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Although many of us feed our garden birds all year round, winter bird feeding is especially important. This is because as winter progresses, there is less food available in the wider environment. It is especially true for those birds that usually eat insects. Luckily, around half of UK households put some form of food out for their avian garden visitors. This not only helps bird survive the winter, but it is also affecting some species on an evolutionary level. So, how does bird feeding help garden birds? And are there any dos and don’ts when it comes to helping our feathered friends?
Why Feed the Birds?
Although birds continue to forage for wild food in winter, as the season progresses, less and less of this is available. Those that eat berries, such as members of the thrush family, will often find rowan, ivy and mistletoe fruit through into January. But many seedheads and insects have long disappeared. So, while garden feeders should never aim to replace these foods completely, they can play a role in helping birds supplement dwindling food from elsewhere. Garden feeding can be particularly important in the leanest period just as winter ends and spring begins. At this point, all of last year’s fruits and seeds have gone yet the spring’s buds and flowers haven’t yet appeared. Supplementary food can be the difference between a bird staying fit enough to breed or not.
Garden feeding is also important because many of our habitats are disappearing or in poor condition. Species-rich hedgerows, for example, are extremely important sources of food with their range of berries and nuts. Yet we have lost approximately 50% of our hedgerows since 1945. Many of those that survive are in poor health, flailed to almost nothing. Changes to farming practices, such as the rise in winter wheat planting, also mean there is less grain in the fields during winter. This impacts all sorts of species including sparrows, buntings and finches. As a result of all this, gardens are becoming increasingly important habitats. As well as offering feeding stations, they also link up to provide green corridors for wildlife to move between more natural food sources. On a human level, feeding birds can provide us with a huge amount of joy, as well.
British people spend over £200 million on bird food a year, around double what our continental neighbours do. This love of bird feeding has had a profound effect on some species, even at the genetic level. Researchers studying great tits, for example, discovered that the practice has almost certainly been responsible for UK great tits having longer beaks than their continental counterparts. Scientists comparing DNA from birds in Oxfordshire and the Netherlands found that their genetic differences seemed to link to bill length. By looking at historical data, they could also see that bill length had been increasing in the UK birds since the 1970s. And those birds with the genetic marker for a longer bill were found to visit garden bird feeders more than their counterparts. Presumably, longer bills are better for accessing food from feeders. What is striking is the relatively short period of time this has evolved in.
Winter feeding in the UK has also changed blackcap migration. While our breeding blackcaps almost certainly largely head south for the winter, an increasing number of continental breeders are heading to the UK and Ireland. Genetic mutations mean that a number of migratory birds will always head in the wrong direction at the end of the breeding season. In the past, any such blackcaps reaching our shores by mistake would have been more likely to perish. Now, though, a combination of warmer winters and ample garden feeding means more now survive and come back in subsequent winters. Crucially, they also survive to pass on their genes so that their offspring inherit the genetic instruction to head here, not further south.
Likely Bird Visitors
More generally, research also shows that garden feeding is changing urban bird populations. A number of species once rarely seen in urban settings are now regularly recorded on garden feeders. This includes woodpigeons, great spotted woodpeckers and magpies. Some birds, such as the nuthatch, are also more common on feeders than in the past but are most likely if your garden is not too far away from a larger area of trees.
Last year’s Big Garden Birdwatch found that the house sparrow is still our commonest garden visitor. Blue tit was second and starling third. Your garden’s location and exact time of year, though, will have some bearing. House sparrows and starlings are doing less well in urban areas, for example. Meanwhile, the afore-mentioned blackcap is now seen in winter in gardens as far north as the Scottish Highlands. Some species tend to resort to gardens only in particularly harsh conditions or later in the winter as food in the countryside gets low. This often applies to redwings, fieldfares, reed buntings and yellowhammers.
Of course, the species visiting are also governed to some extent by what types of food we put out. Smaller seeds, such as nyger, attract goldfinches, siskins and redpolls. Tits prefer sunflower hearts as a rule and sparrows and pigeon species like grains and seed mixes. Woodpeckers and nuthatches are attracted to peanuts (as are squirrels). Fat balls are popular with a large range of species, including blackcaps, tit species and starlings. They also attract corvids, such as rooks, jackdaws and carrion crows. Mealworms go down well with blackbirds and other thrushes, as well as robins. Apples are popular with thrushes, too, including redwings and fieldfares. If you are really lucky and it’s a waxwing winter, this exotic-looking visitor will come to apples, as well.
The Dos and Don’ts of Bird Feeding
To make sure you don’t inadvertently do more harm than good by feeding your garden birds, there are a few important things to remember.
- Clean your feeders and bird baths once a week or so with warm, soapy water. Attracting more birds to your garden inevitably heightens the risk or spreading diseases such as trichomonosis. This is almost certainly the cause of declines in greenfinch and chaffinch populations in the UK. Sweep under your feeders too to help prevent the build-up of droppings.
- Move you feeders around periodically if possible. This not only helps prevent food waste and droppings from building up in one place, but it makes it harder for predators to learn the birds’ routines.
- Provide fresh, clean water. Birds need to drink as well as eat! Pop a tennis ball in your bird bath if it looks like freezing. This will keep it free of ice.
- Choose squirrel-proof feeders if you are worried about squirrels monopolising feeding stations.
- Think about making your own fat balls and mixes rather than using shop bought ones. This is purely anecdotal, but I have heard of experiments comparing birds’ reactions to the two, with homemade much more popular. They are also cheaper to make as a rule.
- Leave out mouldy food.
- Stop feeding birds suddenly, particularly in harsh conditions. While our bird food is purely supplementary, if you stop suddenly, you may force your visitors to use up vital energy searching for a new food source when they can ill afford to.
- Put feeders close to thick hedges or fences where cats and other predators can creep up on feeding birds.
- Forget some birds won’t come to bird tables or hanging feeders. Leave some food where ground-feeding birds can get it.
- Assume that birds can eat all our scraps. Some foods, such as avocado and chocolate, can cause health problems or kill birds. Others, such as bread, fill them up but have little nutritional value.
A Helping Hand
While wild birds will always seek out food from the wider countryside, garden feeding is a relatively easy way to help them supplement their intake. This is especially true during harsh winter conditions due to a natural reduction in food availability as winter progresses. Habitat loss and farming intensification also impact birds’ ability to find food. So, by feeding birds in our gardens, we can help them top up their reserves and prevent them having to travel so far to forage. This means that we are at least doing our bit, however small, to help offset the negative impacts on the environment of human behaviour.
Whether you feed your garden birds or not, recording what you see provides researchers with valuable data about our bird populations. For a one-off event, why not sign up for the RSPB’s annual Big Garden Birdwatch at the end of January? If you are interested in providing information all year round, there’s the BTO’s Garden BirdWatch scheme.
This handy guide covers everything you need to attract birds to your garden. From what foods to put out and bird-friendly plants to bird boxes and shelter, it includes lots of useful information.
For a smaller format, but no less useful, guide, try this paperback introduction.
Matt Sewell’s bird illustrations are a beautiful way to get to grips with identifying your garden visitors.
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