British obsession with bird feeding brings rarely-sighted birds into gardens 

A goldfinch which was once rare was seen in nine in 10 gardens by 2012
A goldfinch which was once rare was seen in nine in 10 gardens by 2012 Credit: Mike Powles

Rarely-sighted birds are now flocking to British gardens because of our obsession with bird tables and feeders, a new study has shown.

Goldfinches, long-tailed tits, woodpigeons and woodpeckers are now frequent visitors to gardens even though they were barely seen in the 1970s, the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) has found.

When the BTO’s Great Bird Feeding Survey began in the winter of 1973/74, just eight per cent of gardeners recorded a goldfinch, but by 2012/13 nearly nine in 10 saw the colourful bird during the winter months, even though its traditional habitat is woodland and forest.

Likewise more than half saw a sparrowhawk in the 2012 survey compared to one in 20 in the ‘70s. And half of gardeners now see woodpeckers in the winter, compared to 15 per cent four decades ago.

The study also found that the quality and variety of bird food available has dramatically improved over the past four decades, with traditional peanuts, bread and household scraps now replaced by nutritious sunflower hearts or suet balls.

Woodpeckers are now seen by half of gardeners  Credit: Mark L Stanley

Lead author Kate Plummer, a research ecologist at the BTO, said: “Our results suggest that population sizes are increasing in urban areas in response to garden bird feeding.

“Feeders now attract more birds across a greater range of species than previously.

“This massive human intervention is likely to be having profound repercussions on the bird communities around us.”

At the start of the 20th century, Punch magazine described bird feeding as a British national pastime, and gardeners now spend £200 million annually feeding the birds, around twice as much as other Europeans.

A recent study from the University of Sheffield suggested great tits are even evolving longer beaks compared to their continental counterparts, because it helps them reach between the feeder bars and into holes.

Other birds which have increased in the last four decades include jays, crows and magpies, however gardeners are now less likely to see starlings, song thrush and sparrows which dominated reports in the 1970s.

Woodpigeons are frequent visitors  Credit:  Colin Carter

Miss Plummer also said that the ongoing decline in insects may also be encouraging more birds into suburban and urban areas.

“Insects are especially important for birds at this time of year as many species feed insects to their chicks,” she added.

“Feeders can help to sustain adults, while they hunt for food to support their offspring. This is outside of the scope of what we looked at.

“But it's something that is important to think about when we consider how/ what/ when we put out food for birds, given that are findings indicate that feeding does influence bird populations.”

However feeding the birds may put birds at greater risk of disease, the study warns. In recent years greenfinches declined substantially after the disease trichomonosis spread through populations via dirty feeders.

The research was published in the journal Nature Communications.