Magpie with small bird prey

Seeing a predator killing its prey can be difficult to witness but is a natural and essential part of the life cycle.

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Predation is an emotive and difficult topic for many, both the public and conservationists alike. However, we must acknowledge, understand and include it when addressing the complex and wide range of threats affecting UK songbirds It can become an particularly important issue when already at-risk populations are subjected to excessive levels of predation  

The predator-prey lifecycle

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Predator-prey cycles are part of the natural cycle of life. Predators consume prey species which allows them to be sufficiently healthy and nourished to reproduce. Then if or when the predators become too great in number, they die off because they don’t have enough resources (including prey food), hence prey numbers rise again. It’s a tale as old as time, numbers cycle over and over, and they are in constant flux.

Grey squirrel in urban park

    Many prey species have evolved to reproduce at a rapid rate and have large numbers of young, so that when an expected amount of young gets predated, the population continues. Similarly, predators tend to have fewer young and take longer to reach sexual maturity so that their numbers cannot get out of control.

    The issues for songbirds and other wildlife arise when factors out of their control interfere with this natural cycle.

    When predation can become an issue

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    When prey species are in drastic decline and are of conservation concern, any excess levels of predation can therefore further drive the population downwards. The cause of decline is a complex mix of factors for most species. Whilst predation in isolation, may not be the leading cause of decline in many cases if we can prevent excessive levels from happening, it may help species to recover.

    The impact of predation as one of the complex net of threats facing songbirds, is also variable depending upon the species and location.

    In species which nest on the ground, high levels of ground predation can destroy entire nests within a very short time, and solutions such as predator exclusion fencing have been used to mitigate this issue. Ground-nesting passerines are also more likely to undergo higher levels of predation compared to nests positioned in trees or shrubs. This low-level position makes the nests accessible to a variety of mammalian predators that cannot reach higher nests. Of those that nest in bushes and trees, open cup nesting species fare worse than cavity nesters.

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    Domestic cat predation

    The predation of animals by introduced species has led to local extinction in island environments all over the world. The domestic cat is an introduced predator, and they exist in such high numbers, with over 12 million cats estimated in the UK. Research estimates range from 100-270 million prey items (including rodents and reptiles) taken by domestic cats each year and the impact of this on songbird populations is of great concern and a key focus of SongBird Survival’s scientific research. We now know that much of this predation can be prevented through 4 simple steps by using our solutions:

    • Play with your pet cats for 5-10 minutes each day to stimulate them and reduce the number of prey brought home by 25%.
    • Feed your cat with premium meat-rich protein foods to reduce prey brought home by 36%
    • Fit your cat with a brightly coloured collar, such as a BirdsBeSafe or stopcat. These collars reduce birds captured by over 40%!
    • Keep your cat in during the night if you can from #DuskTillDawn to give our birds a chance through the breeding season. Other options include catios and fencing by ProtectaPet that keep cats in gardens and reduce roaming.

    Any help we can give our feathered friends has to be worth a try, so if you have a cat at home, try some of these out to help the birds in your garden. Check out our our #FriendsNotFood campaign for more information and take our pledge.

    Ginger cat with songbird prey

    How can predation be reduced to benefit songbirds?

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    Depending upon the situation there are a variety of options which exist, including an ever-wider range due to developments in science and technology. Any predator control must be necessary, legal and done in such a way as to cause the minimum suffering or distress.

    • Management of habitat can be an invaluable tool to stop predators from accessing at-risk nests. Hedgerow structure can influence nest survival rate and studies have shown that hedgerows that are older and managed every few years have high levels of chick survival in the nesting stages. Cutting hedgerows can help to maintain a dense and woody structure and limit visibility of nests from corvids and other predators.
    • Predator guards on nest boxes have been shown to improve nesting success in birds. An American study found that nest success increased by 7%.
    • Predator exclusion fencing has been used in wading species and has helped to significantly increase the breeding productivity of lapwings.
    • Diversionary feeding has been used with birds of prey in the past and can be successful in deterring them from feeding on seabirds and wader eggs.
    • Predator management may be needed when at-risk populations are detrimentally affected by predation by a species.
    • Gene editing technology is an interesting and developing area which may provide a humane solution to reduce invasive species which are impacting disproportionately on wildlife and nature.
    Squirrel proof bird feeder with blue tit

    What can you do to help?

