Perils for garden birds: parts 1 and 2

Late summer each year, a sparrowhawk becomes a frequent visitor here.  The swallows and martins blithely chase the hawk chirruping loudly as they go, whilst  at ground level the other birds disappear into the hedges in the blink of an eye whenever anything hawk-like flies by.

Sparrowhawk, August 2014
Sparrowhawk, August 2014

Today the hawk sat long enough to capture a picture of it (her, I think).

Lately the local birds have a different kind of terror to contend with too. One of my neighbours has built a ladder trap and is finding his perverse pleasure in capturing and battering to death a diverse range of larger garden birds: doves, jackdaws, blackbirds, magpies. Although his use of the trap is illegal and has been reported, unsurprisingly the law enforcement agencies have little or no interest in doing anything about it:(

Two young jackdaws frantically try to escape from the cage trap.
Two young jackdaws frantically try to escape from the cage trap.

Feeding garden birds: in sickness and in health?

I first heard of Trichomonosis (or Trichomoniasis, as it is sometimes called) as a disease of garden birds about three or four years ago. The media were working with the British Trust for Ornithology and the RSPB to raise awareness of the illness and to encourage reporting of cases of sick birds so that the development of the disease could be better monitored.

Last year, I had first hand experience* of the disease affecting a greenfinch and a chaffinch in my garden: most probably because I was putting food out regularly for the one legged robin. But maybe not… that’s the thing with real life: there’s no “control” like there is in an experiment, so you can never know what might have happened had circumstances been different.

Anyway, in the early summer I saw a sick greenfinch in the garden. I was sufficiently aware of Trichomonosis to wonder whether that was what ailed this bird: its feathers were all puffed up; it was dopey and didn’t fly very far at all; it kept wiping its beak; and it generally looked a bit off-colour and sick.

A sick greenfinch, probably infected with Trichomonas gallinae
A sick greenfinch, probably infected with Trichomonas gallinae

I knew that the advice if you have an infected bird is to immediately stop feeding birds in your garden. And my first thought was to obediently obey this advice, but then I thought a bit more logically about it.

I live in a village and most of the households here feed the birds to some extent. So, if I stopped feeding the birds in my garden, they’d just move to somebody else’s garden…that could mean more mixing of birds, more close contact between them as they scrabbled for less food in a smaller area, and, consequently, the possibility of hastening the spread of the disease. Mmm, that didn’t sound like a clever plan after all. So I decided to continue putting out bird food.

There isn’t a whole lot of data on the prognosis for wild birds infected with Trichomonosis. The illness is caused by a parasite called Trichomonas gallinae. Infestation with this microbe can result in cankers growing in the oesophagus and crop (neck pouch) of birds. These cankers can get so big that they make eating and drinking difficult and the birds can starve to death, or become so weakened they’re susceptible to other ailments or just so lethargic that they’re easy prey, especially for domestic cats. However, often infection with the Trichomonas parasite either has no visible symptoms, or just very mild symptoms that the bird recovers from (and possibly develops immunity to the illness as a result).

There is, however, a lot of information available on the internet about the disease in general, its symptoms and how it spreads. An important point is that it needs to be transferred via a moist medium – it’s not robust and soon dies if it dries out. Consequently, drinking water put out for the birds could be a key place for the spread of the parasite.

So, I also thought about stopping putting water out for the birds. But there are gutters, puddles, troughs and ponds everywhere, as well as all the other gardens that have water bowls and baths for the birds. I was already in the habit of ensuring that the water for the birds was fresh each day and also that the water bowls were frequently cleaned with a bleach solution. So, I decided to continue with providing water too…

There isn’t really a tidy end to this story. I don’t know what happened to the two sick birds that were in my garden. Maybe they died, maybe they got better, maybe a cat ate them: who knows. But I am confident that suddenly stopping providing food and water to birds is going to cause them to go elsewhere, it’s not going to be a cure for the problem. Not unless a whole village or town stops at the same time, which is unlikely. So, if you do feed garden birds just do it as hygienically as you can: there’s nothing more you can do really.

RSPB advice on garden bird diseases including Trichomonosis

BTO information on Trichomonosis

This chapter from a field guide published by the US National Wildlife Health Center has detailed and useful information.

* it’s an assumption based on symptoms that the illness of these birds was Trichomonosis: to know conclusively would require laboratory testing.

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.

Baby birds and a new word – leucism

Leucistic baby house sparrow
Leucistic baby house sparrow

The first broods of birds are just fledging. The house sparrows were the first, and this one, with strong white markings especially on its wings, looked distinctly different; in a very pretty way.

Apparently, this reduction in pigmentation is quite common in sparrows (and lots of other birds and animals). It is called “leucisim” – a new word for me:), from leukos, white.

leuco baby sparrow

And here it is with a regular coloured friend
And here it is with a regular coloured friend

One legged robin…

This is a digression to introduce this little fella (I think he’s a he, maybe it’s a she). Anyway, he arrived last autumn trailing a completely broken right leg and flapping around outside the backdoor.


He has amazed me by surviving the winter and developing into a regular robin tyrant, bullying dunnocks and chaffinches and chasing off other robins.  He has even managed to get a girlfriend and they seem to be nesting in the hedge of the field next door.

I will try and get a better photo – he’s quite camera shy and I had to take this from indoors. 🙂


Why is Hoplia philanthus called the Welsh chafer?

Welsh chafer (Hoplia philanthus) on Miscanthus

It seems to be a bumper year for chafers of all types. 

The emergence of these beetles always seems like a blessing to the birds who flock to devour them with gusto and to take them back to their greedy broods.  In the garden, they are a favourite fast food for blackbirds and even dunnocks and robins are happy to have a go at them, although they make a mighty mouthful for those little guys. 

Out in the fields and down on the dunes the air is literally buzzing with the little beetles and flocks of gulls, rooks, jackdaws and crows are making the most of them.

So, I got to wondering, why is the Welsh chafer so called?  The fab interactive map provided by the National Biodiversity Network ( shows that they are not particularly prevalent in Wales, and indeed are widespread throughout England.  And descriptions of their life habit state that they prefer sandy soils – which aren’t that abundant in Wales.  So far, I haven’t been able to find the answer.

In general, these chafers are not a serious pest.  The bumbling adults will chomp on the edges of almost any vegetation, but they’re not around for long and don’t really do much damage (especially if the birds have their way).  Sometimes, but not usually, the grubs which develop in the soil and munch on plant roots, especially grasses, can be a bit of a nuisance, but on balance, if possible, try to leave the birds to sort them out.  They emerge just when the birds need a hearty feed for their hungry broods.

Also, beware if you pick a Welsh chafer up for a closer look, they are very quick to sink their jaws into anything that comes their way, including fingers.  It doesn’t really hurt, but it is quite a shock to feel the little guy chomping down on you and it will then hang tenaciously from wherever it has sunk its jaws!