How important is it to feed garden birds in Winter?

How important is it to feed garden birds in Winter?

The winter months can often seem a bit bleak here on the North Cornish coast. Many of our animal friends have migrated to warmer climes or are hidden away in enviable hibernation until the spring. The winter can also cause us to spend more time away from the outdoors as the weather becomes wilder and the days shorter, making it essential for us to carve out time to reconnect with nature and everything that is wonderful about it, especially in a time when this is becoming increasingly more important. One of the most common ways for us humans to connect with wildlife during the winter is by feeding our fabulously feathery friends in our gardens or shared outdoor spaces. 

But, do birds actually need our help in the winter months or is it all just a slightly selfish exercise in keeping our minds peaceful, our connections with nature strong and our trees and shrubs free from pests (not that any of these seem like unreasonable excuses)?!

Bird Feeding in the Winter Months

According to the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) “Although winter feeding benefits birds most, food shortages can occur at any time of year”. This shows that winter feeding is most beneficial as the most likely times for food shortages are during periods of cold and wet weather, but, also encourages seasonally appropriate feeding of birds all year round. In fact, up until the mid-1950s, most people in the UK and Europe would have only fed birds during the winter months, with the RSPB and the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) recommending that birds should not be fed all year round at the time. 

The official line now, from both organisations, is that birds can, and should, be fed all year, with nutritionally apt mixes being provided and the avoidance of certain foods such as whole peanuts during the nesting and fledging seasons, due to the dangers to nestlings.  

In his fascinating book ‘The Birds at My Table: Why we Feed Birds and Why it Matters’, Darryl Jones talks of the modified winter resource base of food provisions in gardens across the UK and how it has helped to buffer against changes in natural food abundance caused by agriculture, meteorological conditions and pollution, amongst others. 

Furthermore, according to research undertaken by BTO and the School of Biological Sciences, at Queens University Belfast, there is a strong suggestion that feeding birds in the winter months enables some bird species to survive and breed more successfully the following spring. 

There isn't conclusive evidence to show that feeding birds during the winter months is beneficial across the board, but, with human-caused environmental changes affecting bird populations, scarcity of foods and the limited research that has been undertaken, it does seem that feeding the birds will be, and probably always has been, beneficial over the winter months for some, if not all, species. 

Garden bird eating feed in Winter

What are the Arguments for not feeding the Birds?

Whilst feeding birds might seem like it will always be a good thing for local populations, there are some who would argue against the practice for the following reasons;

  • Dependence - rather than foraging for more bio-appropriate food sources
  • Disease spreading - Many birds feed and defecate in the same place, leading to easy transmission
  • Aggression - More birds fighting for the same resource
  • Poor nutrition - Foods that are less nutritionally diverse than what might be found by them elsewhere.

Although all of these arguments are based on facts, there are simple ways we can avoid the problems alongside some studies that prove a few of these hypotheses to be wrong. 

On the subject of dependence and poor nutrition, it has been shown that birds know what they are doing when it comes to selecting foods. They will usually avoid large seeds and nuts when they have nestlings and prefer to forage for more nutrient-dense insects, fruits and fats in the spring. It is often worth thinking of our bird feeders as supplementary feeding stations rather than the whole of our garden birds' diets. Even in the winter months when food is scarce, most birds will only garner around 20% of their diet from feeding stations, bird tables and bird food.

When it comes to the spread of disease, the simple act of regularly cleaning your bird feeders and surrounding areas can negate this almost completely.

And finally, in the case of aggression, having multiple feeders around your garden and regularly changing the locations of these can massively reduce any behavioural problems resulting from garden bird feeding.

Winter garden birds

So, although there isn't enough research yet to conclusively say whether our birds are completely reliant on the bird food we put out for them in the winter months, there is certainly enough evidence to suggest they are more successful when it is an available source of food and that some birds would potentially perish without it. 

The best thing we can all do for our garden birds is to make sure we are feeding seasonally-appropriate feed to them and that we are making an effort to keep their feeding areas clean and well-managed.

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