Feed the Birds

In the pink dusk an extended family of long-tailed tits sweep the garden just before roost. Zigzagging from conifer to birch and back, they check the feeding posts. Their calls increase in incredulity as they realise all the usual places are empty and, as I watch, I fancy the ‘tsrp tsrp’ of their little voices range from ‘where is the food?’ to ‘why has it all gone?’. After a few minutes of rapid conversation, the zephyr departs as swiftly as it came, bobbing over the tree tops on to the next garden.

I quickly calculate that in their short lives these long-tailed tits have never known the feeders to be empty.1 There have always been fat balls and peanuts. Sometimes seed and suet. Even the occasional handful of oats. Now, all food is banned due to a rat infestation - the inevitable result of a medieval town with Victorian drains and an aging population of eager bird feeders. We love feeding the birds because we feel it brings us closer to nature. Joyous flocks of small bright visitors lighten our dull suburban days and, if they nest in the garden too, our sense of eco-achievement reaches new heights; this surely proves we are doing something positive for nature in these overwhelmingly negative times.

Yet, in the light of the rat problem,2 might it be time to stop and think for whom are we feeding the birds? Who benefits? Cui bono?

Apart from us and the birds, the next beneficiaries are the rodents - brown rats, house mice, and grey squirrels. As long as they stay in the garden we tolerate them, but if they like us so much that they move into the house then we are quick to purchase the poison. Who benefits now? The companies making the poison? The pest controllers hired for a more strategic approach to rodent eviction? Perhaps we should be asking cui prodest? Who profits? In 2019 the British Trust for Ornithology estimated that the UK spends £200–300 million on bird feeding products each year, and we can only assume this has stayed the same, if not increased. 3 So, the companies who make the bird food and the necessary equipment, and the garden centres, supermarkets, and all the other outlets who push these products, do very well out of our national obsession.

‘Feed the Birds’ is a powerful, emotive message, but we are playing a dangerous game of enticing wild birds into our gardens only to be predated on by domestic cats and given diseases from dirty equipment. While greenfinches used to be a frequent sight, their numbers are now much reduced as a result of trichomonosis contracted from contaminated feeders.4 Blue tits, however, have gained from the garden-feeding situation,5 along with goldfinches and, of course, the long-tailed tits.6 This implies our bird-feeding frenzy has skewed their populations, favouring some species while almost eradicating others, jeopardising any sense of natural balance.

In a garden with tall trees, apples, berries, hips and haws, the birds should find enough to eat without any shop-bought supplements. Log piles, flowers, grasses, a pond – we all know there are many ways to make wildlife-friendly habitats. Although the bird food has gone from my garden, the wren still looks for spiders, the robin still snatches worms, and the blackbird still frequents the bird bath. The squirrel also lingers, searching for buried hazel nuts and digging up my bulbs. Only the rats are noticeable by their absence – when the food left, they left too.

Long-tailed tits gone, the pink dusk fades into the mid-winter night. The house sparrows shuffle in the hedge. The field mice rustle in the undergrowth. The garden is much quieter since it ceased to be an all-you-can-eat buffet. Less frenetic, but not devoid of life.

1 BTO, 2023, ‘Long-tailed tit - Biology – Survival and Longevity’. Available at: https://www.bto.org/understanding-birds/birdfacts/long-tailed-tit (Accessed: 23rd December 2023).

2 Shute, J. (2023) ‘The plague of super-rats taking over our homes’, The Telegraph, 29th April. Available at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2023/04/29/rat-plague-london-new-york-pest-control (Accessed: 23rd December 2023).

Godwin, R. (2021) ‘Are we losing the rat race? How rodents took over our offices’, The Guardian, 7th February 2021. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2021/feb/07/are-we-losing-the-rat-race-how-rodent-took-over-our-offices (Accessed: 23rd December 2023).

3 BTO, 2019, ‘Boom time at Britain's bird feeders’. Available at: https://www.bto.org/press-releases/boom-time-britains-bird-feeders (Accessed: 23rd December 2023).

4 RSPB, 2023, ‘Greenfinch’. Available at: https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/greenfinch (Accessed: 23rd December 2023).

5 RSPB, 2023, ‘Blue Tit’. Available at: https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/blue-tit (Accessed: 23rd December 2023).

6 Barkham, P. (2019)‘Garden feeders are supporting rising number of urban birds’, The Guardian, 21st May. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/may/21/garden-feeders-are-supporting-rising-numbers-of-urban-birds (Accessed: 23rd December 2023).