Birds of Britain  
  The Monthly Web Magazine for Birdwatchers   
Home Guide to British Birds Birding news and events Bird reserves Birdwatching Clubs Mystery Bird Quiz Birdwatching FAQ's Bird Shop
 
More Features

More feature articles

Birding tours in Wales

Red Kite Safaris is the bird tour company of Elfyn Pugh, author of this article.

Feeding Wild Birds (including Red Kites)

Elfyn Pugh

StarlingsMy country garden has seemed rather bereft of birds since the end of summer. During the autumn some birds form into roaming flocks of mixed species and scour the surrounding woods or countryside for insect life or the seeds of wild plants. I have just recommenced feeding my garden birds after a gap of 6 months. Some experts advocate feeding throughout the year but my preference is to give the ground a rest to destroy any harmful bacteria (Salmonella & E.coli) caused by bird droppings which may be lurking around where my feeders were situated. Under the present climate of fear relating to bird flu (Avian influenza) which may or may not mutate into the human form and cause a national pandemic in the future, I cannot emphasise strongly enough that readers should exercise the most stringent practices of hygiene and cleanliness when handling any bird feeders. Ensure that your feeders, bird tables and receptacles for providing birds with water are cleaned and disinfected regularly. I personally use a mixture of dettol and water to do this and then rinse the items thoroughly with clean water. I suggest you wear rubber gloves to carry out these tasks or wash your hands after doing so. It has to be stated that the risk to humans who feed garden birds is extremely low just follow the necessary precautions. If you note any suspicious deaths in the wild bird population which you believe may be attributed to bird flu then you should report the matter immediately to the D.E.F.R.A. national helpline tel:- 08459 335577.

Another reason why I do not feed the birds in the summer is that it can be a rather expensive enterprise. I have a number of different styles of feeders offering food to suit a broad diversity of bird species. I buy only the highest quality birdfood from reputable sources. You can effectively poison your birds from poor quality seed and nuts. Peanuts can contain what are termed ‘aflatoxins’ which can be harmful to birds. I have feeders for peanuts, sunflower seeds (I use the hearts as they are less messy when the husks have been removed) and niger seeds which are favoured by goldfinches & siskins. Water too is essential for drinking & bathing. We have been kept amused by a Robin who bathes & preens in our birdbath on a daily basis. He must be the cleanest Robin in the district!

I paid one of my regular visits to the Kite feeding station at the Forest Centre in Bwlch Nant-yr-Arian near Ponterwyd today to witness the daily feeding of ‘wild’ kites. Some people disagree with this form of feeding as they believe that the birds can become to dependant on it. I therefore state my case in defence of this form of feeding in terms of the benefits to the kites, who are by their very nature, scavengers. They were very common in the towns & cities of medieval Britain and it is a well recorded historical fact that kites, together with the Raven, carried out a vital role in cleaning the streets of carrion and animal offal which was discarded by our ancestors. Feeding wild kites therefore bears a similarity to that period in human history. Indeed until a few years ago, before the regulations were tightened concerning waste disposal, kites were commonly found scavenging at rubbish tips and abattoirs in Wales. There is no doubt that supplementary feeding has assisted the recovery of the Red Kites in Wales in recent times. The Welsh breeding population currently stands at between 450 and 500 pairs. The feeding of wild kites supplements their natural diet of carrion and live prey and is particularly important during the winter months. Contrary to the generally accepted belief, the countryside of Wales was never the ideal habitat for kites to survive due to a number of factors which include the vagaries of the Welsh climate and the availability of food. They fared far better in the lowlands of Britain a fact which is now apparent since the re-introduction of the species into the English counties. Here breeding pairs rear on average 3 or even 4 offspring, a situation which never occurs in the Welsh population where one or two offspring is normal. It was solely due to extreme persecution in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that the then widespread Kite population were driven into their last British stronghold in the remote valleys & uplands of central Wales. So the supplementary feeding of wild kites in Wales today ensures that in the Spring the birds will be in prime breeding condition creating less stress on their physiology.

When I visited the kite feeding station at Bwlch Nant-yr-Arian today there were only about 30 to 40 kites present which is below the normal numbers. Kite numbers do fluctuate at these feeding stations dependent on a number of factors relating to the weather, time of year, and the availability of wild food. I spoke to my good friend Ceredig Morgan who feeds the kites at Nant-yr-Arian and he informs me that Kite numbers had been low all week so clearly the birds were seeking sustenance in the surrounding area.

I asked Chris Powell of the Gigrin Kite Feeding Centre in Rhayader the question - “When did you start feeding the kites and why?” - This was his reply:-

“We started a programme of feeding the kites at Gigrin farm back in 1993, and following a request from the R.S.P.B. we opened to the public. Initially we fed the kites during the winter months and the plan was to give the general public an opportunity to have close encounters with wild kites without causing them disturbance. The young kites in Wales at that time were struggling to survive the harsh winter months because of the lack of food and by feeding them we were able to help the wild population increase. We progressed to feeding throughout the year. At the present time, as the winter progresses, the number of kites visiting Gigrin daily number between 200 - 300 birds. Currently we have a number of birds visiting which have been fitted with coloured wing tags therefore we are able to say that individuals originate from as far afield as Scotland, the North of England & the Midlands”.

Red Kite feeding station

The wild Red Kites at Gigrin and Bwlch Nant-yr-Arian are fed ‘beef offcuts’ obtained from reputable sources which must be of a quality fit for human consumption. There are stringent regulations in force relating to this form of feeding and the storage of meat.

For your information as from the 30/10/2005 Kite feeding times at Gigrin and the Bwlch Nant-yr-Arian Forest Centre will be at 2pm. Either location would be worth visiting at any time during the winter months when the numbers of kites are at their peak.

On a final note there are those who say that artificial feeding of birds creates a kind of ‘Utopia’ where they become dependent on this form of feeding. I suppose there are arguments for that but then the benefits for doing so are immeasurable. Millions of people throughout Britain derive immense pleasure from feeding wild birds. Some people who feed and watch garden birds may be housebound due to infirmity. It is a simple act of human kindness which brings us all closer to nature which may under normal circumstances be difficult to observe. Ultimately in our masses we help to keep populations of wild birds thriving who would otherwise struggle to find enough natural foods especially during the Winter months. There has been some speculation recently that we may be in for a hard Winter whether that’s the case or not it provides an opportunity for readers of this article to get organised and buy their feeders now and set them up in your garden and get the birds accustomed to your little corner of Britain before the onset of bad weather.
Below I have listed links to a selection of reputable suppliers of wildbird food, birdfeeders & accessories and other products. Take a browse at their websites. Or why not visit one of the R.S.P.B’s reserve shops near you to obtain your birdfood and at the same time you can buy your Christmas cards there too! Visit www.rspbshop.co.uk to find out where these outlets are located or you can shop on line for an extensive range of R.S.P.B. BirdCare products.

When you have done all that why not take part in the R.S.P.B’s ‘Big Garden Birdwatch’ event on the weekend 28-29 January 2006. For further information visit www.rspb.org.uk/birdwatch or ring 08701 222792 or if you are a school teacher and wish to take part in ‘Big Schools Birdwatch’ call 08701 222793 for an information pack. You could also take a more regular and active role in recording the birds you see in your garden and join the British Trust for Ornithology ‘Garden BirdWatch’ scheme and record the birds you see on a weekly basis and enter you observations online or on a paper document format. Visit www.bto.org/gbw for further information or contact the BTO Garden BirdWatch team on 01842 750050.

Suppliers of Wildbird food, feeders & other products.