and robin redbreasts to be the best singers. We can also put orioles in this category – if we ignore the cat-like sounds and judge by the pleasant part of the song,. In May, birds sing the most and the loudest. To be more exact, the males sing to attract females and mark their territory.

Thrush nightingale. Photo: Mospriroda of the Department for Environmental Management and Protection

City dwellers

Some birds remain in the city for the winter although their wild relatives migrate. One such example is shelducks. It turns out that they have long established their populations in Moscow.

Nikolai Kudryavtsev said that in the wild they live in the southern steppes of the Astrakhan and Orenburg regions. They were taken to the Moscow Zoo after the war in order to show the diversity of fauna in the Soviet Union. For some time, workers at the zoo clipped flight feathers on their wings like they did with the other birds there, and when they stopped doing so, the ducks flew all over Moscow and settled in the attics of residential buildings. But when winter comes, they all return to their “historical homeland” — the pond at the Moscow Zoo.


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