Garden bird feeders are boosting blue tit numbers – but leaving other species hungry

Jack Shutt– Postdoctoral Research Associate in Conservation Ecology, Manchester Metropolitan University

A blue tit clinging to a hanging string of peanuts.

I’ve filled feeders with seeds and nuts since I was a child and I’ve always loved seeing which birds arrive. I’m not alone – around half of all UK households do the same nowadays, spending £250 million on 150,000 tonnes of bird food each year. That’s enough to feed three times the breeding populations of the ten commonest garden species if they ate nothing else all year, with one feeder for every nine birds that use them.

Have you ever wondered how all of that additional food might be affecting wild birds? How much has our generosity changed their natural diet, and what of the bird species we don’t see visiting garden feeders?

If you live in the UK, one garden visitor you’re probably used to seeing is the blue tit. Blue tits are small, fast and often feed high in trees on tiny insects. Seeing exactly what they eat is tough. But with new molecular technology, we were able to test blue tit poo from 39 woodlands across Scotland – some close to houses, some on remote mountainsides and some by the sea – and gain a fascinating insight into their average diet.

What myself and fellow researchers found surprised us. A small moth caterpillar that lives on birch trees was their most common natural prey item, present in a third of the poos we sampled. But among hundreds of species of insect prey, we also found garden bird food – and lots of it.

Peanuts were present in half of all the poos – the most common food item for Scottish blue tits – and sunflower seeds in a fifth. And the birds weren’t just popping next door to find these garden treats. Some were travelling as much as 1.4km from remote areas to nibble on their favourite garden snacks. Clearly this has become part of their staple diet.

A blue tit bonanza

Eating the food we provide gives blue tits more energy to lay eggs – five days earlier than blue tits that don’t. These earlier breeders are likely to raise more healthy chicks. Eating bird food was also linked to a nearly four-fold increase in the proportion of adults available to breed in a given area. Where there used to be one pair of blue tits nesting, garden bird feeders nearby meant there was now likely to be almost four pairs sharing the same space.

Other woodland species such as great tits, nuthatches and great spotted woodpeckers that enjoy garden bird food are doing very well too. Their UK populations have increased on average over the last 25 years that bird feeding has really taken off.

All this feeding might be giving these species an unfair advantage. These species have natural competitors in the woods that aren’t using bird feeders as much or at all, either because they’re shy or because they’re bullied by more dominant species, or because they don’t like the food people provide. These species include the marsh tit, willow tit, pied flycatcher, wood warbler and lesser spotted woodpecker. What’s happening to them is, sadly, not such good news.

A black and white woodpecker with red marking on head clinging to tree bark.
Lesser spotted woodpecker populations are declining in the UK. Risto Puranen/Shutterstock

How to help all woodland birds

On average, woodland birds that don’t use garden bird feeders have declined over the past 25 years, some to the point where they have almost disappeared from the UK countryside. Nobody knows exactly why, and while this may be partly due to their habitat fragmenting and the climate warming, garden bird-feeding may have also played a role.

Due to people feeding them, there are now more dominant blue and great tits in the woods than 25 years ago, eating more of the limited natural food and evicting other species from their nests. There are also more great spotted woodpeckers and squirrels, which eat the chicks of some birds. Perhaps an extra 700,000 pairs of very healthy and dominant great tits in woodlands is too much for the UK’s remaining 2,000 pairs of shy and subordinate willow tits.

While our results suggest there’s a link between how much woodland birds visit feeders and their population trends, they don’t show a direct cause, so we shouldn’t panic yet. While scientists study this problem, responsible bird lovers can help.

Consider contributing to the garden bird surveys organised by the RSPB and the British Trust for Ornithology to help scientists keep track of where birds are, in what numbers and what they’re doing. If you’re lucky enough to live where rare woodland bird species can still be found, consider providing less bird food to common species and cleaning your feeders regularly.

Read more: Why you may need to encourage social distancing around your bird feeder

Meanwhile, there are more natural ways to encourage wild birds into your garden. Planting native shrubs and trees like rowan, hawthorn, silver birch, spindle and guelder rose is one option. They are all beautiful year-round, fairly small and provide excellent habitats for wild birds. Other ideas include mowing lawns less often and digging ponds.

