Thursday, 31 December 2009

What are we creating?

We feed the birds here at the farm - in fact the farmer spend enormous amounts of money on buying sunflower hearts, mixed seed, peanuts and fat balls in bulk once a month. He fills all the containers and puts scraps on the bird table every morning at about half past eight - the birds are waiting in the bushes alongside the feeders long before that time, as soon as it is light in fact. And by dusk it has all gone. We have a huge variety of birds - greenfinch, goldfinch, chaffinch, coal tit, blue tit, great tit, long-tailed tit, robin, blackbird, mistle thrush, collared dove, wood pigeon, stock dove, spotted woodpecker, jackdaw, crow, magpie, occasional jay - plus all kinds of odd ones at times. This morning we had nineteen blackbirds feeding on the grass under the feeders (the farmer scatters three or four handfuls of food down for them as they prefer not to go on the table itself). This has been the case for the last few years. The blackbirds largely disappear during the summer months but the rest keep coming and also bring their families when they hatch out in Summer. Sometimes I wonder whether they will forget to forage for food, relying as they do on our handouts. In fact I wrote to our RSPB along these lines a few months ago and they assured me that the birds would forage as soon as the weather improved. Well we did have a poor summer last year but I can't say I noticed any reduction in the numbers at the feeders, apart from the blackbirds.
Today in The Times, Matthew Parris echoes my worries when he says that he is concerned that he is creating an "avian micro welfare state" and wonders what effect this is having on natural selection. He says that those birds who forage all year round in the hedgerows would, under the rules of natural selection, be the ones to survive the harsh winter and would then pass on these strong genes to their offspring. He thinks he may be sponsoring a "feathered dependency culture". I must say I tend to agree with this view. But of course, we get such pleasure from watching the birds at the feeders and from knowing that we help a large section of our local bird population to survive the harsh conditions. So we shall continue to feed them - to withdraw food now would be catastrophic. But I do sometimes wonder what effect this has in the giant scheme of things. Do you have an opinion on this issue? If so I would like to hear it.


Leilani Lee said...

Feeding birds is one of my greatest pleasures in life, and I have often wondered about this problem myself. I have it on authority from a conservation person that when we quit feeding birds, they spread out and resume natural foraging because the instinct is there. It makes me nervous though in the Spring, when mothers bring their babies to the feeders to feed them, so I do dramatically reduce the amount I put out so the young ones will also know where to find natural food

Bonnie, Original Art Studio said...

I have oftened wondered about this too Pat. We really do have to think about the small things we do - even when motivated by compassion. The tiniest gesture can have huge ripple effects - and often not the ones we intended. Great post!!!

Golden West said...

My parents' biggest indulgence is buying bird feed! They have all manor of feeders and blue jays that take peanuts right out of their hands. The birds are a source of much delight.

I limit my bird feeding to hummingbirds, who come around for sugar water.

Hard to say what the impact is on the bigger scheme of things. The hawks and owls over the hill where my parents live probably appreciate having their prey all gathered together for easier pickings.

jinksy said...

Birds are scarce in this little urban backwater and I've got tired of sweeping up bird seed that's been totally ignored - it's a lost cause!

willow said...

We enjoy feeding our sweet little feathered friends in the winter, too. (and squirrels)

Warm, woolly wishes for a wonderful 2010~!

steven said...

weaver - we're not separate from nature, we're a part of it and so i know that whatever we do has an effect on the whole. i do what i can in my small part of the world to help see animals through the winter. it likely means that a couple more bunnies, squirrels and chipmunks live through to the spring. i can't measure the effect that has on the local ecology good or bad. but it feels right to do it. have a lovely warm new year's eve in the dale. steven

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Many animals populate a given area to the extent the available food allows. Your farmer would know all about this. A certain open range where the grass is sparse or the available species of grass and forbs are nutritionally inferior, might require 25 acres per cow. So 1000 acres could sustain only 40 head of cattle. Another pasture might be lush, verdant with good grasses, capable of sustaining cattle at 1 per 5 acres, or 160 cows on that 1000 acres.

So—is feeding birds catering to their lazy streak, or simply providing a richer range?

I don't quite buy the characterization of "welfare state" birds. To me that implies laziness on the part of the birds, when in fact, they're simply being wiser by foraging where they can gain their highest caloric input for the least expenditure of energy. Would sending them on their way to fend for themselves in the hedgerows create healthier, heartier birds, or simply a smaller number of the same health-level birds?

I think the latter is the obvious answer. Which then begs the question (since we're not getting "better" birds, only fewer birds) is there anything wrong in having those bonus birds around?

Denser populations sometimes allow for easier spread of disease. But birds are mostly "flock" creatures by nature, prone to gathering in numbers, whether under a feeder or a hedgerow. More important, the numbers of any given species are more likely to now be greatly reduced from their historic levels. A flock of sparrows under the feeders might today number 50, while 200 years ago a flock feeding in the wild might have numbered 500.

Also, it seems to me we humans have an incumbent responsibility for doing all we can to help our dwindling bird populations. A single office building can account for thousands of dead birds over the course of a year. A power-line tower can kill hundreds. And these are but two of the thousands of examples of environmental changes we inflict upon birds—from landscaping to loss of habitat to poisons we spread, etc., etc., etc. Given the havoc we wreak, the wonder is that a single bird survives. So…maybe feeding the birds does create an unnatural boost in their population; I doubt these few extra birds come anywhere close to making up for the increase in the overall annual loss. We all happily lobby for new technology, with our dollars if not our votes. We love cell phones, and want them to work. So the communication companies build more phone towers…which kills more birds. Life is not played out in a vacuum; there is no free ride. I'm not throwing stones from my glass house. I have a cell phone and depend on it; I'm part of the problem. But I also firmly believe that if there's any possibility, however remote, that I can offset just a smidgen of the damage I do, albeit inadvertently, along the way, then I'll do what I can.

