“Where have all our garden birds gone?” I’ve noticed this question appear in the letters page of our local paper a bit this summer, and it has felt like a quiet one. So what’s happening?
As always with wildlife, the answer is complicated and there are positive and negative factors that can affect what you are seeing in your garden.
As a positive, let’s remember that birds go where the food is, and if Spring/Summer provides bountiful natural food sources, the birds are more likely to go for that rather than our garden feeders. So seed eaters that we often see on our garden feeders might stick to natural sources in a good year. Many birds also prefer to eat insects in the summer, and switch to seeds in winter.
Also, at this time of year birds are forming flocks and looking at migrating. This can create a temporary void as incoming migrants may not yet have arrived. It’s easy to assume the goldfinch you see in May and the one you see in January are one and the same. But often our Spring/Summer birds head South and are replaced by migrants from Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. It may not even be that dramatic. A Yorkshire-bred Goldfinch might head for Cornwall, with one from Scotland incoming.
So in that regard, numbers will certainly increase on feeders later in the year, so keep them clean, topped up, and have fresh water available, especially when it’s otherwise icy.
Now, the more worrying stuff. In the same way that weather can make things good for birds, it can also make it bad. Low availability of suitable food, especially insect sources, can contribute to nest failures. Predation by cats, birds of prey, and corvids such as magpies and crows has an effect, though not that dramatic usually. That being said, a recent study suggested feral cat and dog populations have directly caused the extinction of more than 100 species worldwide in recent years. But humans have managed far more than that, especially given those cat/dog stats sit with us too.
The recent ‘State of Nature’ report identified changing habitats as a major issue in the decline of a large number of species, with industrialisation of farming and our own overly-manicured gardens being a significant problem for breeding birds.
Finally, climate change is an ever-present factor. This however has more of a tendency to change the make-up of what we think of as ‘garden birds’. Remember, there were no gardens when those birds evolved, they have adapted to us. As some species disappear in the UK and others enter, there may be a lag as new species start to adapt. This is already being seen with previously migrant warblers such as Blackcap starting to stay and use garden feeders over the British winter.