More Fun From ‘Garden Birds’ by Mike Toms

Dear Readers, my new favourite bird book is ‘Garden Birds’ by Mike Toms, in the New Naturalist series. You might remember that I included some titbits (no pun intended) about different species of birds  a few weeks ago, but the book is such a cornucopia of interesting facts that I thought I’d share some more. In particular, this week I have been reading about feeding birds: who does it, how popular it is, what works for different kinds of birds, and how far it changes the behaviour of birds. So, here in no particular order is my new harvest of bird-related facts.

  • The earliest description of bird feeding comes from the ancient Hindu writings of the Vedic period. One practice was known as Bhuta Yajna, and was one of the five great sacrifices used to develop spiritual growth. It involved placing food offerings known as bali on the ground: these were intended for ‘animals, birds, insects, wandering outcastes and beings of the invisible worlds‘.
  • In 2015, 55% of all households in the UK fed birds, with 65% saying that they fed all year round.
  • In the UK, there is at least one bird feeder for every nine potentially feeder-using birds.
  • An estimated 150,000 tonnes of bird food are sold every year, with an annual consumer spend of over 200m GBP. About 1000 tonnes is probably me (or at least that’s how it feels at the height of starling season).
  • Older people seem to be more inclined to feed birds than younger people, but of course this could relate to lots of factors: older people often have more time on their hands, are more likely to have a home and garden of their own, and are also more likely to be financially secure.
  • Within Europe, feeding of wild birds is common in Germany, Poland, Finland, Switzerland, the UK (of course) and the Netherlands, but is much rarer in Mediterranean countries. Toms speculates that part of that might be cultural (there’s a much higher incidence of hunting of small wild birds in southern Europe), but also that the winters are so much harsher in Northern Europe that people are more inclined to take pity on those poor feathered scraps shivering in the snow. At least, that’s how I feel about it. Interestingly, a study of bird feeding in Michigan and Arizona found something similar  – 66% of respondents in Michigan provided food, as opposed to just 43% of people in Arizona. Humans love to feel needed, and that they are doing something useful, and I can see how this would be much more apparent in a Michigan winter than an Arizonan one.
  • The top three reasons that people give for feeding wild birds are ‘pleasure’, ‘contributing to the survival of wild birds’, and ‘studying behaviour’. I think they would be my top three as well.
  • The reasons that people worried about feeding birds were ‘the risk of disease transmission'(between the birds rather than between birds and humans), the risk of attracting predators, and the risk of attracting unwanted species to the garden. For me, the first two are a worry – I was particularly upset by the lurking cats in the first few years in the house. I’ve never worried about unwanted species, because I tend to be careful about what I feed, and how much, though I do understand how being inundated with feral pigeons could cause problems with the neighbours.
  • Both Great and Blue tits seem to be extremely reluctant to provide supplementary food (given by humans) to their nestlings – they obviously have a very finely-tuned understanding of what their youngsters need, and will not give them anything that they’re unsure of. On the other hand, they visit feeders for food for themselves, so our suet pellets and sunflower hearts seem to help to fuel the adults during the busiest part of their year, which can only be a good thing.

Great tit (Parus major)

  • Sunflower hearts are among the most desirable (and expensive) of bird food offerings: at 6,100 kcal per kg, they are higher than peanuts(5700 kcal per kg) and because they don’t have to be dehusked, they are also better than black sunflower seeds (5000 kcal per kg). Most sunflower seeds in the UK come from Eastern Europe and Russia, where they have long been bred to maximise their fat content. Just as well that wild birds don’t have to worry about cholesterol or obesity.
  • We’ve talked before about the way that goldfinches seem to be abandoning nyjer seeds for sunflower hearts, but there’s an interesting corollary in the book. Previously, goldfinches were often beaten back from the sunflower seeds by greenfinches, who are more aggressive and used to arrive in large flocks (those were the days). Since the greenfinch numbers were horribly reduced by finch trichomonosis, the goldfinches haven’t had to mess about with the nyjer and have the sunflower seeds (mostly) to themselves. It will be interesting to see what happens when/if the greenfinch population recovers.


  • Do not put away your nyjer feeders just yet though: siskins and lesser redpolls apparently favour these seeds above all others. Report back, Readers! In my garden siskins only ever appear when it’s snowing. Goodness only knows where they go the rest of the time.