As some rare species nest close to the ground, please keep dogs on leads while walking in woodlands during the spring too. But most importantly, keep enjoying the UK’s beautiful birds – in all their miraculous diversity.

Greening the planet: we can’t just plant trees, we have to restore forests

Tristram Hales-Director, Sustainable Places Research Institute, Cardiff University

Benoit Goossens– Professor of Biology, Cardiff University

Mike Bruford– Professor of Organisms and Environment, Cardiff University

The Queen’s Green Canopy, a campaign to celebrate Elizabeth II’s platinum jubilee next year, involves asking people in the UK to plant trees: a “treebilee” as her son, Prince Charles puts it. This is one of a number of public and private campaigns underway, including initiatives by big corporations from Nestle to Audi which are also planting millions of trees in an attempt to mitigate a portion of their environmental impact.

But, at a much smaller scale, there are thousands of community reforestation projects around the word whose goals differ depending on the environment and desires of local people. For example, planting native trees along the Kinabatangan river in Borneo can support local ecotourism businesses, while forest projects on the east coast of New Zealand are designed to protect agricultural soils from erosion.

Local context makes each community project unique and of more value, as people are more likely to plant the right trees in the right places for the right purpose. But these projects cost money and securing financing can be challenging when funders are so often focused on measurable goals and on removing carbon from the atmosphere to offset emissions-generating activities. Inevitably, small local projects bear the brunt, incurring the steep cost of monitoring and certification.

In 2019, we developed Regrow Borneo, a community-based reforestation project in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, that thrust us into this complicated world. Our work prompted us to examine these trade-offs from the perspective of the cost of trees, the importance of traditional knowledge and the price of reforestation.

Our mission is to share knowledge and inform decisions.

Cost of trees v value of forests

The number of trees planted is often seen as an indicator of the success of reforestation projects. We’ve all seen adverts suggesting that if we buy a product a company will plant a tree to offset the cost of producing the item. Trees are relatively easy to count and, if planted in the right place, may reflect successful restoration. But reforestation occurs over hundreds of years and poorly managed projects that plant millions of trees can sometimes end with the majority dying.

That is why successful forest restoration projects take a long-term approach, through comparing progress to existing forests, taking “before and after” snapshots, and measuring the social cost and benefits. But none of this can be captured by counting trees. A tree census will not tell you about the health of the ecosystem, soil, insect, bird or mammal populations. Neither will it tell you about a loss or gain of economic opportunities for local communities, their health, or spiritual wellbeing. We need new measures for evaluating projects, but none of these approaches is as simple, or easily explained to funders as a tree census.

Regrow Borneo plans to measure success in terms of restored forest area – a simple metric for reporting to donors that can be independently verified by drone footage or through advanced satellite and airborne technologies that can measure how the restored ecosystem functions.

Synergy between science and local knowledge

Effective forest restoration relies on a combination of scientific understanding, knowledge and experience. In the case of Regrow Borneo, the rich local knowledge allows us to predict how fast particular species grow, which species provide food for animals (such as orang-utans) and which are flood tolerant.

The most effective local projects rely on this knowledge throughout their lifespan. But incorporating knowledge into measures of success for projects is difficult because often it simply can’t be measured. Demanding scientific rigour in local projects can lead communities to abandon this knowledge, which can reduce the effectiveness of the projects. The problem is that science needs to catch up and design better ways of incorporating this knowledge into its experiments.

A baby orangutan peeping out from behind a tree in a rainforest in Borneo.
Reforestation helps protect endangered species such as the orangutan. Ignacio Salaverria/Shutterstock

Who pays?

The goals of community reforestation projects and those of funders don’t always align, which can place a huge burden on the community involved. Funders are sometimes focused on paying a fixed price that might cover planting a tree – but it cannot cover ensuring that a healthy tree flourishes. Other funders concerned about their reputation seek guarantees from projects through checks, certification and monitoring, which – though commendable – may not capture the whole picture of “success”.

For example, companies which burn carbon are allowed to offset this by paying forest projects for the amount of carbon they store. In return, companies want guarantees, so will seek projects that are independently certified. The rules of certification are designed to protect forests, but can also limit local access to forest resources and benefits. And the cost of certification and staff training falls on the projects themselves.

