In these extraordinary times, many people are changing the way they obtain their food, but let’s think about how the birds in our countryside find their food.
Birds deploy all sorts of superpowers to find their next meal.
Dominic Cozens, a wildlife writer and tour leader tells us, in RSPB’s Nature’s Home magazine:
‘Birds hatch with an innate knowledge of what they need to eat. A heron wants fish, a goldfinch wants seeds. A blue tit doesn’t need to be told to change its diet from insects in summer to nuts and seeds in autumn and winter; its internal physiology, triggered by day length, ensures the transition. However, this doesn’t preclude the possibility of learning. In bird societies, adults are invariably better at foraging than juveniles, because they’ve learned and honed their technique.
Young kingfishers, for example, must learn to cope with refraction through the water. Magpies learn to search roads for carcasses. Some birds, such as young ravens, learn foraging from their parents.
Many birds learn better or different foraging techniques when they are in a flock. Birds are students of their peers, watching them carefully and picking up new tricks.
Birds also experiment. Some individuals within a species have more adventurous personalities than others and are more willing to try new things. If you have a new bird feeder in your garden, it will often just hang there until one brave individual tries it out. Then, because birds watch other birds, it will soon attract a steady stream. This is also how a population might suddenly change their behaviour. Long-tailed tits rarely came to hanging feeders until 20-30 years ago, but the idea has caught on, culturally.
Birds sometimes cooperate in flocks. Greenfinches, for example, spend their time looking for seeds, clumps of which are always dispersed over a wide area. Foraging in flocks, with more eyes on the alert, helps the flock find patches of food. Incidentally, birds such as finches are what are known as seed predators – they find and consume seeds, preventing them from ever germinating. The plants do not encourage the birds – they don’t make their seeds conspicuous.
This is a complete contrast to berries. Birds eat the fleshy part and discard the seeds inside them through their gut, thus dispersing them. Berry-bearing plants want their berries to be found and eaten, so they produce them abundantly and conspicuously. Birds can see berries in a way that we cannot – a powerful, bright ultraviolet component makes berries shine like lanterns to birds.’
So perhaps there are flowers and shrubs you could plant in your garden to help feed the birds.