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New urban songbird research from SongBird Survival

Our PhD student Hugh has successfully published another paper from his Gardens for Birds project.

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Great Tit – Parus major – one of the species studied in this project

In this study, Hugh wanted to investigate how the local environment helps determine the materials used in nest construction, how this differs among related species using similar nest sites, or if materials used directly or indirectly influence the numbers of offspring successfully reared.

He found that use of anthropogenic material affects songbird nest arthropod community structure. Specifically, more man-made material used in tit nests resulted in more fleas in the nests.

Clearly, urbanisation may have wide ranging and little studied effects on our urban songbird populations. Hugh’s work identified that nest boxes are ecological communities in their own right; they may be more complex than they first appear, and worthy of consideration for further investigation.

Read the entire paper here.

How to look after songbirds this spring

We all enjoy seeing songbird visitors, old and new, taking advantage of the bird feeders and spending time in our gardens. Feeding the birds is a hugely popular national pastime in the UK. Nearly half of us feed the birds in our gardens, providing an amazing 50,000 tonnes of supplementary food every year! This is a fantastic way to help songbird populations, especially over the colder winter weather, when foraging for food is more difficult. It’s also been shown that supplementary feeding over the winter can boost songbird breeding success in the spring.

With the warmer weather now appearing, spring is definitely in the air. Over the breeding season, birds are rushing around making nests and finding natural foods (mainly insects) to feed their young. These adults will use the food you give them to fuel themselves during this hectic time. When their young have fledged, the adults will teach their offspring where to source food, and this will include your garden feeders.

But what should we feed them?

Seed Mixes

There are lots of different types of seeds on the market and the ones you choose will determine which birds you will attract. Buying a small bird mixture or high protein mixture will attract the most variety into the garden to begin with. Seed feeders can be hung from bird tables and can be a safer way for small birds to eat; small birds can hang better than larger birds, and there are fewer threats from cats at this type of feeder. Hanging seed feeders attract birds like tits and finches, whereas ground mesh feeders will suit birds like robins, blackbirds and thrushes. Songbirds love sunflower heads when they have gone to seed. Hang the heads up by the storks, and birds will enjoy pecking at the ripe seeds. Birds also appreciate thistle heads and lavender seeds, so don’t dead-head your lavender too soon!

Coal Tit

Nyger Seeds

These seeds are oil-rich and high in protein and little birds struggle to resist them! If you serve this it will attract species like goldfinches, siskins, greenfinches and redpolls.

Dried Mealworms / Insects

A great natural source of energy, fat and protein which the birds love. They need to be placed on a flat feeder and during the breeding season it’s best to use mini or mashed mealworms, as whole dried ones can choke fledglings. Loved by many species such as blackbirds, tits, thrushes, wrens, dunnocks and especially robins.  Why not also soak them in water as another way to keep the birds hydrated!

Peanuts

All garden birds like peanuts as they are high in energy and fat, but try not to feed them in the summer as they can get stuck in fledgling and juveniles’ throats. Place in a specialist peanut feeder or on a flat feeder, but make sure you remove all packaging, including any plastic mesh bags as these can harm birds and other wildlife.

Suet treats and fat balls

Suet treats are especially good in winter as they are rich in fat and protein. There are many different styles which can be hung on their own or in feeders, and are great all year round. These are easy to make yourself and the birds adore them.

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This little blue tit was photographed enjoying fat balls in Somerset, England on a winter’s morning.

Fruit

Chop up apples, pears etc. and either hang in wire feeders, on flat feeders or special spike–feeders to hold the fruit while the birds feed off it. Dried fruit is a favourite too, especially with blackbirds and robins. Seeds from melon also go down well!

Kitchen Waste

Bacon rind (chopped up small), over-ripe fruit and even leftovers from meals can supplement garden birds. But NO BREAD – birds need food with high–nutritional benefit, and bread is bulky, fills up their bellies with ‘empty’ food and doesn’t give them nearly as much nutrition as they need in their busy lives.

Click here to download the SongBird Survival Feed the Birds Guide, to find out which birds like what food, and how they like to eat them.

Top Hygiene Tip:

To stop diseases such as salmonella and trichomoniasis spreading,  clean your bird table/feeders and bird bath on a regular basis. Remove old or stale food and clean your feeders and table with hot soapy water and a brush. Allow to dry before re-filling.