Models in which funders coordinate and pay for monitoring may help overcome some of the financial barriers for small projects. Within Regrow Borneo it has so far been difficult to develop a viable price for reforesting a healthy hectare as our commitment to fair wages, monitoring growth and replacing trees lost to flooding or eaten by monkeys can seriously raise costs.

Riskier reforestation sites such as carbon-rich peat swamps and nature reserves involve frequent monitoring for biodiversity, adding further costs and pushing prices well above the rate that carbon is traded. Every community has different wage expectations, every forest requires different resources to restore, so a single price per tree or per tonne of carbon is an unreasonable expectation.

As a restoration community, we believe in a change of thinking. We need to bridge the gap between funders and projects by reducing the barriers to financing small projects. Flexible funding models and less rigid certification processes support the development of community-based forestry initiatives in a more pragmatic way. Projects such as Trillion Trees or Restor that seek to network and fund community-based projects across the globe are excellent examples of good working models. Instead of funding a million trees, we should think of funding a million forests.

WHO Report – NAture, Biodiversity and Health: An overview of interconnections

Sponsored image

Image source Pixabay

Exeter academics author WHO “call to action” on nature, biodiversity and health – European Centre for Environment and Human Health | ECEHH

“Nature protects: it provides dynamic systems that mitigate climate change and defend humans against extreme events. When humans fails to protect nature, however, and fail to recognize the damage already done and still being done to the environment, it also threatens health and well-being.”

This new report from the team at the European Centre for Environment and Human Health, University of Exeter, looks at the interface between nature, environment and health and suggests fourteen action points for policy makers to adopt.

How Parking Destroys Cities

Parking requirements attack the nature of the city itself, subordinating density to the needs of the car.

Michael ManvilleAssociate urban-planning professor at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs

An empty parking lot

Lewis Mumford was suspicious of parking. “The right to access every building in a city by private motorcar,” he wrote in The City in History, “in an age when everyone owns such a vehicle, is actually the right to destroy the city.” Jane Jacobs, who disagreed with Mumford on many counts, agreed here. Parking lots, she said in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, were “border vacuums”: inactive spaces that deadened everything around them.

Mumford and Jacobs published those lines in 1961, when most United States cities were 15 years into an experiment called “minimum parking requirements”: mandates in zoning codes that forced developers to supply parking on-site to prevent curb congestion. In postwar America, development was booming, and neighbors were worried that new residents would make street-parking impossible. Decades later, parking requirements still exist nationwide. In Los Angeles, where I live, new apartment buildings must have at least one parking space per unit; retail buildings need one space per 300 square feet; and restaurants need one space for every 100 square feet of dining area.

Parking requirements enforce what Mumford decried: the right to access every building by private car. As Mumford predicted, they have been a disaster. American urban history is stained with tragic missteps and shameful injustices, so parking requirements are hardly the worst policy cities have tried. But they are notable for how much needless damage they have caused, over a long period, with few people even noticing.

The trouble with parking requirements is twofold. First, they don’t do what they’re supposed to, which is prevent curb congestion. Because curb parking is convenient and usually free, drivers fill up the curb first, no matter how much off-street space exists nearby. Second—and more consequential—parking requirements attack the nature of the city itself, by subordinating density to the needs of the car.

Cars revolutionized transportation by promising not just speed, but autonomy. Cars let you go wherever you want, whenever you want, by yourself and by a route of your choosing. But that promise is fulfilled only if everywhere you might go has a place to store the car whenever you arrive. A train drops a passenger off and keeps going. A driver drops a car off and keeps going. Thus most trains are mostly moving, while most cars are parked most of the time. The price of the car’s convenience, then, is the space it consumes when it isn’t in motion, and indeed even when it isn’t there. Cities designed for cars must set aside space: space to wait for cars, and space to hold them while they wait for their drivers to come back.

Parking minimums take the cost of that space—a cost that should be borne by drivers—and push it onto developers, hiding it in the cost of building. Sometimes this means a project can’t be built at all. At other times, it makes projects more expensive: In downtown L.A., parking usually costs developers more than $50,000 per space to build. Walt Disney Concert Hall, a cultural landmark that is home to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, cost $274 million to build. Of that total, the underground parking structure, which is not a cultural landmark (it’s an underground parking structure), accounted for $100 million.

