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
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