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Bird feeding

February 16, 2024
Charlotte Bartleet-Cross

Garden bird feeding

In 2022, a survey by the PFMA showed that over 58% of people with outdoor spaces feed garden birds. Feeding garden birds has been shown to be a relaxing hobby for some, making people feel more connected to nature and wildlife in an increasingly urban environment. However, recent research has cast doubt on whether garden bird feeding is doing more harm than good.

How has garden bird feeding changed?

Over the years, garden bird feeding has become more and more popular, with over £250,000,000 spent on bird food each year. Many people fed only during the wintertime, when natural food sources were few and far between, but this has now expanded to daily feeding routines, with multiple feeders and cameras to capture our feathered friends munching away.

Changes in bird populations

Habitat loss is a major factor affecting our bird communities, with increasing urbanisation, large swathes of land are being converted from green spaces to concrete jungles. This loss of habitat also means a loss of available natural food, and birds rely more and more on food provisioned for them by humans to make up for the natural food that has been lost.

However, the changes in bird populations across this same period are curious. Many generalist species like great tits and blue tits have expanded rapidly across the UK, whilst specialist species (that do not use garden bird feeders), like the willow tit, have continued to decline. We have essentially created a garden oasis for generalist species, but we wonder if it may be at the expense of others. Blue tits were responsible for 40% of all nest failures of willow tits in one study, by evicting them from their nesting cavities. Are the growing number of blue tits related to our garden bird feeding habits and the decline in others? Only further scientific research will be able to tell us.


Many of us know that keeping our bird feeders and bird bath’s clean is a top priority, as disease can spread quickly in our garden birds if they visit a feeder. ‘Trichomonosis’ is a disease that commonly affects finches, and affected birds can have issues with swallowing food, often seen drooling or with swollen necks. The disease can be passed through regurgitated food or contaminated food or water. In recent years, it has been shown that garden bird feeders are a huge source of transmission, due to the high numbers of birds that congregate there. Cleaning regularly, or removing the feeders all together may be necessary when disease is prevalent within gardens, as the only way to stop the spread.

So, what should you do to keep you garden birds safe?

We can only do our best with the information that we have, and the picture around garden bird feeding being a positive thing for wildlife is rather unclear. Planting natural food sources that help birds throughout the year will always be the best option for our garden birds. This eliminates problems with high rates of disease transmission and reduces the cost for those provisioning birds at home. We realise this may not always be possible, but if you can, providing natural food sources in berry bushes, flowers and trees is always the best choice.

Otherwise, we would recommend focusing your feeding to only the most difficult times of year, like winter, where natural food sources are scarce, and birds need a helping hand. If you live close to farmland, provisioning for our declining farmland birds with millet, grain and seeds is beneficial, due to the changes in agriculture taking away their major food sources.

The SBS Team

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