Bottom line, I say feed the birds. Enjoy their daily visits. Give back what you can, when you can…and don't allow the pundits to question your pleasure or intentions. Beside, the more you learn about something, the more familiar you become by watching—and showing friends and family, anyone who visits—the more apt you are to care about it and make informed decisions. A bird in the hedgerow is out of sight and out of mind—and when it comes to voting for that new office complex or roadway or whatever, will you be as quick to remember and care?

Heather said...

My husband feeds the birds every morning before breakfast and we have a wide variety of feathered visitors. I read somewhere that the RSPB (I think) is in favour of us feeding them throughout the year but, like so many other things, I daresay there are conflicting opinions even among the experts.

Janet said...

I have an acre and a quarter which is the original homestead and farmyard of the acreage behind me, which is no longer attached. Over the years I have encouraged this property to grow wild and it harbours an active and varied group of wildlife. I have never fed birds, feeling it is better for them to forage naturally, but have encouraged the growth of a habitat to support that foraging. I love watching the varied birds that are attracted here despite the fact that I do not feed them, and am amazed at the vartied larger animals that I also see here.
Best wishes for a healthy and prosperous New Year.

Dominic Rivron said...

I must say I haven't a clue, but it sounds like the sort of rubbish columnists dream up to fill their weekly space up with. The world is full of species which are dependent on each other.

What would happen to fleas if hedgehogs died out? Should hedgehogs worry about this? What makes us think we're any different?

Just because we instinctively "want" to feed the birds doesn't make it "wrong". We should trust our instincts, if we really want to acknowledge our place in the animal kingdom.

C Hummel Kornell a/k/a C Hummel Wilson said...

Great food for thought, Weaver. We feed the birds where ever we are. It's not only for our own enjoyment (although we have a lot of fun watching them) but we made a conscious decision that our assistance might be necessary given how many of our feathered friends meet their demise due to pesticides, insecticides, etc. which are not a "natural" part of their environment. If you assist in sustaining healthy birds, then I believe you are providing a much needed service to nature. Kudos to your Farmer and You!

HelenMHunt said...

I don't feed birds because of the cats. I fear that encouraging birds into my garden would be the complete opposite of a welfare state!

Sal said...

An interesting post... and food for thought!
We feed the birds and they give us such pleasure all year round. We did have an interesting discussion yesterday about whether we should feed them bread!
I think they are probably glad of anything right now though.
A very Happy New Year !

Cloudia said...

We have so imperiled them that it is now our duty to assist them!

Aloha, Weaver
Hauoli Makahiki Hou (Happy New Year)

Comfort Spiral

Moonstone Gardens said...

We feed the birds in the winter and the shoulder seasons when food is scarce. Then we slowly wean them off of the feeders when there is natural food for them. We also make an effort to plant food plants for them, such as echinacea, mullein, berry plants, etc.
We don't get too upset when hawks visit the feeders because we know they are taking the weakest and the slowest.
Work with nature and all will be fine.

Leenie said...

A lot of food for thought and food for our fellow creatures. I posted my own experience with feeding ducks on my blog.

Happy 2010 Weaver!

Granny Sue said...

We feed the birds too, Weaver, but not a lot. The biggest worry I have is that the wild birds love the dry dog food and cat food we put out for our animals. It can't be good for them, but how to keep them out of it?

Raph G. Neckmann said...

I'm sure it is better to feed them than not to, as long as it is with appropriate food.

I like what Dominic Rivron says about fleas and hedgehogs!

Happy New Year, dear Weaver, may your 2010 be nexcellent, and I look forward to your blogposts throughout the year!

dinesh chandra said...

Happy New Year 2010.

I like the post.


Dinesh Chandra

The Weaver of Grass said...

There are a lot of words of wisdom here. Well worth reading all the comments to build up a picture of peoples' views on the subject. Seems we all love our birds - they give us so much pleasure - the least we can do is feed them. I think Scribe nicely sums up the situation much better than I could, so I leave it at this. Thank you for all your comments.

BT said...

That is an interesting thought, Weaver. We feed the birds too and worse than worrying about the natural selection, one of our cats has taken to catching them. I can't really do anything about this, but I do feel bad. Robins in particular are so trusting you can almost touch them. Luckily today he caught a large rat, so I don't feel so bad. Jim's daughter works for the RSPB so I shall ask her opinion too.

PS Matthew Paris used to be our MP and president of our Operatic Society!

BT said...

This is from my step daughter who works for the RSPB:

'The blogger's views are interesting. I tend to think that feeding the birds is just helping them rather than making them dependent on us for food. I'm sure the birds that feed in her area don't solely feed from feeders, so they wouldn't forget how to forage. And if feeding them means that more survive than would ordinarily, then that's surely a good thing. In the past, farmland birds would have fed on grain etc that was dropped, and fed on weed seeds in fields. Changes in farming mean that food source isn't as readily available, so there have been massive declines in farmland birds since the 70s and more intensive farming. So there have always been close links between people and birds, we're just more deliberate about feeding the birds now.'

So there you have it - get feeding!!

Crafty Green Poet said...

I would say given all that we have done to destroy the birds natural environments the least we can do is offer them feeding stations...