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    Provide birds with a safe place to live in your own garden or in your local area. Follow some of our tips below to get started.

    • Put up nest boxes in your garden; there are different types for all different species, check out our advice to provide and position the safest homes here [link to nest boxes]
    • Plant trees and hedges in your garden if you have space to provide food and shelter for bird species
    • Use bamboo canes near feeders to stop predators from being able to get to birds so easily
    • Site bird feeders away from walls or fences
    • Use a guard’n’eyes scarecrow or feeder guards
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    Bailey, R.L., Bonter, D.N. (2017) Predator guards on nest boxes improve nesting success of birds. Wildlife Society Bulletin. 41(3): 434-441.

    Blasius, B., Rudolf, L., Weithoff, G., Gaedke, U., Fussmann, G.F. (2020) Long-term cyclic persistence in an experimental predator–prey system. Nature. 577:226-230.

    Dunn, J.C., Gruar, D., Stoate, C., Szczur, J., Peach, W.J. (2016) Can hedgerow management mitigate the impacts of predation on songbird nest survival? Journal of Environmental Management. 184(3): 535-544.

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    Malpas, L.R., Kennerley, R.J., Hirons, G.J.M., Sheldon, R.D., Ausden, M., Gilbert, J.C., Smart, J. (2013) The use of predator-exclusion fencing as a management tool improves the breeding success of waders on lowland wet grassland. Journal for Nature Conservation. 21(1): 37-47.

    Mason, L.R., Green, R.E., Hirons, G.J.M., Skinner, A.M.J., Peault, S.C., Upcott, E.V., Wells, E., Wilding, D.J., Smart, J. (2021) Experimental diversionary feeding of red kites Milvus milvus reduces chick predation and enhances breeding productivity of northern lapwings Vanellus vanellus. Journal for Nature Conservation. 64(126051):

    Newson, S.E., Rexstad, E.A., Baillie, S.R., Buckland, S.T., Aebischer, N.J. (2010). Population changes of avian predators and grey squirrels in England: is there evidence for an impact on avian prey populations? Journal of Applied Ecology. 47(2): 244-252

    Owens, I.P.F., Bennett, P.M. (2000) Ecological basis of extinction risk in birds: Habitat loss versus human persecution and introduced predators. PNAS. 97(22): 12144-12148

    Peach, W.J., Ratcliffe, N., Smith, K.W., Summers, R.W., Walton, P., Wilson, J.D. (2007) The predation of wild birds in the UK: a review of its conservation impact and management. RSPB Research Report no 23. RSPB, Sandy.

    PFMA (2022, March 18). Pet population 2021. Pet Food Manufacturers Association.

    Pirie, T.J., Thomas, R.L., Fellowes, M.D.E. (2022) Pet cats (Felis catus) from urban boundaries use different habitats, have larger home ranges and kill more prey than cats from the suburbs. Landscape and Urban Planning. 220:

    Roos, S., Smart, J., Gibbons, D.W., Wilson, J.D. (2018) A review of predation as a limiting factor for bird populations in mesopredator-rich landscapes: a case study of the UK. Biological Reviews. 93(4): 1915-1937.

    Smart, J., Amar A. (2018) Diversionary feeding as a means of reducing raptor predation at seabird breeding colonies. Journal for Nature Conservation. 46:48-55.

    Woods, M., McDonald, R.A., Harris, S. (2003) Predation of wildlife by domestic cats Felis catus in Great Britain. Mammal Review. 33: 174– 188.

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