Read more

Green social Prescribing- Networkshop

The recording of our latest Networkshop is available here:

The Programme was:

Part 1: Green Social Prescribing- The story so far

·      Welcome, introduction and the case for Green Social Prescribing- Nigel Boldero (NGCN)

·      A national perspective on Social Prescribing to date- Sian Brand/Tim Anfilogoff (Regional NHS leads on Social Prescribing)

·      Social Prescribing in Norfolk and Waveney– Rachel Hunt (Norfolk and Waveney Clinical Commissioning Group)

·      Questions

Part 2- Looking ahead

·      Natural England perspective on Green Social Prescribing and the national pilots- Giles Merritt (Natural England Eastern region)

·      The Dundee Green Health PartnershipDr.Viola Marx (Project lead)

·      Introduction to the National Academy for Social PrescribingJulie Ringer (Regional Coordinator- NASP)

·      Possible developments in Norfolk and Waveney- Nigel plus questions and discussion

·      Thanks and follow up- Nigel Boldero (NGCN)

Planning walking and cycling networks


Thursday, 27 May 2021 12:00-13:00


Crispin Cooper, Sustainable Places Research Institute

This seminar will demonstrate the latest simulation tools jointly developed by Cardiff University Sustainable Places Research Institute, Leeds University Institute for Transport Studies, and Sustrans – the charity making it easier for people to walk and cycle.

Book a place here

BBC Springwatch: Norfolk to host Chris Packham and Michaela Strachan

Springwatch presenters Chris Packham, Michaela Strachan, Gillian Burke and Iolo Williams
Springwatch’s Chris Packham and Michaela Strachan with fellow presenters Iolo Williams and Gillian Burke

The BBC’s Springwatch programme is to celebrate the best in British wildlife from a new home in Norfolk.

Presenters Chris Packham and Michaela Strachan will be at Wild Ken Hill, a sustainable farming project in the west of the county, it has been confirmed.

Stars of the show will be a colony of beavers that have been reintroduced as part of a rewilding project.

Two male beavers joined the already established females at the end of last year. It is hoped the pairs will mate.

Dominic Buscall, from Wild Ken Hill said: “We’re extremely excited to co-host Springwatch this year.”

The BBC programme will look at the farm, how it co-exists with nature and attempt to film the wildlife on the site.

There will be more than 30 remote cameras across its 4,000 acres, including one in a barn owl box.

Wild Ken Hill
Wild Ken Hill is a conservation and sustainable farming project on the west coast of Norfolk

Producer’s hope birds such as kestrels, skylarks and long-tailed tits will be captured by the cameras, as well as the Barbastelle bat, one of the UK’s rarest species of mammal.

The site is also home to brown hares, Exmoor ponies and Tamworth pigs.

Mr Buscall, the project manager at Wild Ken Hill, said the farm would be showcasing its “important and innovative work and hopefully providing a message of hope for the recovery of nature in Britain”.

Springwatch will also feature the work of wildlife rangers on the East Anglian fens.

The award-winning BBC Two wildlife show is no stranger to the region’s wildlife having previously been based at Pensthorpe in Norfolk from 2008 until 2010. It was also at Minsmere in Suffolk, from 2014 until 2016.

Springwatch begins on BBC Two on 25 May.

News from St. Martins

Nature and the environment is the theme of  Mental Health Awareness Week, which runs from May 10-16. Even small contacts with nature can reduce feelings of social isolation and be effective in protecting our mental health, and preventing distress.

This week we have been getting outside with the people we support, doing litter picks, nature walks and making bug hotels. We have enjoyed connecting with nature and noticing the small things around us and how they can impact on our mental health. We have access to an allotment plot, and regularly organise wellbeing walks and trips out to farms and parks. The comfort these things bring make a huge difference to our lives.

£3,150 raised at Bishop’s Garden event

Our fundraising event at the Bishop’s Garden last week was a great success. Thank you to all who attended and to the volunteers who helped the day run smoothly. The weather was glorious, our craft items sold like hotcakes and musicians from Notre Dame High School provided a wonderful atmosphere. We are delighted that £3,150 was raised for St Martins.

