Feed the birds - the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch and beyond

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Martin hughes games with finches friend

The RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch is a great way to get to know the birdlife in your garden. We spoke with BBC presenter and zoologist Martin Hughes-Games about why taking part is important and how else you can help the birds in your garden

Taking place between the 28–30 January, the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch is an important piece of “citizen science” as well as a great way to get acquainted with the animals with whom we share our garden space. And participating is as simple as finding a comfortable spot beside your garden window with a pencil and paper to count all the birds you see.

Designed to help provide the RSPB with invaluable data on the UK’s increasingly vulnerable bird populations, the Big Garden Birdwatch is an ideal entry point to the fascinating world of birdwatching. If you’re interested in taking part, you can find more information, as well as a guide to which birds you might expect to see, here.

Dunnock

And for those of us keen to do even more to help our feathered friends, particularly in the winter months, there’s no better way to start, than with some well-placed feeders in your garden. And with an estimated £200–300 million spent on bird feeding products in the UK each year, it’s clear that many of us have already taken up the challenge. 

Not without their drawbacks however, many birdfeeders can assist in the spread diseases harmful to birds when they are not cleaned properly. That’s where Finches Friend comes in with an ingenious solution to an invisible problem; feeders that are high capacity, low waste and most importantly, easy to clean. Martin Hughes-Games elaborates…


Why is it important to put out feed for birds in winter?

There is an ongoing debate about the desirability of feeding our garden birds. People worry feeding might cause birds to lose their ability to forage naturally or that we might be affecting the process of natural selection by supporting otherwise “weaker” species of bird. 

Whenever there’s a debate like this, I usually turn to the brilliant BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) for information, because over many years I have found their research to be exemplary. In an excellent review Dr Kate Plummer – a BTO research scientist – draws together a broad spectrum of current research concluding that overall, the feeding we do in our gardens is a good thing for our wild bird populations. And that includes feeding all year around, particularly in the winter. 

Interestingly however, while you might assume birds rely on feeders almost exclusively in winter, when food is scarcer, research has shown that blue tits, for instance, only get around 20% of their food from feeders at this time of year. 

The bottom line is that we have already created such profound environmental changes in the countryside, it’s impossible for birds to behave entirely “naturally” when seeking food. Consequently, helping them out with supplementary feeding is —overall—a good thing, with one crucial proviso about disease. Dr Plummer’s full review can be found here. 


What are the problems for birds that Finches Friend solves and why is it important?

blue tit on finches friend feeder

The Finches Friend addresses the disease issue I mention above head on. The huge problem is that our feeders can, and do, pass on fatal diseases to bird populations. It’s a hidden issue, because we don’t generally see the effects day to day, but the figures are terrible. Greenfinch numbers in the UK have fallen by 60% since 2006. That’s some 1.5 million birds. And the main cause is a parasitic disease called trichomonosis. The parasite is left on dirty feeders by infected birds and when healthy birds visit, they pick up the disease. 

The BTO say the Greenfinch decline is ‘the largest scale mortality of British birds due to infectious disease on record”. Chaffinch numbers are also crashing right now, and it is almost certain this decline is due to trichomonosis too. So, cleaning your feeders is absolutely critical. If you don’t clean them, I’m sorry to say you will be inadvertently helping this disease to quietly decimate our vulnerable bird populations. 

The Finches Friend is specifically designed to be easy to clean. It has a very clever system that allows you to remove the feed station in seconds, leaving the rest of the feeder untouched. You can wash the feed station and replace it in a matter of minutes. Other feeders can be so troublesome to clean, many people simply don’t bother. The Finches Friend system solves this problem at a stroke, it’s a brilliant bit of British design. 


What kind of bird feed can you use that won't attract other pests like rats?

Chaffinch

I don’t think you will ever totally stop other animals joining in the when there’s free food up for grabs in your garden! Many people embrace these other visitors even providing feed stations for squirrels. I have baffles (cone shaped devices used to block squirrels from climbing up a bird feeder pole or jumping down onto a feeder) on my feeders that are very good at stopping squirrels getting the food I put out for birds.

