(Bird) Food for thought

At this time of year I tend to get through the post a steady trickle of catalogues, reminding me of the mailing lists to which I still need to unsubscribe. Qutie a few of these are wildlife related, with a good chunk given over to the £200M wild bird food industry. For a while now I’ve felt rather uneasy about the excessive commodification of what should be a simple act - attracting birds to the garden just to enjoy their company. At my most cynical, I see it as a further sign that we (in the UK particularly) are often more inclined to lavish love, affection, and free food on animals, than on people in need. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t dispute the enormous pleasure that feeding birds can bring. We’ve fallen out of the habit somewhat, but have in the past regularly refilled feeders with nuts and seeds, probably most rewardingly when we lived just outside York and were eaten out of house and home by the tree sparrows that had no qualms about visiting our window-mounted feeder. I know many other people, cutting across ages and socioeconomic backrgounds, who do the same, delighting in the occasional stars - the woodpeckers, nuthatches and siskins - but equally pleased to see the everyday bluetits, starlings and greenfinches.

I’m convinced that this connection with nature benefits the human observers, whether on a large rural estate or an inner city balcony, which tying in to the growing evidence for the psychological benefits of urban green space. There is a clear conservation context too. My cherished tree sparrows, for example, are a classic farmland specialist that suffered, like so many of our birds, from agricultural intensification - to such an extent that, for every tree sparrow in the UK today there were perhaps 20 in the 1970s. This is indicative of broad trends in a range of UK birds, with recent attention focusing on how declines in common, widespread species may be overlooked by conservation agencies celebrating increases in rare species. So yes, looking after birds, whether by providing habitat or supplemental food, seems unequivocally to be a Good Thing.

And yet, leafing through the glossy new catalogues, that uneasy feeling returns: that providing the means for birds to consume is really an excuse for us to consume, conspicuously; to bind ourselves still tighter to the tiller of the good ship capitalism.

First, there is the capital outlay, with feeders starting at around £7 but quickly increasing to £30+. And of course you will need a range of feeders to attract different species at different times of years, arranged on an attractive stand (available separately). And have you thought about protecting them from squirrels / cats / parakeets? You could merrily fill your basket with well over £100 worth of hardware, even if you resist the temptation of weather-proof motion-triggered night vision cameras and decide not to indulge your garden’s mammals and invertebrates too. Looking at a product like the adjustable ground feeding sanctuary (£29.99) does make me wonder if we’re in danger of turning our wild birds rather, well, soft…

Then, of course - of course! - there is the food itself. I used to buy birdseed from a local shop, and the birds seemed to appreciate it. But the pages of the catalogue now read like the stock list of a high-end supermarket - premium sunflower hearts, feeder mix extra, nyjer seed, premium peanuts (a colleague who knows about such things once told me that peanuts arriving in the UK are graded, and only those not fit for bird consumption pass into the human food supply chain…), mealworms, nibbles and suet. For goodness sake. I have a similar response - it’s just a bloody cat!! - when watching adverts for ‘luxury’ cat food. (Harry & Paul’s I saw you coming sketches also come to mind…)

Prices start at around £2-3 a kilo for basic mixes, slightly less if you’re prepared to buy in bulk (e.g. 25kg of sunflower hearts will set you back just £65), but you can pay over £5 a kilo for buggy nibbles and £5 for just 100g of mealworms. To put this in context, my local grocer is currently selling potatoes for 50p a kilo; pasta is around £1.20 a kilo and rice a bit more (perhaps £2-£3 a kilo) - and a litre of sunflower oil, which apparently contains 4-5kg of seeds, is about £1.50. And of course, all of this food needs to be grown somewhere, land which is as a result unavailable to grow food for people - or, for that matter, to be turned over to other conservation purposes.

Of course, treating the birds and the bees well is in some ways a reasonable measure of collective worth as a society (more reasonable, I would argue, than GDP); and turning our gardens, big or small, into wildlife havens is for a variety of reasons an excellent example of enlightened self interest too. I’m not for a moment suggesting we stop. But with more than 10% of the world’s human population going hungry, and with an shameful number in my own country - in my own city - reliant on foodbanks, I cannot shake this feeling that we are straying away from the simple pleasure of caring for the birds, and towards more ethically dubious position of pampering them.