What’s in our bird food?

With sea­sonal mixes, spe­cific blends and a wide price range, which bird food should we buy? Marc Rosen­berg in­ves­ti­gates

Gardeners' World - - Garden Birds -

Feed­ing birds used to be a sim­ple plea­sure: you’d hang out peanuts or put scraps on a bird ta­ble, top up the bird bath and then watch na­ture en­joy­ing a win­ter feast. To­day, gar­den-cen­tre shelves are piled high with seeds for blue tits, black­birds, finches, robins and thrushes. There are bags of niger seeds, peanuts, sun­flower hearts and meal­worms and spe­cific seed mixes for win­ter or young birds. The Hor­ti­cul­tural Trades As­so­ci­a­tion (HTA) found that Brits spend £297m on bird food each year. Mar­ket an­a­lysts GfK Global last stud­ied the bird food sec­tor in 2015 and found it had grown by 15 per cent in one year. Pre-filled feed­ers were the big­gest growth area, with sales up by 23 per cent. West­land says its Peck­ish bird food has seen “45 per cent brand growth year-on-year”, with buy­ers in­spired by TV pro­grammes such as Spring­watch. Con­cern over wild­bird de­cline is also be­hind ris­ing sales. The RSPB found that be­tween 1979-2018, black­birds de­clined by 41 per cent, robins by 31 per cent, song thrushes by 75 per cent and house spar­rows by 57 per cent. The win­ners were wood­pi­geons – up by 950 per cent – and mag­pies, which in­creased by 173 per cent. Feed spe­cial­ist CJ Wild­Bird Foods says more than 80 species are be­ing fed now, com­pared with just 18 when it was founded in 1987.

Should we spend ex­tra on spe­cific feeds?

Ex­perts say do­mes­tic gar­dens be­come a last refuge for birds to for­age when nat­u­ral re­sources are scarce. We wanted to know if that’s why birds now need sea­son-spe­cific feeds – priced at around £5 for packs con­tain­ing 1.7kg to 2kg – or are mar­ket­ing gu­rus hav­ing a big pay­day at gar­den­ers’ ex­pense? Nick Turner, Bird­care Prod­uct Man­ager at the RSPB, says: “It’s mar­ket­ing. It is un­likely there is much dif­fer­ence to the seed mixes other than pack­ag­ing and pos­si­bly a switch to cer­tain seeds. Birds need feed­ing all year round. At the RSPB, our mixes are for­mu­lated in-house, and we don’t change them with the sea­sons as there is no re­quire­ment to do so.” But the Bri­tish Trust for Or­nithol­ogy (BTO) backs sea­sonal feeds. BTO Gar­den Bird­Watch De­vel­op­ment Of­fi­cer Claire Boothby says: “Sea­sonal mixes are de­signed to pro­vide what birds are look­ing for at dif­fer­ent times of the year. Some species may be largely in­sec­tiv­o­rous dur­ing spring and sum­mer, but be­come fru­gi­vores [feed­ing mostly on fruits] dur­ing au­tumn and win­ter.” West­land is now one of the UK’s big­gest wild bird food sup­pli­ers fol­low­ing its ac­qui­si­tion of Gard­man, an­other lead­ing sup­plier of bird food. It says its sea­sonal mixes are tai­lored to meet birds’ needs: “Birds have dif­fer­ent needs at var­i­ous times of the year, and at dif­fer­ent stages in their life. Young birds re­quire protein for growth, so meal­worms are ideal in spring. These prod­ucts are chopped small so they’re easy for birds to han­dle. Win­ter Warmer is a high en­ergy mix: days are shorter and the time avail­able for feed­ing is re­duced. Birds get the high­est en­ergy in the quick­est time.” What about species-spe­cific food, of­ten priced at around £4 per 1kg packet? Nat­u­ral­ist, au­thor and lec­turer Stephen Moss says: “The ob­vi­ous spe­cific wild bird food is niger seed for goldfinches. I’m per­son­ally scep­ti­cal about robin seed mixes. Robins love meal­worms too, for ex­am­ple. Robins and black­birds don’t nor­mally come to feed­ers but come to bird ta­bles or ground feed­ers.” His view is backed by the Bird­care Stan­dards As­so­ci­a­tion (BSA). Chief ex­ec­u­tive Steve Pad­dock says: “Species-spe­cific wild bird feeds are prob­a­bly not nec­es­sary. They look good on shelves, but wild birds eat