The food type you use can be helpful. I used to use a bird food mix from “Living with Birds" in my Finches Friend feeders but there was a lot of waste, with birds scattering food all over the place until they found the things they wanted. By trial and error, I now use just "Living with birds" sunflower hearts which seems to be very acceptable to most birds coming to the feeders, and they don’t tend to throw anything away. 

I notice the long-tailed tits come to the fat balls out of preference but the other tits, finches and nuthatch robins all enjoy the sunflower seeds and waste very little. Because so much of the food is eaten by the bird on the first pass very little gets thrown down on the ground to encourage rats. 


What do you think is the threat to bird life in the UK today?

blue tit on finches friend feeder

Disease is a frightening threat, especially as its largely invisible. Most diseased birds go into deep undergrowth to die, so none of us really notice the scale of what’s taking place. I have found very few people are even aware of trichomonosis and the effect it’s having on our birds. We really need to raise awareness. 

Personally, I’m also terrified by the decline of insect populations, up to 70% overall declines have been recorded. Again, this is almost invisible, and insects are a critical food resource for so many birds (and bats, small vertebrates etc.) when the insects disappear the other creatures that rely on them will begin vanishing very quickly too. It could mean the beginning of a total collapse in the food chain. 

I constantly worry about our swift and swallow populations, there now seem to be so few insects around in summer for them to feed on, even compared with just 25 years ago. Other threats are the usual culprits, the constantly changing agricultural environment, pesticides, and erosion of habitats as humans demand more and more space for development. 


Why is the Big Garden Birdwatch important?

greater spotted woodpecker

The Big Garden Birdwatch galvanises people, gets them to look more carefully in their gardens and parks and to appreciate what we still have. The results really do give an invaluable snapshot of what’s going on with our garden bird populations, so this is very important “citizen science”. 

It’s one of the easiest things people can do to make a difference. Scientists and conservation organisations make important decisions based on the results of the Big Garden Birdwatch. Also, it’s great fun! Though I have to stop my wife thinking of it as a competition and trying to find something exotic to record, a tree creeper or a passing parakeet! 


Which common birds might you expect to in your garden during the birdwatch?

Martin hughes games

I live surrounded by woods, so we get lots of traffic. Blue tits, great tits, coal tits, chaffinches, goldfinches, robins, blackbirds, greater spotted woodpeckers, wrens, jackdaws, dunnock, (even a family of carrion crows I’m supplementarily feeding at present – I probably shouldn’t but they are so beautiful and interesting to watch). If we’re lucky, we might also see a nuthatch, a passing sparrow hawk and even (if my wife is really trying) a tree creeper!


Which rare birds would you love to see more of in your garden?

male bullfinch

Brambling, swallow (they used to nest in my last house, I really miss them) and whenever we see a bullfinch it’s a huge thrill, they’re truly exquisite birds.


Apart from participating in the Big Garden Birdwatch and putting out feed, what other things can we do to help make our gardens and outside spaces more bird-friendly?

Birds need to wash frequently to keep their feathers in perfect condition so a bird bath is great addition to any garden, but again it must be cleaned regularly because of the danger of diseases. You might also consider a wild area with plants (particularly ones that insects love) to help boost the local insect populations in your area. And of course, the one I love most is a pond. Even a tiny pond will provide hours of interest and soon become habitat for a host of interesting animals, many of which will provide food for our birds. Garden ponds have become a significant habitat for much of our aquatic wildlife too. Finally, I’m going to be controversial here, I used to have cats, they are hugely entertaining but… never again. The figures for the destruction they wreak on our garden bird populations are truly shocking. But of course, that’s a very difficult decision for any animal and bird lover. 


Help your garden bird visitors with Finches Friend

You can help prevent the spread of illness and disease in your garden with Finches Friend Cleaner Feeders. Easy-to-clean and manufactured in the UK, Finches Friend bird feeders help you create a safe space for wild birds and give you more time to enjoy watching them.

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