The research suggests we've come a long way since the inception of so-called bird gardening in the 1950s when enthusiasts were encouraged to fill half a coconut with kitchen scraps and await the neighbourhood sparrows and starlings. That said, the original 'nature detective' and MI5 spymaster, Maxwell Knight, who penned "Bird Gardening: How to attract birds," (Routledge & Kegan Paul - 1954) would perhaps never have thought that around 50% of the population would be actively feeding garden birds by 2019. And the diversity of bird visiting the garden today would have been unthinkable in the 1950s. I myself can recall having conversations perhaps 10 years ago encouraging birders to have a go at attracting a Goldfinch or two to their bird feeders with a little Niger seed. I'd regularly receive phone calls and letters of thanks from excited customers who'd seen their first-ever Goldfinch in the garden (because they'd offered Niger seed); however, today, numbers of Goldfinches, Long-tailed tits and woodpigeons are soaring largely because of the variety of bird food that's on offer.
According to the BTO, 'Goldfinch abundance fell sharply from the mid-1970s until the mid-1980s,' and that 'The current upturn has lifted the species from the amber list of conservation concern into the green category, and has been accompanied by an increase in its use of gardens for winter feeding.' But the Goldfinch isn’t the only beneficiary, of course.
The increasing quantity and variety of bird food offerings haven't gone unnoticed by other species, though, and it's thought garden birders may now be supporting up to 133 bird species during winter, 'equating to 52.6% of all species, excluding vagrants, found in Britain,' claim researchers (https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-019-10111-5#Fig1). With those statistics in mind, have we now reached a vital tipping point where it's a necessity to feed the birds all year round? I think it so.
The researchers report that 'The positive influences of feeder use on population size reported here are likely to be the product of a combination of improved survival, better physiological condition and increased productivity among the individuals frequenting feeders.'
However, I'm really pleased to see the report confirm that Haith's is correct to focus on food quality and we'll continue to encourage the industry to do the same as greater food diversity, innovation in feeder design, variation in food quality and behavioural adaptation by birds all have the potential to influence the frequency of feeder use and the benefits (rising population and diversity) are apparent. However, 'food quality' is key - as is the robust quality control of bird diets - something you may already know we're passionate about and have won an award for; healthy diet, healthy bird. The bird food industry has to commit to sound quality control with bird feeding having downstream consequences for population sizes and community structure.
The table above is fascinating and is courtesy of https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-019-10111-5#Fig3.
As the bird food industry has diversified its diversity of offerings the diversity of birds (and their rising numbers) have made the most of the broadening food resources. It's an oversimplification I offer here, but bird food variety does appear to be the spice of urban bird life. And this scientific research fits neatly with my own garden birding experiences, for example: when we first launched our Native Finch mix in the early 2000s, we were inundated by claims gardeners had seen ‘beautiful Bullfinches,’ for the very first time in their gardens. Now, I would suggest the Bullfinches were already there busy extracting seeds from the flower bed; however, the single Bullfinch soon became one of many and it became clear, to us, that our high-quality finch mix offered something unique for the parrot-like (in terms of beak shape) Bullfinch.
It's this variety that's attracted diversity and species have compounded from the usual suspects (robins, thrushes, chaffinches) to new kids on the block (goldfinches, woodpigeons, Long-tailed tits, great spotted woodpeckers, nuthatches) who are steadily becoming regular fixtures at our bird feeders and they're being lured by high-quality seed mixes, sunflower hearts, fat snacks and - importantly - it's come to light that they're also doing rather well on high-protein insectivorous mixes, which are our speciality!
Our insectivorous soft food mixes have always been very popular; however, this research confirms our theory that we shouldn't put all our eggs in one basket i.e. rely on one bird food - even if it's hugely popular. Why? Again, the research illustrates diversity at the feeding station and this is largely due to the expansion and availability/range of bird diets. In other words, feeding one food may attract several species - but feeding three or four (at different levels/heights) might open your garden restaurant to other species and this is where our insectivorous soft food mixes work their magic. Simply offer a little soft food from a bird table and watch what shows up to eat it...
Lead author Kate Plummer of the British Trust for Ornithology said that, ‘while some people might be uneasy about humans reshaping wild populations, the increasingly sophisticated feeding effort was a positive thing. We are substituting food we’ve taken away elsewhere, such as spilled grain from the less tidy farms of the past,” she said. “Sparrows are declining and if they can take advantage of food we are providing in our gardens, and if we provide the best food we can and keep the feeders clean, then hopefully we are doing something good overall.” It’s very easy to keep bird feeders clean.
The BTO quantified the bird feeding industry data by taking a 'comprehensive review of advertising in Birds’ (the RSPB's membership magazine reaching more than 2 million readers - published between 1973 and 2005). Haith's advertised in Birds since the magazine's inception; however, the RSPB eventually rejected advertising from all competing bird food companies – including Haith’s - when they themselves set up to sell their bird food direct and I'll leave you to consider if this was anti-competitive or not. It certainly removed all their competition in one fell swoop!
Bird feeders have undoubtedly aided and abetted as they themselves have become more inclusive - for example, wire baskets filled with peanuts were fine for Blue tits who could easily cling and feed, but the advent of perches has made it easier for other species to access feeding ports safely.
Thankfully, the report mentions that we humans are also benefitting from wild bird feeding - it's engrained into human culture. Long may that last.
During almost twenty years in the industry I've been asked a few times if feeding the birds is good for nature. I've always done my best to give a frank and honest reply - on the whole, I believe it to be good and necessary (if not critical), but I would say that, wouldn't I? So, in closing, I'll depart, for now, with a balanced quote from the experts at BTO:
'Intuitively, the types of food provided should affect the types of species attracted. Our results indicate that the diversifying commercial bird food market has enabled a growing number of species to exploit supplementary foods over time, while some appear to have lost out as a result of behaviourally dominant or better-adapted species becoming more common within the community. Indeed, the bird assemblage that commonly uses feeders includes species of high conservation concern, species capable of promoting human well-being and species considered common pests. Feeding is, therefore, highly likely to have already had important effects, and greater coordination of feeding activities, across networks of gardens and at multiple spatial scales, could be an innovative way of delivering large-scale conservation or species management outcomes in the future.'
'Individual decisions by homeowners to feed wild birds can impact cumulatively upon bird communities across large spatial scales. As such this growing, global phenomenon has profound potential to influence biodiversity further and should not be underestimated.'
It is with a smile I write that we are all working together in the field of conservation (even if that's from the comfort of our own back garden).
So there you have it, it’s official from the BTO - please keep feeding the birds.
Source: Article Published: 21 May 2019. "The composition of British bird communities is associated with long-term garden bird feeding" Kate E. Plummer, Kate Risely, Mike P. Toms & Gavin M. Siriwardena
Nature Communications 10, Article number: 2088 (2019)