Feeding Garden Birds during the Breeding Season
Last year was a rather poor breeding season for some of our garden birds, the tits in particular; with cold wet weather just when they needed plenty of juicy grubs to feed their young. I wonder what this year will bring to follow our generally mild winter and dry cool spring.
Breeding is timed to exploit the availability of natural foods: earthworms for Blackbirds and Song Thrushes, and caterpillars for tits and Chaffinches, for example, so a successful outcome does require a helping hand from the weather.
There has long been a debate about whether or not we should feed birds during the breeding season. Tim Harrison of the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), who examined this issue during his PhD, commented:
“Several studies have looked into the effects of providing extra food for birds during the breeding season, and the vast majority of these have found positive effects – for example, more young reared. There remains a shortage of direct evidence from garden habitats but the consensus indicates that spring and summer feeding will help birds as they nest.”
Food shortages can occur at any time of year, and the extra food we provide in our feeders can make a big difference to the survival of many garden birds, but only if we provide the sort of food that is most likely to help. Initially most adults will use it to sustain themselves, but if the situation gets bad enough they will probably take it to the nest. Remember then, that just as in our own species, not all birds are naturally good parents!
This means avoiding fat and bread, and if you do put out peanuts, make sure that they are fresh and dry, and are in mesh feeders that will not allow sizeable pieces to be taken away: half a peanut can easily choke a nestling.
Sunflower seeds, soaked sultanas, raisins and currants, mild grated cheese, mealworms, good seed mixtures without peanuts, soft apples and pears cut in half, bananas and grapes are all foods that could give nesting birds a boost.
So, eyes open and good luck in identifying the various scruffy individuals you will see out there before they develop their characteristic pattern of feathers!
One final thought: if you do have cats, it’s a very good idea to keep them in overnight when there are fledglings around. Much of the mayhem takes place in the early hours when adult birds are urgently trying to fill hungry young stomachs that have had no food since the previous evening, and can be too busy to see danger lurking.
If, like me, you find the lives of our garden birds to be of real interest, and if you would like to join in and count the feathered occupants of your garden across the seasons, please contact me or visit the BTO Garden Bird Watch website (www.bto.org/gbw). Please also get in touch with me if you know of a local organisation who would like a talk on garden birds: Mike Gray: 07596 366342 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Juvenile Greenfinch and Goldfinch