Monday, October 17, 2016

Food For Thought

It’s that time of year again. I set off for the pet-shop and bought a bag of wild bird seed and a sack of Niger and then merrily filled the bird feeders. By coincidence a day or so ago a regular blog reader had asked, “What is your feeling about feeders?

There are definite pros and cons about feeding wild birds, so I decided to put my thoughts to the pen and paper of the keyboard and share the result in this post. 


Feeding birds in the garden gives great pleasure but also a few things I worry about. The positives come later, but for now the not insurmountable worries in the order of 1) the potential for spreading disease via bird feeders, 2) the Sparrowhawk, and 3) marauding cats. 

The suspicion that feeding wild birds heightens the spread of disease among them is one of the strongest anti-feeding arguments. 

Although it’s true that making birds to feed together at common places can lead to increased disease transfer, it is also well known that birds often feed in groups, including mixed-species flocks like finches, thrushes and doves/pigeons. Good feeder hygiene by way of cleaning feeders regularly, offering fresh seed, minimizing faeces build-up, and generally striving for quality versus quantity of desired visitors can lessen this problem. 

I don’t feed peanuts, mostly because in my experience they go soggy and then mouldy very quickly - not a good thing to feed to birds. Not offering peanuts means that I don’t see too many Great-spotted Woodpeckers or Greenfinches, but in my defence there are claims that peanut feeding is responsible for the increase in the populations of the Grey Squirrel. This introduced pest species is known to be a predator of birds’ eggs and nestlings as well as out-competing our native Red Squirrel, not to mention its habit of destroying bird feeders. 

Grey Squirrel

The number of bird feeders is surely in the millions across the UK. In some urban and suburban roads it seems as if most people have a feeder or two. However, a closer look often reveals feeders in a state of disrepair and not recently replenished. Bird feeding has its devotees, but not all of them are passionate or knowledgeable about the rules. It is important to remember that if birds become accustomed to feeding at a particular site, the feed should be maintained and if there is a desire or need to stop feeding, it should be done gradually over days or weeks to allow birds to find an alternative. 

Lesser Redpoll

In the UK the Sparrowhawk is a frequent visitor to gardens with bird feeders. It is said that raptors usually capture the weaker or less fit birds, but whether they kill birds at a feeder or at some other location out of our sight we should remind ourselves that it is all part of nature, “red in tooth and claw”, as the saying goes. 

At times I see a Sparrowhawk hiding among shrubs and trees or sitting motionless on a partly hidden fence so as to suddenly dash into a group of birds around a feeder: it’s one of their most and successful natural hunting techniques. Many is the time I glimpse a Sparrowhawk dashing though the garden as it scatters the feeding birds but fails to catch anything. The moment of drama is one to enjoy, nothing is harmed, and while all goes quiet and the feeding birds disappear for a while, it is amazing how quickly they return. After all, birds live with the threat of being eaten by a predator every day of their lives and are finely tuned to spot them. And even a Sparrowhawk lives in fear of its larger cousin the Goshawk.


It’s estimated that roaming pet cats kill billions birds and animals annually in the world. A recent book, Cat Wars: The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer Cat Wars:The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer examines the severe ecological damage caused by feral cats and outdoor pet cats. 

Fortunately I don’t have a problem with too many neighbourhood cats but in any case my feeders are out of reach and away from vegetation where cats can hide to ambush birds. Below a couple of my feeders are seed trays to prevent seed from falling to the ground and to minimise the numbers of vulnerable ground-feeding birds. If I see a cat in the garden I always shoo it away, just in case it is an experienced bird killer.

Domestic Cat

Do birds actually need the food on offer in my feeders or am I diverting them away from feeding in a more natural way? I do know that the numbers in my garden go up and down with the seasons and even the time of day. There are definitely more birds in the winter and early spring when they appear to use the garden as a snack bar in times of food shortages, especially during cold spells and the worst times of natural food shortages. A garden is just one of many feeding sites that birds use in the course of a single day, week or even months. For example, the garden has been bereft of Goldfinches for weeks but now as natural autumnal seed heads begin to disappear I am seeing Goldfinches returning to the Niger feeders. A number of them are returnees as I discover if I catch a sample for ringing. 



The “Hunger Gap” for UK and Northern Hemisphere birds is reckoned to be between January and March/April when winter is at its most severe and when both insect and seed items are in short supply. I have windfall apples stored in the freezer in readiness for the snow and ice which might appear in late December and into the New Year and more often than not the apples attract in members of the thrush family, mostly extra Blackbirds, but also Song Thrush, Mistle Thrush and even small numbers of Redwing and Fieldfare. 

Song Thrush


Scientific studies have shown nutritional and reproductive benefits to species like Blackbirds, Robins and the tit family that breed in localities with plenty of garden feeders. Whether to feed birds all the year round is a subject open to some debate but I think the consensus is that it is OK so long as the correct food is on offer whereby the birds are clever enough to supplement their natural diet with other “goodies” without relying on too much unnatural food. 

One of the major positives from bird feeding is that it is useful to the conservation of birds. In the past twenty years or so, and through organisation like the BTO and the RSPB, and participation in surveys like Big Garden Birdwatch, Garden Birdwatch and the Nest Record Scheme, UK Citizen Science has become a major tool used by conservationists to help bird populations.


The results from such work allow scientists to acquire snapshots of how bird populations fare from year to year, as well as detecting long-term trends. This information becomes particularly critical in the face of climatic and habitat changes. 

There it is then - lots of positives about feeding birds in the garden and very few reasons to think that doing so might cause harm.


Linda said...

