I suspect that most people get a lot of pleasure from feeding the birds in their gardens, as I do. It’s something around a third of us are involved in, usually on a regular basis, and on which we spend rather more than £200 million a year; a serious amount of money!
Inevitably such a phenomenon has attracted the attention of various social research groups who are interested in finding out why we do it and what the benefits might be. A recent article in the BTO’s Garden BirdWatch magazine Bird Table caught my attention, and I decided to have a read around the subject and see what I could find out.
You’ll not be surprised to hear that different people find different aspects of watching garden birds attractive. For some it is just movement and life in the garden – it’s the number of birds attracted rather than the species that matter. For others it’s looking for something different to tick off on their personal list, and it’s certainly true that the more you look the more you see. Certainly there are many occasions on which a particular bird is only in the garden for a matter of seconds: if you’re not looking at that moment you don’t see it. That in turn makes you wonder what else you might be missing – an addictive circle of curiosity thus forms!
Either way, it would seem that being out in the garden with birds all around you, or just sitting watching them visiting feeders and doing the things that birds do, reduces stress levels and improves mental health and general well-being.
But which birds are our favourites? There seems to be a spectrum, from Magpies and Sparrowhawks which many people hate, to Blackbirds and Robins, the latter crowned as our unofficial favourite, which almost everybody loves, possibly because they interact most closely with us, via Sparrows and Starlings which elicit mixed feelings, being boisterous, noisy and often greedy.
Apparently too, those birds we can name give us more pleasure and have a stronger beneficial effect on our well-being. (Do I hear a chorus of “how on earth do they work that one out” at this point?) Anecdotally it is also claimed that the knowledge needed to identify even many of our better known species is declining. This has a bearing on activities such as the annual Great Garden Bird Watch where anything small and brown is a sparrow – the wee brown jobbies as Billy Connelly probably never called them. Maybe bird recognition should go on the national curriculum!
Another aspect of all this feeding is the effect it has on the birds themselves. Our neighbours in Europe have quite a different take on feeding birds, a matter I’ll come back to in a future article. But there is clear evidence in a BTO study of Blackcap migration using Garden BirdWatch data, which shows that a combination of climate change and garden feeding has caused the majority of German Blackcaps to overwinter in southern England instead of around the Mediterranean as they used to. I’m far from sure that human activities which change the habits of supposedly wild birds can be called positive.
Nevertheless, I hope that you will continue to enjoy your garden birds!
If you find the lives of our garden birds to be of interest, and would like to join in and count the feathered occupants of your garden, please contact me or visit the BTO Garden BirdWatch website (www.bto.org/gbw). If you know of a local organisation who would like a talk on garden birds call: Mike Gray 07596 366342 or firstname.lastname@example.org