Birds have dif­fer­ent needs at dif­fer­ent stages in their life

what they want. You may get more robins in your gar­den if you use a robin mix, but I doubt it. Goldfinches love niger seed, so you can feed this to at­tract cer­tain species with­out pay­ing as­tro­nomic prices for some­one to do that for you.” The RSPB’s Nick Turner says: “The re­al­ity is that species-tar­geted food will also be eaten by other species.” How­ever, nat­u­ral­ist David Lindo, aka the Ur­ban Birder, thinks species feeds are a good way to at­tract a wider va­ri­ety of birds to gar­dens, while the BTO is look­ing into whether ‘in­di­vid­ual foods’, such as niger seeds and sun­flower hearts, are re­spon­si­ble for pop­u­la­tion rises of goldfinches.

Is it worth spend­ing more on bird food?

Dis­count shops of­fer peanuts and wild bird seed mixes for a lit­tle as £1 – so is it worth fork­ing out much more for a pre­mium brand? David Lindo thinks so: “Cheaper brands tend to have a lot of ce­real in them for bulk. Ce­real isn’t great, and it at­tracts pi­geons.” The BTO says the price re­flects three fac­tors: where the food is grown, how it’s pro­cessed and its con­tent. Claire Boothby says: “Some cheaper mixes are bulked out with cheaper grains, such as wheat and bar­ley, which are good for doves, pi­geons and some finches, but not so at­trac­tive to tits and smaller finches like goldfinches and siskins.” The RSPB claims that dried peas, beans and small pieces of dog bis­cuits can be added to low-end mixes, but says birds “will not choose to eat them”. This view is backed-up by the BSA. Steve Pad­dock says: “You get what you pay for. If you see coloured pieces in the mix – red, green and yel­low – it’s prob­a­bly re­con­sti­tuted dog bis­cuits. No birds, apart from crows and mag­pies, per­haps, will eat this. It’s there to make it look pretty to hu­mans who don’t know bet­ter. The more bor­ing and brown the feed looks, the bet­ter qual­ity it prob­a­bly is.” Stephen Moss high­lights an­other im­por­tant point: “Rep­utable sup­pli­ers should make sure there aren’t chem­i­cals on their seeds. If you buy wild bird food at a lo­cal mar­ket, you have no idea what’s in it.” While most bird food isn’t cer­ti­fied as or­ganic, there are ex­cep­tions. The Kew Wildlife Care Col­lec­tion Or­ganic Seed Mix from CJ Wildlife (£4.75 for 1kg) claims all in­gre­di­ents are “100 per cent or­ganic, GM-free and have not been treated with ar­ti­fi­cial fer­tiliser or pes­ti­cides”. Kew Wildlife Care Col­lec­tion Or­ganic Fat Balls (£3.99 for six fat balls) come with the same prom­ises. Gar­den­ers are also be­ing urged to look out for bird food that has been sourced via the Fair to Na­ture (FTN) scheme. Un­der the ini­tia­tive, a pre­mium is paid to farm­ers to man­age at least 10 per cent of their land for wildlife con­ser­va­tion. The RSPB says that, since 2015, the ma­jor­ity of the seeds and grains in its bird food has been sourced from FTN farms.The RSPB’s Nick Turner adds: “Only peanuts and niger seed are not from FTN farms and we are work­ing hard to ob­tain these as FTN.” One area where most ex­perts do ad­vo­cate splash­ing out is on live meal­worms. They‘re pricey (a 500g tub from the RSPB will set you back £13.99), but they are a high source of protein for a wide range of birds.

