Best to feed birds year-round

MANY people stop feeding the wild birds in their garden during the breeding season. The theory is it’s possible that young birds could choke on large seeds or pieces of nut that their parents bring back to them from bird feeders.

Best to feed birds year-round

It’s also believed winter is the time when the birds really need some extra food and they can manage for themselves in the rest of the year.

The modern theory is feeding the year round is better as it helps maintain larger and healthier populations of birds and that withdrawing food they have become dependent on in the spring can have a negative effect. This theory is based on research, mostly carried out in Britain and the US, but there is a question over its credibility because it’s largely funded by the bird food industry, which obviously has a vested interest in the results.

The bird food industry is well organised and surprisingly large. In Britain the market is 50,000 to 60,000 tons a year. There’s a lot of bird food in a ton. A recent British survey is particularly interesting. Almost inevitably, the bird food industry had an involvement in its funding, but it was commissioned by the British Trust for Ornithology and carried out by the zoology department of the University of Exeter, both institutions of impeccable scientific integrity, so it has credibility.

The researchers studied blue tits in a number of woods in Cornwall over three years. Some populations of blue tits were fed fat balls through the winter while control populations were not fed. The rather surprising result was that the birds that did not get any extra food through the winter were more successful at breeding the following spring.

The researchers would not commit when they were asked the reason. They came up with a predictable: “we need more research”. But it seems to me a common sense conclusion would be it was not the extra food in the winter that reduced the breeding success of the blue tits, it was the withdrawal of this food supply just before the breeding season started. In other words, this is an argument in favour of feeding the birds in your garden all the year round, not just in the winter.

This is what I do in my garden. It’s based on personal observation and reading scientific papers. I believe in the breeding season adult blue tits use the peanuts I supply to keep up their energy reserves while they’re feeding a large brood but that they’re hardwired to search for small caterpillars to feed to their young and will not offer them peanuts. If I’m right, there are no downsides to 12-month feeding and every chance it will lead to a large and healthy population of songbirds in your garden.

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