Beautiful photos, Phil, and I enjoyed reading your thoughts on the positives and negatives of bird feeders.

David Gascoigne said...

I think you raise issues that we have all grappled with, Phil. I freely confess that one of the reasons I feed birds is that it affords me such pleasure to have them around. I think I am conscientious in terms of maintaining the feeders well and after a couple of birds struck a window we have added dots to the glass to break up the reflected image and the birds are no longer fooled into thinking they have a clear flight path. For many people I suspect that a bird feeder represents their only contact with the natural world and I have no doubt that they benefit from it. On balance, as you say, more harm than good is done. Now as for marauding cats...don't get me started on that!

Beacon said...

Nice images. Birds are largely gone from our hot dry summers but have recently returned. California's central valley seems to be a winter spa for birds.

David Gascoigne said...

My comment above should read more good than harm - not the other way around.

Fun60 said...

I found your post to be really informative and how useful it would be if a bullet point list of do's and don'ts accompanied bird seed for feeders.

Patrycja Piotrowska said...

I think feeding wild birds is good only with high frosts... Feeding birds in spring, summer and autumn is unnatural for them. PS. Sorry for my Englisch.


Your #3 con is what we have to contend with in our back yard. The feral cats love to hide out. And I can only see them when I'm in the dining room ...luckily the feeders are within eye range from there and I usually pop the air gun if I get a chance.

Squirrels are the issue in our FRONT yard, our pecan tree! LOL It's a race to the finish with me liking pecans and trying to chase them out of the tree before I get a chance to pick 'em.

I saw your hawk thumbnail at Lady Fi's Our World and had to come rushing over. Love your colorful array of beautiful birds today Phil.

Findlay Wilde said...

I have different feeders for different species, but clean them all regularly. I don't mind the Sprawk visiting at all, it would feed on the smaller birds anyway, just most times you don't see it. The garden birds were what first drew me into birding.

Jedidja said...

I love the squirrel! So nice.

Kay L. Davies said...

Your robins and blackbirds are SO different from ours, Phil...if you didn't provide their names I wouldn't have known.
As for bird feeders, we had to move ours to the very back of our property because the dropped feed was attracting mice. Now we actually have mice in the house. Whether the two things are connected, we'll never know.

Marie C said...

Fabulous post! Such important information, and I appreciate it all so much! Your photos are lovely too. I have been a delighted bird feeder advocate since when we moved in to this house five years ago and I discovered hundreds of birds (mostly sparrows) congregating in the Texas Sage bush in the front yard. I put the bird feeder up next to the bush, thinking if a hawk came by they could all dash back into the bush, which happens no matter what comes by and spooks them. I have however seen juvenile hawks go INTO the bush trying to get at them, a couple of times. But the branches are very "brambly" and there isn't much room for maneuvering. There are a couple of stray cats in our neighborhood, and we shoo them away. We are cat lovers, but feel cats should stay indoors and not be allowed to roam free and kill wild birds. I never thought about the disease aspect. All your info was very welcomed!

Breathtaking said...

Hello Phil!:) Beautiful captures of all the birds, and you make a good deal of sense in your feeding methods. We feed the birds a little, on a daily basis, and within a short space of time the feeders are empty. The seeds, peanuts, and crumbs, never get a chance of becoming mouldy, and like this, the feeders hardly get dirty, and the birds find their own food for the rest of the day. It has become a routine which we enjoy doing, and we even made arrangements for them to be fed each morning whilst we were away on holiday. The seed trays on the ground are a good idea!
Phil, Thank you for the links,...which I have checked out and they has given me food for thought.:)

Wally Jones said...

Very nice article, Sir!

Your experience mirrors our experience. I maintain a pretty strict feeder cleaning routine and only maintain a single platform feeder. Our main visitors over the past 15 years have been White-winged and Mourning Dove, Northern Cardinal and Red-bellied Woodpeckers. This past spring we had Tufted Titmice visiting often and they eventually showed up with a juvenile in tow. Rarely, a House Finch will drop by for a snack. No cats worries. Cooper's and Red-shouldered Hawks infrequently take a bird but their attacks are often unsuccessful.

Hope you're having a wonderful week!

Stuart Price said...

Almost nobody feeds birds here in Japan, well maybe a few people I suppose. I did enjoy watching birds coming to my parents' garden though. seems to be only Woodpigeons now though.........

Lowcarb team member said...

Some great photo's you've shared here along with your thoughts, thank you.

All the best Jan

Sallie (FullTime-Life) said...

Very interesting post and helpful to so many. We didn't have sparrow hawks, but often had kestrels hiding out for the same reason. I always enjoy seeing different species of birds feeding together (in the wild) and it makes sense therefore that it would really be a natural behavior for this to happen at feeders. Of course, for"regular reader" the question was rhetorical -- for interest only -- as these days she lacks a yard in which to hang the feeders.

NC Sue said...

Our goldfinches have gone "winter drab" in color, but I still enjoy watching them. And I look forward to seeing their summer garb!
Great shots as always.
Thanks for linking up at

Mary Cromer said...

Oh My Goodness Phil, I can forget trying to choose a favorite for this post, magnificent birding images. Gorgeousness. Cats...we live in a rural community and have people dump cats, so sad. They are former house cats and they have to learn to hunt and the easiest catch is by all of the bird feeding stations. Between the Hawks, snakes and cats, the birds get taken. I have moved mine as well and shoo them away whenever I see them...The Sparrowhawk that you show in your post looks like our Coopers Hawks, fast moving, stellar fast birds that are very quick to tack what they hunt. Very wonderful post~

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