  • Many birds prefer live mealworms to anything that you can offer, because they are closest to the wild food that robins, blackbirds and starlings would normally choose. Blimey they’re expensive though. I suppose the fact that they are higher in protein than beef or chicken is instinctively known by our avian friends.

  • One for my North American readers: apparently the increasing use of hummingbird feeders has been linked to the changes in the range of Anna’s hummingbird (Calypte anna), which now overwinters and probably breeds at higher latitudes than it did a few decades ago. The question is, though, has the increase in food driven the range expansion, or has the range expansion encouraged people to put out food for these wonderful birds? Correlation does not always mean causation, as we know, and add in climate change to the picture and things get even more confusing.
  • And on the subject of nectar feeding: to my surprise, Toms describes many cases of birds in the UK nectar-feeding from plants. Blue tits feed from a variety of flowers over 33 different counties in the UK, and although it wasn’t the preferred food (the birds would rather take peanuts, but were often outcompeted) the nectar taken in this case from flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) could account for up to 50% of the bird’s daily calorie intake. Blackcaps have also been seen feeding from Mahonia and Kniphofia, and a wide range of other warbler species will also take nectar as they travel through the Mediterranean regions during their migration. I will have to pay a lot more attention to what the birds in my garden are doing on the Ribes that I have during the spring – I’d always assumed that they were just perching and waiting their turn at the feeder. Time to get the binoculars out, I think.
  • And finally, a quick one for my Australian readers: apparently in Australia it’s not unusual to put out meat for birds such as the Laughing Kookaburra and the Grey Butcherbird. Who knew? Well, not me, obviously. Let me know how that works, folks! I have visions of bird barbecues with steaks hanging from the trees, but I’m sure I’m just being fanciful.

Well, all in all ‘Garden Birds’ is a positive cornucopia of information, and I suspect that I will be sharing more information with you shortly. Let me know what you’ve discovered about the birds in your garden – it’s endlessly interesting to me to hear who visits, and what they get up to. I suspect that gardens are a treasure trove of useful information about the populations and behaviour of all kinds of birds, and what better time to observe them than when most of us can’t get out and about very much? Lockdown birding is definitely a ‘thing’.

4 thoughts on “More Fun From ‘Garden Birds’ by Mike Toms

  1. Anne

    This is a fascinating history of bird feeding and other facts. I purchase wild bird seed in bulk from the local farmer supply shop – grass seeds as well as sorghum grains – and provide food throughout the year. I feed birds mainly for my own enjoyment and when the weather is really lousy. Close observation of the behaviour of birds has really only been possible since my retirement, however I have kept records of our avian visitors for the past thirty years and have thus developed an interesting understanding of both the residents and the seasonal drop-ins. I have noted too how these have altered as the garden environment has changed from being mostly cacti (when we arrived) to mature trees and indigenous plants. I provide a nectar feeder and have four bird baths with fresh water daily. Birds occasionally get fat from the pan or tiny bits of meat left over from a meal (I don’t eat meat but my family are all carnivores) and it goes in a flash.

    1. Bug Woman

      That’s really interesting, Anne. In the book, Toms mentions that although non-native plants can be ok for generalist pollinators, native plants tend to attract more of the insects that birds eat, which is making me think more about the connections between the different species in the garden. Cover is extremely important for small birds like tits in the UK, and my bird bath gets so much action in the spring and summer that I have to clean it every day (starlings are such mucky pups!). Who eats the meat? Bacon rinds are popular with some small birds here in the UK, but as I’m vegetarian they miss out :-). Apparently grated cheese sprinkled under hedges and shrubs is good for wrens, especially in the winter.

      1. Anne

        Cheese is popular – though is too expensive for me to provide it regularly. Shrikes, starlings, robins, thrushes and even weavers eat the meat.

  2. Alittlebitoutoffocus

    I’m not sure if it’s recommended, but we only put our feeders up during the winter – when there’s snow pretty much everywhere on the ground. The sunflower seeds are the most popular, but we also put out nuts and fat balls.
    Different birds appear at different times of the year, though the Great Tits seem to be here all year round. (The Blue, Marsh/Willow, Coal and Long-tailed Tits have gone on holiday elsewhere). Only yesterday we saw a Siskin and we’ve been expecting our Red-backed Shrikes to appear any time now, (they’ve been for the past 3 or 4 years), but so far, no sign. Redstarts are all over the place at the moment. My wife and I enjoy keeping an eye or ear out for something new. 😊


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