Cooking with kids at home saw a boom during lockdown – here’s why it needs to continue

Fiona Lavelle

Research Fellow in the Institute for Global Food Security, Queen’s University Belfast

A father teaches his son how to kneed dough on a kitchen surface
Cooking with your kids can provide valuable bonding time. Grekov’s | Shutterstock

For some parents, the suggestion that they let their kids do the cooking might have been fear-inducing. Scenes of the kitchen looking like a bomb site might have flashed before their eyes. There’s a good chance, though, that COVID-19 has changed all that.

During the pandemic, cooking with kids was routinely suggested in the media as both a learning aid and a distraction. To find out whether parents followed that advice, myself and some colleagues surveyed a cross-section of 718 parents from the UK, Ireland, the US and New Zealand for two months during 2020.

In our recently published study, we found that not only had children been cooking and baking, but that parents who included their children more frequently had a higher quality of diet. The question now is: was it just a good distraction while stuck at home, or should this continue?

Positive patterns and bonding

Learning to cook at a young age can set you up with positive dietary patterns for adulthood. Children tend to be more willing to eat vegetables and food in general when they’ve been involved in cooking it. This has implications both for making them healthier and reducing food waste.

Children also tend to take those cooking skills on into adulthood. They are essential life skills that promote confidence, responsibility and independence and enable children to make appropriate food choices as they continue to grow.

By cooking with your children, you’re also spending quality time together, doing something enjoyable and productive. This is important to hold on to as restrictions ease and there is a return to work.

Of course, enjoyment may not be the first word that springs to mind: mess might be more like it. But that mess just highlights that the children really are taking a hands-on approach, literally getting their hands dirty, which is a great way to learn. And teaching children how to clean up the mess properly after cooking is part of the whole process. The added bonus, of course, is that once they know how, the burden of cleaning won’t all fall on you anymore. You both might find the experience more enjoyable.

The extra time spent together during COVID-19 has been shown to strengthen bonds too. So cooking could be used more broadly as a way to build or strengthen relationships with your children.

In our research, we found both mums and dads using cooking to spend time with their children. In fact, children may even learn different tips and tricks or recipes from both parents. Furthermore, the kitchen provides an enticing antidote to the understandable yet concerning increase in screen-time during the pandemic, as well as the increase in sedentary behaviours.

How to get started

If the pandemic trend passed you by and you’re now wondering how to get your kids into the kitchen, we have developed a handy guide for what skills your children can be doing by which age. There are ways to involve even two-year-olds, so this is not something that has to wait until they are older.

A little girl in a red dress sits on a counter top stirring cake mixture to make cupcakes
If you’ve never cooked with your kids, baking is a good place to start. tanaphong toochinda | unsplash, FAL

Begin with the basics. Have them wash the vegetables and stir the pot. Let them help with the chopping – if you’re nervous about them handling sharp implements, start them out on plastic or butter knives and soft food to get them used to the movement. If savoury food isn’t sparking an interest, try a bit of baking instead. Who doesn’t love a homemade treat?

One particularly interesting finding from our research has been the relationship between including children in cooking more and parents having a better diet. This suggests two things. Either people who eat a better diet generally are more likely to include their children when cooking. Or including children makes parents pay more attention to what they eat.

If the latter, this may be due to parents trying to be positive role models for their children in how they prepare food, and what they actually eat too. It could be that parents try to choose healthier options or recipes with extra vegetables in order to expose their children to these ingredients.

Either way, including children in cooking may have a positive influence on what both you and your child eat. As an added bonus, by teaching children cooking skills, you are essentially training kitchen assistants, who will be able to help you with meal prep as they grow. Teach them how to peel and chop a carrot now, and get your dinner made for you in the future. Or at the very least, they will be able to get things started when you’re running late coming home from work.

Events from Wise Nature

Mindfulness and Ecotherapy Day

20th June 2021

Our base for the day will be a yurt on a meadow where we can enjoy wildlife. We will also venture out to a nearby ancient woodland.

On the day we will

  • Explore mindfulness and self-compassion practices
  • Have time for self-reflection and creativity
  • Allow periods of silence as well as time for sharing
  • Deeply experience our felt sense of relationship with Nature

Time: 10 am – 4 pm.

Date: 20th June

Location: Near Halesworth, Suffolk

Cost: Early Bird £30: After 6th June £40

Connecting People with Nature

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