Feeding the birds. Here in Britain, we love to! Every year, between £200,000,000 and £300,000,000 is spent on bird food. Roughly 50% of all British households feed their feathered tenants. Your typical rural country cottage, with its beautifully manicured flowerbeds and white-washed walls wouldn’t be complete without a birdfeeder or two nodding in the garden.
But does feeding the birds actually help? And more specifically, does it help House Sparrows?
Well, the very short, at a glance answer is yes. Through the lean times when scraping together enough food to stay alive is difficult, having somewhere birds can go to knowing they’ll find food can be a lifeline. Collectively, the bird food the British public give out annually has the potential to support 196,000,000 birds-almost half of all those in our countryside.
However, a large part of this is thanks to one type of bird-food: mealworms. Over the years, countless studies have shown that, when birds are provisioned with food like seed, grain and suet, there’s very little change in their breeding, fledging, or survival rates. In other words, if you’re leaving out suet, grain, seed etc, there’s almost as much of a chance the birds will starve.
Some birds (the BTO have studied Tit species and Australian Magpie) shun birdfeeders altogether during large parts of the year, opting for entirely natural foodstuffs.
It all boils down to what’s in the food. Despite what it might say on the packet, fat balls, suet, and grain don’t have all of what the birds need. They might have some of the oils and the fats, but the majority of essential proteins and vitamins needed are only found in invertebrates.
In recent decades though, invertebrates have declined starkly, by roughly 76% nationally. Spectacles such as the butterfly clouds of the early 1900s are a thing of the past. But this is where mealworms come in…
Packed with almost all the same proteins and nutrients as their living invertebrate proxies are, sprinkling mealworms onto your lawn or on a bird table has much the same effect (in terms of bird food) as creating little wildflower meadows.
They provide nutrients no other supplementary food can. And while live ones are best, dried ones have almost the exact same effect, the only difference being they won’t have the fluids a live one does. But this can be easily solved by giving them a quick soak in water before putting them out, or if you put out a water bowl too, the adults will just be able to drink some of it to help wash it down.
Relating this to House Sparrows specifically, one BTO study concluded that when fed mealworms, House Sparrow chicks are 60% more likely to fledge successfully than without. It also found that the mortality rate decreases, and the survival rate goes up. On the contrary, when fed other bird food, there was almost no change.
So, does this mean if you feeding your birds grain and suet it’s a waste of time and you should stop? Of course not! While it doesn’t change much for the birds, it does have some benefits, and lets you get up close and build connections with them in a way you can’t with other wildlife.
However, wherever possible please feed the birds mealworms.
If there’s anything else you’d like to know, feel free to email me, leave a comment, or get in touch over on social media.
Thank-you for reading!