Dear Readers, I always read my copy of British Birds magazine with great pleasure, but this month I was especially taken by this illustration showing Tree Sparrows by Darren Woodhead. What a lovely depiction of these birds it is, and especially relevant as an article by Richard Broughton, Jack Shutt and Alexander Lees describes the possible impact of bird feeding on woodland species such as the Willow and Marsh Tits. There is a theory that these rarer tits are being threatened by the year-round feeding that encourages and supports more dominant tit species, such as Blue and Great Tits. In hard winters, the Marsh and Willow Tits, who cache the wild food that they find, will outcompete the commoner species, but if the Blue and Great Tits survive due to our kindness, they will oust the Marsh and Willow Tits during the breeding season by sheer force of numbers. The article is especially concerned about the feeding stations that occur on nature reserves or in woodland areas, rather than gardens, but one suggestion is that providing foods such as millet and cereals will attract more House Sparrows, farmland birds such as Linnets and Redpolls, and, yes, Tree Sparrows.
I don’t think this is a problem where I live – the bird survey that was done in Coldfall Wood didn’t show any Willow or Marsh tits, so I think I’m safe to carry on feeding the Blue and Great tits. I might have a go with some millet though, just to see if anyone else turns up. What’s your experience? I’ve always thought of it as being a low-reward food for the birds, but I know how particular some of them can be.Another interesting article was on the supplementary winter feeding of wild birds on farms. Three small farms in Oxfordshire planted wild bird seed plots with a mixture of cereal and other crops (including buckwheat and millet), and also scattered seed on field margins. This was done over a period of three years, and showed a remarkable increase in numbers from 2500 in 2016/17 to 3500 by the end of the experiment in 2018/19. It was found that the planted seed plots alone were not sufficient to feed the birds, and that these were usually exhausted by November, which pointed to the need for the scattered seed. Linnets in particular increased greatly in number, from 187 in 2016/17 to 1,370 in 2018/19, but there were also increases in Yellowhammers and a variety of other birds. The authors of the report are strongly in favour of farms providing supplementary feeding: from my perspective, farming has become so much more efficient at taking every last fallen seed from a harvest that it would be good to put something back.
And finally, in the Notes section there is a story about House Martins in The Gambia. I remember watching these birds preparing for the great flight south when I was in Dorset, and I wondered how on earth these little creatures sustained themselves over such great distances. Well, for one thing they seem to take advantage of the invertebrates that are attracted to the flowers of Mango trees. Clive R. Barlow and Brendan Ringstead report a group of over 100 House Martins flying around just such a tree in the Gunjur Lodge. I love the thought that the birds that will soon be scooping gnats from the skies of southern England refuel en route with all manner of exotic invertebrates above a mango tree. The secret lives of birds never fail to fascinate me.