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Should we stop feeding birds during the breeding season?

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Jeremy Torrance web producer Jeremy Torrance web producer | 15:45 UK time, Thursday, 13 January 2011

It appears from this news story published yesterday that feeding birds might not be as good for them as we thought. Could this be another example of how everything we do – however well intentioned – has an effect on wildlife and that effect might well be a negative one?

Anyone who’s been watching Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Fish Fight on Channel 4 will have seen how efforts at conservation can have paradoxical outcomes. As he angrily points out, about half of the fish caught by fishermen in the North Sea are thrown back into the ocean.

While nowhere near as perverse as that, the news that a study has found that feeding garden birds might delay the dawn chorus is potentially another example of the negative outcomes of human intervention. (You can read more details about the paper here.)

As the story says:

Birds with access to feeders delayed their song by up to 20 minutes, often beginning only after the sun had risen. This change in behaviour by delaying or even skipping the start of the dawn chorus may have a detrimental effect on how many chicks males sire.

As a result, the researchers argue that we should stop feeding birds at the end of March. Although I should point out no one's suggesting that we shouldn't continue to feed them over winter (read our guide on the best food to feed garden birds or watch Chris Packham's definitive video guide).

Another study from last year appears to add credence to this. Researchers from the University of Birmingham found that tits given food in a woodland during spring and summer have smaller broods. Yes, it's woodland and not urban but it does raise questions.

So are you persuaded by this? Would it make you stop feeding the birds in your garden over spring? One of the joys of bird-feeding is peering out your kitchen window at all the brightly coloured visitors. Would you be prepared to give up this great British tradition?

The Curious Owl, a sideways look at British nature.


  • Comment number 1.

    I feed the birds year round and I'm afraid i wouldn't stop. If feeding them helps the birds that do breed so much the better.

  • Comment number 2.

    Since I continued feeding on during the breeding season in my 'suburban' garden some of the local House Sparrows have managed to raise 3 lots of chicks to successful fledging these past two years. These birds are on the Red List and only able to utilise our old 1920's wooden overhang eaves for nesting, you won't find them in the surrounding modern housing estates, they need all the help they can get imho. Some local Blackbirds are managing 2 broods as well and seeing the bedraggled parents at the end of the fledging process gratefully grabbing an easy feed as they teach the youngsters how to find Natures larder food is rewarding. Biggest success this year has been letting Evening Primrose plants self seed all over the place and the garden being visited daily by Goldfinches who alternate between the tall seed pod covered stems & the sunflower heart filled feeders. A pair of the local Blue Tits are hanging around my insect overwintering 'hotel habitat' towers and seemingly finding interesting pickings there!

  • Comment number 3.

    Having fed all year I definitely have more bluetits than last year and the great-tits and coal tits have survived the cold too. The sparrows don't seem to have done as well, there is no group of 14-15 visiting like before the cold, only groups of half that. Maybe they split up when it's warmer or maybe they've perished in the cold. I'm thinking accommodation would be a major factor and am thinking of bird boxes for this year. Showing the new chicks a winter feeding ground is surely important, though would the chicks copy in colder weather anyway as they form these larger groups? I have more dunnocks than last year too.

  • Comment number 4.

    I feed birds all year round simply because in previous years i've seen them really struggle. People say that nature is about the survival of the fittest but I think the harsh reality is if mankind destroy nature's natural habitat then we have a responsibility to provide a food source.

    I won't stop feeding them because a few articles say so.

  • Comment number 5.

    The way I understand it is: The number of chicks a pair of birds will try to raise is directly related to the survival rate, so of course if there is easy food around, the survival chances are improved and less chicks hatched. If the food is removed a pair of birds will try to hatch more chicks but less of them are likely to survive to adulthood. Therefore either way you end up with the same number of adult birds. As shellfishoes says, we are destroying the habitat and so we should provide assistance. I will certainly keep feeding.

  • Comment number 6.

    It makes sense to only feed them in the winter months. Anybody feeding year round is just adopting a cavalier attitude to the birds welfare just because it pleases them to watch the birds feed.

  • Comment number 7.

    Could it be that birds which have a regular food supply have smaller broods because they have a greater chance of survival?

  • Comment number 8.

    While this is an interesting finding (albeit not supported by massively strong evidence (p = 0.039 on 19 or fewer reps, where the controls were potentially supplemented in gardens other than the researchers')), the suggestion that long-term feeding affects breeding success seems to be belied by their later results, buried deep in the discussion, that egg-laying dates and clutch sizes were effectively the same between control and supplemented populations.

