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Feeding Birds

Many of us feed the birds in our gardens, perhaps to enjoy their company, to help them through the ardours of winter and the breeding season, or simply because "my mum used to feed them". However, among those who do not feed them, there are some who believe to do so is wrong.

Who's right? Here are some of the arguments for and against.


Some argue that feeding the birds is interfering with nature, especially as most of the foods we provide would not be part of their natural diet, for example, peanuts and sultanas. Does this matter so long as it provides the essential carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals?

Further, both the RSPB and BTO now approve feeding the birds all year round, the justification for this being that:

  • During the spring, the female can be using half of her energy to produce eggs and the male will be defending his mate and territory from other birds.
  • In the summer, our hand-outs supplement the adult bird's diet, reduces competition between birds and allows them to feed the young with more of the natural food that they are foraging for. After breeding many of the birds are in poor condition and will moult their feathers.
  • At the start of autumn, many of our summer visitors need to build up fat reserves that will see them through their migration to wintering grounds in the Mediterranean and Africa.
  • The cold weather and short days of the winter months mean that birds can find it difficult to find enough food to survive. Small birds, such as those that visit our gardens, need to eat 30 to 40% of their body weight daily to survive.

On the other hand, we can provide the birds with sources of natural food by planting native and fruit bearing plants, such as thistles, rowan and alder, and cease to use insecticides and herbicides, which kill insects and weeds respectively.


In addition, the birds may become dependent on the food put out for them instead of foraging for it in their natural habitats. Indeed, some species of birds should not appear at feeders, such as Marsh Tit and Treecreeper, as they are no longer in their usual habitat.

Huge areas of countryside and ancient broadleaved woodland have been lost to agriculture, industry and housing:

  • Conversion of woodland to agriculture has seen birds such as Hawfinch and Woodcock decline.
  • Clearing of heath and scrub for grazing has affected game bird populations.
  • Removal of hedgerows has seen Song Thrush, Yellowhammer and Corn Bunting populations decline.
  • Use of chemicals - pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides - has devastated the insect populations that birds like Skylarks feed on, and plants like thistles that Goldfinches feed on.

Some species, however, have thrived because of these changes. Magpie and Carrion Crow populations have increased in rural areas, as have Siskins and Coal Tits in the extensive conifer plantations.


The abundance of food at feeding stations can encourage large numbers of birds. Consequently, there will be more sick birds and droppings and so the risk of spreading disease increases.

Some disease (and poisons) can be in the food we buy for the birds, for example aflatoxin in peanuts, so it is important to buy safe foods from reputable suppliers. Similarly, mouldy food can cause problems, though birds often do eat mouldy natural foods without harm.

Likewise, it is important not to feed certain foods. For example, salty foods, such as salted peanuts, can kill birds. Also, dehydrated foods like desiccated coconut are harmful, because the birds need to drink lots of water and the dried foods swell inside them.

Overfeeding can encourage undesirable flocks of some species such as Starling and pigeons, and also encourage rats. Damp grain and bread can be contaminated with the mould Aspergillus fumigatus, which when inhaled by birds can be fatal.

In turn, garden feeding also increases predation by raptors, like the Sparrowhawk, and cats. The Sparrowhawk is a natural predator and the smaller birds are its natural prey, however, you can provide plant cover around your feeding areas to help the small birds escape and hide. Domestic cats, on the other hand, have been introduced by people, but they are not liked by everyone and so there are measures that can be taken to deter cats (see Cat Deterrents).


Some species of birds have been dependent on other species, including man, for centuries. This dependency, where one species, the "attendant", relies on another, the "beater", to stir up prey is called commensal feeding. For example, Robins have followed the gardener who is digging the soil and revealing earthworms, and gulls and crows have followed the farmer's plough.

If feeding stopped tomorrow, apart from the brief upset to their foraging habits, scientists believe that we would be more likely to see the northern ranges of some species contract rather than extinction.

And Finally...

The decision is yours, but the consensus is that feeding the garden birds does more good than harm.