Feed the birds, tuppence a bag, sung Audrey Hepburn, in My Fair Lady.

It was a glorious morning here at St Andrews, and although my morning ride was short it was sweet. Now to tackle my slow running kitchen sink. The local hardware shop supplied me with a plunger and a bottle of Mr Muscle drain gel (Clears total blockages Guaranteed or your money back) first I poured the gel down the sink, now I had a sink full of gel to contend with, so I left it for a while and it did eventually go. Now read the instruction – wait for 5 minutes, for tougher clogs, leave longer. Run drain with hot water. I boiled a kettle of water and poured that down the drain, still clogged, ho-hum. Set to work with the plunger squelch, squelch, all sorts of gunge coming out of the overflow, then it was clear. I filled the sink to the brim then pulled the plug, the water disappeared at a great rate of knots, making a spectacular vortex as it went. A big, old age pensioners cheer went up Hip, Hip Replacement.

I had just settle down to a well-earned cup of tea and a banana sandwich, when the door went, on opening it, the site manager bad me come with her, saying

“I need you” best offer I’ve had all day.

She leads me into the toilet where one of my neighbours was trying to stop a full flow of water coming out of the water heater over the sink. I found the inspection hatch on the pipe box and managed to reach the stopcock but it was solid, had not been moved in a decade. Off to the workshop for a large screwdriver and claw-hammer, with these, I was able to prise the front from the pipe box and let the dog see the rabbit. I used the claw of the hammer on the handle of the stopcock and moved it back and forth until it became free enough to screw shut, phew, the water stopped gushing from the heater. For safety sake, I went back to the house for a small screwdriver and removed the fuse from the wall socket that feeds the heater. I was soaked to the skin, trousers shirt, oh well, I was contemplating a shower anyway. I feel quite exhilarated now.

To me foreign food aid, be it to war-torn countries or via food banks here at home is the wrong approach to helping people in need. Just as refugee camps are not the answer either, they are a sticking plaster on the symptoms but not a cure, and certainly the last thing such people need, driving them into a downward spiral of poverty.

Which leads me nicely onto migrating birds, migrating birds, whit? I watched a documentary on The Fens,

a part of the country I know well having cycled and camped there on occasion. Once drained over centuries by windmills, the Fens flood planes now have a cared-for drainage system of dike and dams with pumps capable of shifting tones of water per minute. With the water table lowered (but sometimes flooded again in winter) the Fens soil is rich, you can grow almost anything there. One of the new crops to be grown is Sunflowers, the company that grows them is the biggest Sunflower seed merchant in Briton. Much of the crop goes for birdseed.

Did you know, that an estimated 17 million households spend £250 million a year on more than 150,000 tonnes of bird feed? That is enough to fee the entire breeding population of the 10 most common feeder-using bird species year-round three times over? “Not many people know that” as Michael Cain would say.

Yes, it was those Victorians, that did it, “tuppence a bag” for seed to feed the Trafalgar Square pigeons have morphed into a national pastime. Feed the birds, tuppence a bag, sung Audrey Hepburn, in My Fair Lady.

You could put that girl in a old flour sack and she would still look beautiful.

I know by the number of bird feeders that appear in our garden here at City Park that many of us have discovered the joy of attracting birds into our gardens, more so during the pandemic, with less opportunity to visit the wildlife in its natural habitat. So good for humans but what about the birds?

There is an average of 100 bird feeders per square kilometre across the UK so most birds will not have to travel far for food. It is estimated that we humans provide 75 percent of the daily intake of the diet of some species. Hardly surprising that the dominant ones have monopolised

resources and become habitual feeder-user, now relying on the unlimited year-long supply of food we provide. In the last 25 years, the UK has gained 700,000 additional pairs of great tits, a 40 per cent increase. Blue tits, nuthatches and great-spotted woodpeckers have never had it so good.

All good, I hear you cry, but is it? Well not if you are a migrating bird or one that you would normally find in the countryside. For woodland species, the situation is less rosy. Marsh and willow tits, lesser-spotted woodpeckers, several migrant flycatchers and warblers have been slowly disappearing from the British landscape since the1970s, begging the question why?

Many of the species in decline are “subordinate” – (please do not say, lower down the pecking order.) And as we know through Darwin’s studies, to survive you may have to diversify. As modern farm methods force change and the increase in bird population of dominant birds has the monopoly of the food and the monopoly of the nest sites. The willow tits now excavate their own nest holes so they do not have to wait for nature to do it for them – anyway, the dominant species would probably take them anyway. This means they can occupy new sites, like woodlands, which are unsuitable for their more imposing relatives. Marsh tits collect and catch food and store it for a rainy day. It is quick to find new food resources and had a strong bill capable of dealing with harder food items. However, when bird feeders provide food 24/7 and are gobbled up by the dominant species, sending their numbers soaring, the subordinates will still lose out.

Spare a thought, too, for the pied flycatcher, arriving back from Africa to ever-more unpredictable spring weather in the UK to compete with species such as great tits for food and nest. It is known for Great tits to kill flycatchers in scuffles over nest sites.

There is another problem with bird feeders apart from competition between species. More diverse species at the same place at the same time for years on end (no social distancing) provides conditions for the spread of diseases, within the species, and worse still, from one species to another. (think coronavirus). This happened in a spectacular way in 2005 when the protozoan parasite Trichomonas gallinae, jumped from feeder-using wood pigeons to finches. Resulting in the greenfinch population declining by 66 per cent a year – 280,000 birds, between 2006 and 2016. the advice given at the time was to wash feeders more often, too little too late as it turned out for chaffinches, which are still on the decline.

For declining species of farmland birds such as tree sparrows that suffer badly on cold nights, they can lose a third of the bodyweight that must be replaced quickly, bird feeds are their lifeline. Likewise, house sparrows and starlings in some cities would fail if handouts ceased. But feeding blue and great tits may be the final nail in the coffin for their scarcer relatives.

In good faith we humans have tried to help wildlife, however, in doing so we may have inadvertently given a leg-up to generalists over the specialists.

We badly need a better understanding of the consequences of bird feeding. There is one clear lesson we must learn. If we are truly concerned with bird populations. Then possible, improving habitat and quality in our gardens is a vastly more important gift to nature than any birdseed handouts.

We can plant beneficial native plants and provide seasonal bursts of resources, from nuts to berries and caterpillars. We can dig a pond, swap fences for hedgerows, or choose rumbustious wildflower-covered lawns. Even rewild parts of our garden, nature has been running the show for millennium I think we can trust it to run the show for us now 

Stay safe.

2 thoughts on “Feed the birds, tuppence a bag, sung Audrey Hepburn, in My Fair Lady.

  1. Hear hear. As my garden sinks once more into an uncontrolled and uncontrollable state of chaos, at least i know my visiting birds will find what they need.

    Like

  2. I have come to understand that the chances of arresting global warming, or one hundred other man-made problems in the world will never be tackled for they depend now on industrial lead, and not government lead. We know that plastic is one of the biggest environmental disasters – yet we continue to manufacture it, and not only for things that it is good for, but plastic promotional items and carrier bags. We know that e-cars are not the answer to traffic pollution, but we will continue to build them, we know that the burning of wood is more harmful to humans than burning coal, but we insist on doing it. I can go on and on, At the Neuranburgh trials one of the accused was asked why they killed Jews, he answered “They did not complain” it seemed strange at the time but it’s true – everything the UK (and world) governments do they do it in our name – we need to complain louder.

    Like

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