    Hopefully the authors are following up these observations by looking at the breeding & fledging success rates, which will confirm or deny their hypothesis - currently the media reaction seems to be rather excessive given the evidence.

    Personally, I would be far more worried about the role of feeders in the spread of diseases such as Trichomoniasis in greenfinches than in the largely unsupported possibilities espoused by the media from this paper.

  • Comment number 9.

    Also, I'd like to congratulate the BBC on finally deep-linking to the actual paper under discussion, rather than journal homepage - it makes life so much more straightforward and, well, sensible!

  • Comment number 10.

    Given that the majority of garden bird feeders are most likely to be in urban areas, I'd be to know if this research has also taken into account the local lighting conditions for their test areas. With street lights running all night in urban areas, surely this has an impact on the garden bird behaviour. I hear the birds singing all night in my garden.

  • Comment number 11.

    I can see the point being made, but it's just that, a single point. Feeding birds causes them to have smaller broods.

    In human terms, if we took away our comfortable existence and had to return to living off the land in the way animals have to, you'd find that the female of the species would undoubtedly produce more off-spring, thereby ensuring survival of the family.

    What we have here is a bird population that have become used to being fed and so the survival is more assured, ergo, smaller broods. The birds have adapted, if only locally, to a food supply. To find out if this has bigger more far reaching ramifications, I'd be more shocked if it stopped them migrating, simply choosing to stay where the food and shelter is provided, instead of heading off on their spring holidays.

    As suggested above at #5 by Wiggy_Woo, a brood of 3 chicks that survive to fledging, with the help of some human intervention is the same as a brood of 5 where two (or more) die. Should we intervene? If we do, we must continue.

  • Comment number 12.

    Feeding is all right for those that for instance don't have gardens and then live food or dried food like mealworms are good. As for those with gardens supporting birds naturally in your garden is great, plants that support caterpillers should be the fundimental basis along with native trees to support insects. If you can't buy the food, buy something that provides more natural food.

  • Comment number 13.

    If we continue to feed birds in the spring summer how would this knosk on to the birds natural food insects and fruit all in support of feeding through the winter

  • Comment number 14.

    I'm interested as well in any information about birds singing through the night in urban areas. I hear them going full pelt at midnight sometimes ! Does it stress them not having a proper dark night even in winter ?

  • Comment number 15.

    What next will they come up with, it's a pity these people have nothing better to do. I WILL CONTINUE TO FEED MY BIRDS as most people on here have said, they have birds with more than one brood in their gardens. and so do we. My garden is not clinical it's got wild areas with ivy growing up trees and honeysuckle growing up trellis, hawthorn bushes and bird boxes and food. We have a triangle of gardens all of us who feed the birds and we have lots of them and lots of babies. Even a pair of magpies who nest in a tall conifer. One has an injured wing and cannot fly very far mainly it climbs the trees and then glides to the next one so depends on what we can provide it.
    In encouraging birds they in turn eat the slugs, snails and insects that attack my veg's and flower borders.
    As someone has said when feeding their babies the parents often have to grab at what they can in passing, so seed and cheese and fruit on the bird table must be a lifeline for them.

  • Comment number 16.

    WE ARE REALLY WORRIED AT MOMENT ! WE USUALLY HAVE LOADS OF Goldfinches, chafinches, bluetits etc.......all year round AND for some strange reason we have NOTHING!! Hardly anything since well before xmas - IS IT THE WEATHER, has iot killed them off, have they flown away for a holiday maybe tut! We are in HOUGH, Cheshire but our friends in LEIGH near Warrington, still have a garden full of birds......????? What has happened CAN U HELP.....advice etc
    Very sad Barbara & Graham

  • Comment number 17.

    @Barbarapotter1, it's difficult to pin down exactly why as there could be a number of reasons for the birds to stop coming to your garden:

    - The cold spell would have forced many birds over to Ireland, further down south or even to France
    - Other birds might well have gone out into the countryside now

    But, as you say your, friends still have loads so there could be more local reasons like:

    - An increase in the number of cats in the neighbourhood
    - Your neighbours stopping feeding birds or feeding them less, which would mean there's less reason for the birds to come to the area

    Hope this helps a bit.

  • Comment number 18.

    We have noticed that in the past week or two the tits, finches, dunnocks, etc that had been feeding on our feeding station in large numbers have all but disappeared. Is this because the birds know they can't feed their young on the seeds, nuts and fat-balls (is it 'junk-food?) we supply?


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