Feeding birds in our gardens can be a rewarding and enjoyable hobby that provides a number of benefits not just for the birds, but for us as well. From providing food and shelter to promoting biodiversity, there are numerous reasons why we should consider feeding birds in our outdoor spaces.

One of the most obvious benefits of feeding birds is that it provides them with a source of food, particularly during the winter months when natural food sources may be scarce. Bird feeders filled with birdseed, suet, or other types of food can be a lifeline for our feathered friends, helping them to survive and thrive in harsh weather conditions. This in turn can help to support healthy populations of birds, which can play an important role in maintaining a balanced ecosystem by pollinating plants, controlling pests, and spreading seeds.

Goldfinch by Barry Curwen
Goldfinch by Barry Curwen

Each year the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch measures how well our garden birds are faring. It takes place at the end of January, asking householders to count the number of birds and species they see in their garden over the course of one hour. The helpful residents of Sidmouth passed their results on to me so that we can get a clearer picture of how our garden birds are doing in Sidmouth. This year saw a record 26 species recorded in one garden. The national results will not be published for several weeks yet, but locally we now have information for three consecutive years, and at first glance the results are quite positive. The numbers of most species are holding up well. Four species stood out as increasing, that’s great news. These four were Blue Tits, Long Tailed Tits, Dunnocks and Magpies. The sample size of our counts is not huge, so this gives little more than an indication; the increase in Dunnocks is the most creditable and considerably higher than in both previous years. Dunnocks are on the Amber List, meaning the health of their populations are of moderate concern, so this increase is particularly encouraging. 

Two species saw a downturn. One of these was the Wood Pigeon. Nationally the wood pigeon has been near the top of the most common species list for some time, with some data showing it peaking around 2015. In 2021 it was top of the Sidmouth Count but this year it is only 7th. Wood Pigeons are also on the Amber List, this certainly surprised me, but the Sidmouth numbers this year backs this up.

The other species is the House Sparrow. Equally high on the Sidmouth list two years ago, then forth last year and now the eleventh most abundant bird in Sidmouth. House Sparrows were recorded in only one third of the gardens this year. The House Sparrow is one of four species seen in our gardens that are on the Red List, meaning that they are in urgent need of help. The other three are Greenfinches, Herring Gulls, yes, I got that right, and Starlings.

House sparrow populations have fallen by 70% since the 1970s, that equates to 10 million pairs of birds. Feeding birds is an obvious way to help their populations, and bring pleasure to our gardens. But the keen gardener might also be using slug pellets, these can have the opposite effect; in gardens where metaldehyde slug pellets were used, house sparrow numbers were down by almost 40%.  A study reported in the Guardian newspaper found 25% fewer house sparrows when glyphosate was used regularly in gardens. Glyphosate is an ingredient found in commonly used herbicide brands such as Roundup or Gallup. We can help stop this decline by stop using these poisons, after all our gardens are our birds’ homes.

That the Wood Pigeon and the House Sparrow were both at the top of the list two years ago but now are significantly down, shows that there is no room for complacency even with our most popular species. 

Charles Sinclair

Image: Goldfinch by Barry Curwen

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