by Black Sheep, 1st September 2021
Feeding the birds is nuts, say experts
In these ‘you just can’t win’ days, it was only a matter of time before the uplifting routine of topping up a nut holder or hanging out your fat balls (stop laughing at the back) was condemned by academics.
But who knew that feeding the birds could be as bad as not wearing a mask in Tesco’s in Welshpool? Is it really that selfish of us, trying to summon the joyful sight of a feathered friend or two?
We all thought it was a fair trade off: spend a few quid on bird seed, help out the little fellas during winter, allow your heart to skip a beat at the sight of a nuthatch then try and beat your neighbours in the Big Garden Birdwatch.
Turns out all we were doing was murdering willow tits and pied flycatchers and all the other meek and mild avians.
How? By empowering bruisers like blue tits and great tits, apparently. Which is all very depressing. And a bit like donating to Unicef for all those years.
At least, that’s the theory (the feeding the birds bit, not donating to Unicef) as recently espoused by a couple of doctorate types at Manchester Metropolitan University.
"We know from historical research that these species [great tits and blue tits] are increasing in number," says Dr Alex Lees, who co-authored the research paper with his colleague Dr Jack Shutt.
"A blue tit is a dominant species - it tends to win in interactions and fighting for food or quarrelling for nest sites, whereas species like willow and marsh tits are subordinate. They tend to lose in those interactions.”
Ouch! Subordinate? Isn’t that a bit willowist?
"For willow tits, we know that one of the reasons for the decline is that 40 percent of their nesting attempts fail because blue tits essentially steal their nesting cavities.
“And migrant pied flycatchers are in direct competition with great tits for nesting sites," Dr Lees adds. "So, again, by boosting the population of great tits in the UK, we may be tipping the balance in favour of these resident species over those summer migrants.”
Now I know what you’re thinking. And it’s nothing to do with the survival or otherwise of willow tits. You’re thinking… Jack Shutt? Really?
Well, yes. It’s a real name. And if you happen to be a Who Wants To Be A Millionaire fan, you’re also thinking, hang on! I’ve heard that name before. Well you’d be right. He was the poor sod who was ripped to pieces by Jeremy Clarkson a few weeks ago. And not just for having a daft name. He needed to Ask The Host on a £500 question: What type of vehicle is a juggernaut? Train, Ship, Lorry or Helicopter.
So in essence, we’re be lectured about our bird feeding habits by a bloke who, by some miracle, recently trousered £64,000 on a gameshow, but who wouldn’t know a juggernaut if it flattened him in the street.
Anyway, that’s another story. And one his relatively impoverished colleague Dr Lees probably doesn’t want reminding of. More importantly, there’s a serious issue at stake here, and it’s much more nuanced than I’m giving credit for.
The study rightly draws attention to an imbalance, which we may have unwittingly encouraged. And its affect depends on a number of factors, not least geography. The British Trust for Ornithology recognises that feeding birds can have both benefits and unintended consequences, but they certainly don’t recommend taking down your feeders.
"If you were going into a pristine habitat and putting out food, that would have consequences," says the Trust’s Mike Toms. "But that doesn't apply within the UK. We don't have those landscapes. You might be in a rural area, but if you live amid farmland, that’s a managed landscape.”
More important, say the Trust, is maintaining good hygiene in and around your feeders. Clean them once a fortnight, move your bird tables around to avoid concentrations of potential sources of disease, and remove the food altogether for a while if you spot a diseased bird in your locality.
Similarly, leaving areas of your garden wild will aid a natural and seasonal shift in food sources that provide for a variety of bird species.
Coming back to geography, Dr Lees argues that what we need to understand is where and how bird feeding should be encouraged, with different advice needed for urban and rural areas, be it fat balls in one area and niger seeds in another, for example.
Which is all well and good. But I believe this study shines a light not just on bird life. Because where else does the abundant supply of the wrong food lead to imbalances that drive away the meek and encourage the bruisers? Yep. Oswestry on a Saturday night.
Our high streets would make for far more interesting research, me thinks. So let’s carry on feeding the birds. And ban the kebab instead.
A mutton for punishment, Black Sheep welcomes all comments. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to air your points of view. You can also read Black Sheep in Welsh Border Life every issue. Download for free here. Or follow him on Twitter @onemanandhispen