Feeding garden birds: a £400m quandary

Through my window I can see: blue tits, chaffinches, great tits, dunnocks, sparrows, blackbirds, starlings, collared doves, jackdaws, magpies, an occasional woodpecker… and the list goes on.

The resident pair of collared doves - always on the look out for food
The resident pair of collared doves – always on the look out for food

For many of us, garden birds are an intrinsic part of our gardens. They bring life, motion, song and colour right to our doorstep. But how much do they rely on us to feed them?

These days we are exhorted to feed garden birds and the calls come from many directions: charities like the RSPB; garden centres; daily newspapers; TV programmes. And we’re told not only to feed the birds, but to feed them with bespoke feed, and to feed them every day of the year. Mmm, what’s going on here?

When I was growing up, we often fed the birds old bread, cheese and bacon rinds. We didn’t feed them mouldy bread or cheese, just old dry stuff. Sometimes, particularly around Christmas time, we’d make a special treat cake for the birds out of lard or dripping and dried fruits, oats and more stale bread. But oftentimes we wouldn’t feed the birds: if there were no left overs the birds weren’t fed. There were plenty of birds around and I never gave very much thought to feeding them: it was just an ad hoc thing.

Nowadays though, feeding garden birds is big business. It’s hard to find a definite value for the industry. An FAO report in 2010 said that the UK is “one of the leading countries in outdoor feeding” and a survey found that four out of five gardeners over 65 years of age feed garden birds. In an article in 2012, Germaine Greer dug deep into the economics of wild bird food and noted that the market in the UK alone was worth around £400m. The same FAO report mentioned above said that in the United States $2.7bn dollars per year was spent on food for wild birds, with a further $800m on accessories. Whichever way you look at it, feeding our feathered friends has become big business. Why is that?

In part, it could be to do with the erosion of “natural” habitats for our wild birds: as more and more houses, industrial sites and infrastructure projects are built, places for birds to feed “naturally” grow scarcer. Coupled with that, changes in farming practices including cropping patterns, pesticide use, loss of hedgerows and field margins mean that “natural” food sources for wild birds are reducing in the countryside that remains. The potential for gardens to compensate for these reductions is significant. But is feeding the birds, with mixes of imported seeds at exorbitant prices, the way to go?

I don’t know. I find it a bit of a quandary, but I’m inclined to think it’s not.

For most of my life I have carried on with my haphazard attitude to feeding birds. I’ll always feed them if it’s very cold and always make sure there’s clean water available for them.

However, for much of the last year I have been feeding the birds, primarily because of old Hoppity robin who came to stay. He would sit near the back door waiting for food and so I fed him. If the food was late, he’d move closer and closer to the back door: guilt and sympathy kept me feeding him. And by feeding him, I was also feeding lots and lots of other birds.

Hoppity robin shortly before he disappeared: after his moult he looked a bit worn around the edges, maybe he had just grown too old to carry on
Hoppity robin shortly before he disappeared: after his moult he looked a bit worn around the edges, maybe he had just grown too old to carry on

But at the back end of September Hoppity disappeared. For a few days another robin had also been singing in the garden and the last I saw of Hoppity was the two birds fighting with each other. However Hoppity, having only one leg, was clearly no match for the newcomer two-legged robin. Next day, there was no more Hoppity robin, and although I’ve watched out for him, I haven’t seen him since.

So now, there’s less of a specific reason to feed the birds and I’m thinking about it more and am feeding them less.

In addition to the questionable economics and environmental ethics (where and how are the seeds and peanuts grown?) of the wild bird food industry, feeding birds frequently and routinely also raises issues relating to bird health and disease transmission. But that’s another topic for another day.

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5 thoughts on “Feeding garden birds: a £400m quandary”

  1. I think it right to feed them every now and then, particularly in winter, but I would never buy the huge quantities of commercial feed that garden centres etc sell, nor feed them every single day. I chuck my old bread crusts out of the window or cake crumbs, and in winter make my own fat balls out of local seeds and dried fruit.

    If you feed them regularly there is the consideration they may become dependant on you – a whole generation could just eat what you give them. Then one day BOOOM! You move house and the new people don’t feed birds. And that particular generation might not be successful at feeding themselves….

  2. I’m one of those people! I spend more money on bird food than I ever have before. I might have to reconsider my position as I realise it’s all a bit unsustainable. But the first thing i’m going to do is only buy british seed…importing it is crazy I can see that for so many reasons. I started out one year when it was cold and it kind of snowballed 🙂

    I do love watching them though. I was just admiring a woodpecker on the peanuts while on the loo! Yesterday a bullfinch came. We’ve just put up a barn owl box with a camera so fingers crossed.

    1. Yup, feeding birds is strangely compulsive and addictive. And the seed packers and retailers have really latched on to that. At one of my local stores it is cheaper to buy sunflower seeds from the home baking section than from the pet food section: that’s just mad. This year I’m going to be planting sunflowers again as a self-service option (and the bees love them too).

      Good luck with the barn owl!

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