Is bird food safe?

All man­u­fac­tur­ers in­sist their food is safe and meets or ex­ceeds stan­dards. Since 2000, stan­dards have been set for bird food mak­ers by the BSA. At its peak it had 12 mem­bers, from gi­ant sup­pli­ers to small spe­cial­ists. How­ever, with just one mem­ber re­main­ing, the BSA is “about to cease as a busi­ness/ com­pany,” says chief ex­ec­u­tive Steve Pad­dock, and it “no longer has the level of fund­ing needed to po­lice stan­dards.” One of the BSA’s big­gest claimed suc­cesses was en­sur­ing that mem­bers met ‘nil de­tectable’ lev­els of afla­toxin con­tent in peanuts. Afla­tox­ins are car­cino­genic com­pounds pro­duced by fungi found on crops such as maize, peanuts and tree nuts. Steve adds: “The BSA was founded to take on the afla­toxin prob­lem on

If you see coloured pieces in bird seed mix – red, green and yel­low – it’s prob­a­bly re­con­sti­tuted dog bis­cuits

peanuts im­ported to the UK. Of­ten car­ried loose in ships’ holds from China and South and Cen­tral Amer­ica, they would be­come damp. Peanuts with afla­toxin could kill birds. Like most sin­gle-cause or­gan­i­sa­tions, the BSA strug­gled to find a cause once the afla­toxin prob­lem was pretty much erad­i­cated.” The BSA also drew up com­pul­sory mem­bers’ stan­dards for seed mix­tures, suet, feed­ers, nest boxes and bird ta­bles, which could now all fall by the way­side. There are other con­cerns about bird food safety. The RSPB’s Nick Turner adds: “In suet, chalk is used as a cheap filler and clev­erly mar­keted as ex­tra cal­cium for birds to aid egg for­ma­tion. How­ever, there is no ev­i­dence that more cal­cium is needed for wild birds in ad­di­tion to their nat­u­ral diet. We worry that added cal­cium may do more harm than good; hy­per­cal­caemia can lead to cal­ci­fi­ca­tion of the kid­neys, con­sti­pa­tion, lame­ness and chicks not be­ing able to hatch be­cause the shell for­ma­tion is too hard.” Nick adds: “We don’t know for cer­tain what ef­fect ex­tra cal­cium has on birds, which is one of the rea­sons we don’t add it [to RSPB bird food]. We have no ev­i­dence that it is of ben­e­fit to birds, but we do know that too much cal­cium can cause dam­age. We don’t know how much is too much, but if a fat ball con­tains a high amount of chalk, then a 7g bird will be tak­ing on quite a bit of cal­cium.” West­land, how­ever, mar­kets CalVita –a “nat­u­ral en­rich­ment” sup­ple­ment found in some of the prod­ucts in its Peck­ish brand. It con­tains cal­cium that “pro­motes bone and feather growth and is es­sen­tial for egg pro­duc­tion”, and vi­ta­mins A, D, E and bi­otin that “strength­ens beaks and bones and helps growth and re­pro­duc­tion”. West­land says: “Peck­ish works along­side ex­perts and ve­teri­nary pro­fes­sion­als for new prod­uct de­vel­op­ment to en­sure the welfare of birds is at the fore. We haven’t had any con­cerns raised on this topic.” And con­cern­ing the de­liv­ery of bird food, the RSPB frowns on plas­tic peanut feed­ers. It wants to see peanuts fed from stain­less-steel mesh feed­ers only. Nick ex­plains: “We don’t sug­gest plas­tic be­cause of its [lack of] strength: we don’t want birds chok­ing, and any dam­aged mesh means they can take more than they may be able to han­dle.” West­land in­sists that all its peanut feed­ers are “in­cred­i­bly ro­bust and do not pose any dan­ger to an­i­mals”. But not ev­ery­one is con­vinced by the mer­its of peanuts any­way. Nat­u­ral­ist Stephen Moss says: “Birds re­quire high en­ergy for low ef­fort. That’s why peanuts are hope­less; they don’t give much en­ergy but take a lot of ef­fort.” Nick says: “The RSPB agrees that sun­flower hearts and suet are higher en­ergy prod­ucts [than peanuts]. How­ever, a lot of cus­tomers pre­fer to use peanuts, as that’s what they have al­ways done, and birds do get en­ergy from peanuts.” Lucy Tay­lor, man­ager of the bird food busi­ness at Vine House Farm in Spald­ing, notes that sun­flow­ers have gained pop­u­lar­ity over peanuts: “Peanuts used to stand alone on the bird ta­ble as an ex­cel­lent source of en­ergy and protein. With the in­crease in pop­u­lar­ity of feed­ing sun­flow­ers and sun­flower hearts, we are find­ing peanuts are fall­ing out of favour with many peo­ple. Peanuts and sun­flow­ers are both oil-rich and of­fer sim­i­lar lev­els of calo­ries and protein; how­ever, sun­flower hearts are eas­ier to con­sume for many species, with the tit fam­ily be­ing an ex­cep­tion.”