Where to site feeders and bird baths

Site your feeders and bird bath away from walls and fences where cats could pounce from. If cats do come into your garden then consider using a bird table rather than ground feeders. Feeders with guards on will also help protect songbirds when they are feeding. If possible, site feeders or bird baths near to hedges, trees and other large dense shrubs. This will allow small birds to quickly get away to safety if a predator is hunting them. Growing prickly shrubs and trees will provide nesting sites, as well as safety for birds; they make predators move more slowly around the extra obstacles in your garden when hunting, giving small birds time to get away. SongBird Survival’s latest research gives some more handy hints for feeding birds during the breeding season to protect them from predation.

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Nest Boxes

Bird species need different sorts of nest sites as they build different types of nests. For example, blackbirds and thrushes build ‘open-cup’ nests in hedges and shrubs. Finches build small dense cocoon nests higher up in trees. Tits prefer a hole in a tree; or, due to many of us tidying away so many rotten trees, will readily take to a nest box as an alternative. Robins and wrens are very adaptable and will often make their nests very close to your home or shed, often inside! Sparrows, house martins and swifts will all take to nest boxes, and in our modern houses there is often no other option for them.

To prevent predation of nest boxes, we highly recommend using a protective nest box plates to deter squirrels, larger birds and other predators. These stainless steel plates protect the entrance hole to the nest box and prevent larger birds and predators from enlarging the entrance hole to gain access.

Big Birds

Pigeons are numerous and don’t need as much special care as smaller birds. If you want to make sure your high-nutrition food is being fed only to songbirds, use hanging feeders and small bird tables that only allow enough room for the littler birds to get in. Songbirds are messy eaters and there will be plenty for the pigeons and other wildlife to clean up from the ground below!

Grsquirrel croppedey Squirrels

To help stop grey squirrels from stealing your peanuts, chop up fresh salad peppers and mix these with your bird food.  Squirrels don’t like any part of the capsicum pepper and even growing the plant can deter them.

They also dislike peppermint, so dab some peppermint oil on the things that squirrels nibble on, and remember to reapply after rain.

Grey squirrels not only steal your bird food, but destroy habitat and will eat eggs, nestlings, fledglings and even adult birds when they can. They will often rob birds’ nests, break into them or knock them down to eat what is inside.

 

 

We hope these tips will help you get the most out of feeding the birds in your garden this spring. Remember to let us know who comes to visit this year – we’d love to hear from you and see your photos on our Facebook page!

Corvid Population Ecology Research Update

An update from Lucy Capstick, PhD researcher at the University of Exeter, on SBS’s corvid population ecology research study.

My PhD project (funded jointly by SongBird Survival and the University of Exeter, in collaboration with the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust), investigating how variation in the ecology and behaviour of Magpies affects their impact on songbirds, is nearing completion. The final season of field work has just finished and over autumn and winter of this year the collected data will be analysed and consolidated.

This project has examined whether individual Magpies differ in the extent to which they predate songbird nests, particularly exploring potential differences between territorial and non-territorial birds. To this end the Magpie and songbird populations of a small mixed farm in Warwickshire have been observed and monitored through spring and summer for the past three years. The continuous use of the same site, a farm with management typical of much of the UK’s rural landscape, has allowed the development of a more detailed picture of the population ecology of both the Magpies and the songbirds. It has also made it possible to investigate variation between years, for example whether differences in weather conditions influence songbird nest success or Magpie food preferences.

magpie

In 2016, as in previous years, songbird nests were located in hedgerows on the field site and monitored in order to assess Magpie impact on the songbird population. However, experience gained in the past two years meant that in 2016 a larger sample of approximately 80 nests was found, and in 50 of these, the outcome (success/failure) was known. The nests found largely belonged to more common species, almost three quarters of nests were Blackbird, Dunnock and Wren, however Goldfinch, Yellowhammer and Whitethroat nests were also located. As well as finding individual nests the territories of songbirds were also identified by mapping singing males early in the season. This information will be related to our knowledge of the Magpie population to see if, for example, the presence of a Magpie territory affects songbird territory location and nest success.

Our understanding of the Magpie population has been developed using a number of techniques over the course of the project. In 2016, Magpies were trapped across the site using Larsen traps for the third consecutive year. Trapped birds were colour ringed so they were individually identifiable. In 2015 the rings were more successfully attached than in 2014, so there was less overwinter loss between 2015 and 2016 than the previous year. Of the 75 occasions Magpies were trapped in 2016, new birds were caught only 10 times, while on the other 65 occasions previously ringed birds were re-trapped. The trapping process was slightly less successful than in 2015 and camera observations of the traps suggested there were a number of occasions of previously trapped individuals returning to traps and, perhaps unsurprisingly, avoiding tripping the mechanism again. Nonetheless, this trapping programme alongside direct observation of individuals and early season identification of magpie nest sites meant it was possible to work out where active Magpie nests were.

