blue tit © Mike Toms

Your Own Personal Nature Reserve

2nd August 2019

In our increasingly urbanised country many bird species have come to depend on gardens as oases necessary for survival. Jack Watkins examines a new book, ‘Garden Birds’ by Mike Toms, which explains why birds use gardens in the way they do…

It’s not known how or when humans first developed their interest in feeding wild birds. There are references to it in ancient Hindu writing, but nothing in this country until the 19th century. It must have taken off quite quickly, however, because by 1910 Punch magazine was identifying bird feeding as a national pastime. Enthusiasm for it has been growing ever since. Recent studies suggest over 50% of the population feeds birds, and the diversity of foodstuffs now available, including in general supermarkets, is remarkable. As Mike Toms, author of Garden Birds (William Collins, £35), the latest in the New Naturalist Library series, writes, the days of throwing out a few leftover scraps from the dining table to satisfy our feathered friends have long since passed.

Toms couldn’t be better qualified to write a book like this. He’s spent virtually his entire working life in the employ of the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), and has had a major involvement at the public end of its activities, including with the BTO’s annual Garden Bird Feeding and BirdWatch surveys which have, through volunteer participation, done so much to elevate our understanding of how birds use gardens.

Perhaps the most important point he makes is that while you might think your individual garden can be of small use to nature, it is worth seeing it is part of a wider landscape, offering a haven or habitat, or as a link within a longer chain of wildlife corridors across the ecological network of your locality.

Gardens are also the habitats through which many of us are best able to directly engage with nature at first hand. For those who seldom venture into the countryside they provide a rare opportunity to connect with the natural world. Studies have shown that access to the latter can lead to faster recovery times following surgery, as well as improved mental health and well-being. The latter seems likely to become even more important given the current direction of travel in our societies. According to Toms, ‘extinction of experience’ (that is the growing separation of humans from nature over time) is seen as one of the factors behind the increasing levels of stress, anxiety and depression that have led to the estimated 187 billion euros that are annually spent across Europe on dealing with it. It’s simple to conclude, then, that interacting with the birds in your garden, as well as in the wider landscape, is something to be greatly encouraged.

A lot of people are already doing it, and the relationships can become two-way. Toms’ book has some delightful references to unusual bird behaviour, such as that of the blackbirds who become so familiar with their feeders and so strongly associate them with the provision of food that that they wait for them to return from work, bang on windows, appear at back doors, or even enter the home to feed from the same bowl as the family pet. Many birds, especially blackbirds and robins, patiently lured by a supply of mealworms, so overcome their wariness of humans that they eventually take food from the hand.

Wildlife-friendly gardening is increasingly popular, and is the obvious way to encourage birds and other creatures, such as common toads and hedgehogs, into your garden. It’s worth remembering that different birds have different requirements and are attracted to different provision. To this end, there is a particularly informative final section in the book on each of the bird species most commonly be found in UK gardens. House sparrows are great bird table feeders, for example, whereas dunnocks, often misidentified as sparrows, are ground feeders, more likely to be seen foraging under the bird table than on it, and liking low, scrubby cover nearby. Blackbirds also prefer to feed on the ground, taking earthworms and other insects. If you want to encourage early nesting birds like song thrushes or blackbirds, having evergreen cover is a good idea. Tall, mature trees are favoured by the mistle thrush.

Among other nuggets of information to be found in Garden Birds is the fact that birds living in the wider countryside spend 85% of their time searching for food. You might conclude that birds living near a garden feeding station, by contrast, are quids in, but gardens can also be traps. One of the most obvious menaces is the cat, and the best thing any cat owner could do to reduce predation levels, is to attach a bell, or preferably two, to its collar. It’s also vital that bird feeding stations and baths are kept clean. The rise of salmonella in the past 40 years in wild birds coincides with the increasing trend for providing supplementary foods. Trichomonosis, where birds are unable to swallow, become fluffed up in appearance and seem reluctant to fly away from feeding stations, has had a particularly devastating effect on greenfinch and chaffinch populations in recent years. Both are big bird table feeders, though it is not yet understood why these two species are so especially susceptible to the disease.

Recommended regular cleaning of feeders and baths includes using a weak solution of domestic bleach (5% sodium hypochlorite), rinsing and then leaving to air dry before refilling.

This book is the definitive summation of our understanding of its subject to date and, as such, required reading for anyone interested in how we can make our increasingly urbanised environment work for birds and other wildlife, as well as for humans. It’s not a light read, but that’s in keeping with the New Naturalist series, whose stated aim, ever since first conceived just after 1945, is ‘to interest the general reader in the wildlife of Britain by recapturing the spirit of the old naturalists.’

For your further delectation I would like to recommend Garden Birds’ immediate predecessor in the series, ‘Gulls’ (William Collins, £35) which arrived a couple of months earlier, with a characteristically engaging cover design by Robert Gillmor. Author John C Coulson who, like Toms, has spent many years on his subject, tells us gulls are experts at recognising the voices of their partners and chicks, and investigates the phenomenon of the urban gull. Rather than being drawn into built-up areas by humans feeding them, he says they see rooftops as offering more nest security against mammal predators. It might be worth remembering that when you read the next news story about gulls terrorising some helpless couple every time they try to leave the house… or stealing miniature chihuahuas from the garden.

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