What cost to the en­vi­ron­ment?

Most ex­pert bird food sup­pli­ers say they buy in rather than grow their own bird food – rais­ing con­cerns over the car­bon foot­print of bird food im­ported into the UK. The RSPB says peanuts can come from Africa, China, South Amer­ica and the USA, but points out it has also sourced peanuts from Europe. It adds that wheat, oilseed rape and oats are “of­ten from the UK”, while sun­flower seeds are “gen­er­ally grown in Europe and the UK”. How­ever, nei­ther the RSPB nor BSA has any idea of how much bird food is im­ported or pro­duced in the UK. Man­u­fac­tur­ers say they are work­ing to cut the car­bon foot­print of bird food. Vine House Farm’s Lucy Tay­lor told GW: “35 per cent of our bird food is grown on our farm, in­clud­ing black sun­flow­ers, red mil­let, white mil­let, ca­nary seed, wheat and oilseed rape. All of the oats we use are sourced from the UK.” The com­pany says it has to im­port seeds and pro­duce that can’t be grown in the UK, such as niger seed, sul­tanas and peanuts. A spokeswoman for CJ Wild­Bird Foods says: “We use UK sourced prod­ucts wher­ever prac­ti­cal. Our tal­low for peanut cakes and peanut but­ter is UK sourced. The bal­ance of our black sun­flower seeds and all our sun­flower hearts are grown within main­land Europe.” West­land adds: “All in­gre­di­ents that can be sourced from the UK are, and we aim to source 100 per cent of our wheat from within 50 miles of the fac­tory.” De­spite con­cerns over cheap fillers, sea­sonal seed mixes and the car­bon foot­print of im­ports, it has never been more vi­tal to sup­port wild birds, es­pe­cially in mid-win­ter when nat­u­ral food is scarce. The fi­nal word goes to BSA’s Steve Pad­dock, who ad­vises gar­den­ers: “Cer­tain types of shops’ rai­son d’être is to pile shelves high with cheap stuff. As with ev­ery­thing in life, you get what you pay for. There is good-qual­ity bird food avail­able, but there’s an aw­ful lot of bad stuff out there, too. If you see a 15kg bag of bird food priced at £8.99 and an­other 15kg bag on sale at £25, which is bet­ter qual­ity? It doesn’t take a lot of brain power to work that one out.”

De­spite con­cerns over cheap fillers, sea­sonal seed mixes and the car­bon foot­print of im­ports, it has never been more vi­tal to sup­port wild birds

Jan­uary 2019 gar­den­er­sworld.com

Birds lose en­ergy re­mov­ing the husk from un­shelled sun­flower seeds and they leave a mess

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