As well as looking at how the Magpie population as a whole may relate to songbird nest success, this project also aimed to investigate how individual Magpies differ in their impact on songbirds, for example, are some individuals more likely to predate nests in their territories than others? This year variation in individual Magpie defence behaviour was investigated, largely through work carried out by a Master’s student from Newcastle University (Rebecca Liberty). A dummy Magpie was placed near active nests and the response of the territory holder, which ranged from mobbing the dummy to ignoring it, was recorded. This variation in response, alongside other information such as differences in trappability, may indicate differences in aggression between individuals which could be linked to predation behaviour.

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A predated nest. Photo: Lucy Capstick

Another way of examining possible difference in an individual’s predation behaviour is to use artificial nests. This is a recognised technique used to gain an understanding of the pattern of nest predation and the identity of nest predators without disturbing natural nests. Both old songbird nests and manmade nests were baited with real and wax-filled quail’s eggs and monitored by trail cameras (motion activated cameras). A predator attacking a wax egg will leave an imprint, such as a beak or bite mark, and can therefore be identified. The nests were set out in transects in areas with occupied Magpie nests and in areas where it was believed Magpie presence was reduced. This method was piloted in 2015 and used more extensively this year. Over the course of the spring and summer over 400 artificial nests were placed across the field site. It will therefore be possible to look at the impact of Magpie presence on predation, but also at differences between the territories of individual Magpies, and the effect of time of year, for example, is predation higher when Magpies have young in the nest? Preliminary analysis suggests Magpie predation is higher in certain locations and trail camera pictures also identified specific ringed Magpies predating multiple nests. This may indicate that certain individuals predate more.

Over the three years of this PhD project a range of field data, including that detailed above, has been collected. The task now is to look at the information about Magpie population ecology, habitat use and territorial behaviour in combination with that about the songbird breeding population to see if and how they interact. The project will collate information about Magpie distribution, movement and breeding at a wider landscape scale. At a finer scale individual differences between Magpies in terms of territory location and habitat, and behaviour will be examined. Predation of both real songbird nests and artificial nests will be looked at with relation to the Magpie population. As well as this field data, research of the scientific literature will help to build up a more general understanding of corvid predation of songbird nests, as it could be that some species are more vulnerable to predation by corvids or that their populations are less able to recover from breeding season losses. In general this type of research into the population ecology of predators and their prey species, and how they interact, may suggest a way to manage the UK’s countryside to benefit the prey species, such as threatened songbirds.

Hugh’s research paper published

The latest paper from SongBird Survival’s Keith Duckworth project has recently been published in Ibis.

PhD student Hugh Hanmer has been studying urban bird ecology and conservation with Professor Mark Fellowes and Dr Rebecca Thomas at the University of Reading. The primary focus of his PhD has been on the indirect effects of garden bird feeding, though other work has taken in nest boxes and domestic cat ranging across the urbanisation gradient.

Hugh’s recent paper investigates whether feeding birds increases local nest predation. Using the university’s suburban parkland campus as a study site, Hugh replicated a typical suburban garden. He set up artificial nests, containing quail eggs, either 5 or 10 meters away from feeding stations. A variety of feeder types were used (guarded/unguarded, peanut-filled/empty), and both the nests and feeding stations were monitored with camera traps to see which species visited them.

Hugh found that Eurasian magpies and grey squirrels were frequent visitors to unguarded feeders, and this resulted in a five-fold increase in predation rates of nests that were set up near these feeders. Eurasian jays also predated these nests, although they did not visit the feeders.

-parakeets-and-squirre

The researchers suggest that magpies and grey squirrels are attracted to the food, and then forage locally, increasing the chances of finding local nests, and that the Jays respond to the presence of the other species, rather than the presence of the food itself.

Irrespective of the behavioural underpinning, the result of providing food was increased nest predation.

Wildlife gardening is hugely popular in the UK, and we spend £200 million on bird food every year. But we need to ensure that we are doing the right thing for wildlife.

Hugh’s research has important implications for how we feed the birds in our gardens, to make sure we are benefiting song and other small bird populations.

Hugh suggests that feeders are placed as far away as possible from potential nests sites during the key nesting period in late spring. It’s also important to offer food which is less attractive to nest predators and more suitable for the birds we want to support. Finally, he advocates the use of feeder guards, even though this didn’t reduce predation. This is simply because the use of guards means that more food goes to the target beneficiaries, rather than helping grow local populations of squirrels and magpies!

For more information on how to benefit songbirds in your garden, visit the SongBird Survival website. To view Hugh’s full research paper, click here.