Feeding garden birds has become one of the most popular pastimes in the UK. Scientists at British Trust for Ornithology and Exeter University have now revealed that our love of birds is really making a difference and in ways you might not have imagined. We are impacting avian behaviour and ecology but also the evolution of many species.
Longer beaks snaffle more food
Evolution generally progresses slowly with changes appearing over the course of thousands or millions of years. But with our garden birds, changes have occurred over just a few decades. Their bills have grown noticeably longer as birds adapt to an easy source of food – bird feeders. Birds with longer beaks can snaffle more food than their shorter-billed rivals and boast a better survival rate. They then pass the useful attribute to their offspring.
Changes to migration routes
Avian behaviour is changing dramatically too. For instance, the Blackcap used to migrate from central Europe to Spain and North Africa but now heads to the UK instead due to the bountiful supply of food. There are rich pickings to be had in urban gardens and it hasn’t taken long for birds to discover this.
From scraps to banquets
We have been feeding scraps to birds for centuries in the UK but it wasn’t until the 1980s that an impressive array of foods and feeders became available. The nutritious food began to attract a greater number of species to gardens. Where no more than a dozen different birds would have been seen, you could now spot over 100 species courtesy of the spectacular bird buffets.
Springwatch, mealworms and feeding throughout the year
In 2005, the TV programme Springwatch showcased garden birds and inspired even more people to invest in bird feeders. During one episode, Bill Oddie suggested providing mealworms for adult birds who needed to feed their chicks. This sparked a nationwide shortage of mealworms! The series also demonstrated that we should feed birds throughout the year.
Disrupting the ecosystem
Bird feeders can have the unfortunate side effect of benefitting larger and more aggressive species to the detriment of other birds who would have naturally inhabited our gardens. This issue can be tackled by ensuring that your garden is planted with shrubs which provide natural sources of food. Berry bushes give birds choices and could mean that all species find their fair share of goodies without having to compete against each other.
The benefits of feeding birds
There are other fabulous benefits of feeding birds which are often overlooked. Feeders help people to connect with nature and to value our native species. Disabled and elderly people who can’t visit the countryside are able to continue connecting with nature on their own doorsteps.
Who would have thought it? Feeding birds has inspired significant changes in behaviour and has accelerated evolution. In helping birds to survive, we have changed their lives in unexpected ways while gaining a great amount of enjoyment ourselves. It is vital that we continue to explore the impact of bird feeding so that we do what is best for the birds. We are meddling in nature for the right reasons but should guard against the unintended consequences of our actions which disrupt the ecosystem.