Another one bites the crust: struggling birds turn to feeders

01 Mar 2013 | No. 2013-13

Thousands of birds are homing in on garden feeding stations as Arctic conditions persist. Latest results from the year-round British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) Garden BirdWatch survey show a mass influx of many familiar species as they struggle to survive.

The current cold snap could not have come at a worse time for birds. Late winter is a period when natural foods are scarce. Seeds and fruits that were abundant during autumn have been depleted over winter, while many insects – which are cold-blooded and, therefore, are slower to emerge when the weather is cold – are yet to appear this year.

The double-whammy is that birds are not just thinking about survival at the moment – they are also thinking about sex. Males want to be devoting their time to singing in order to claim and defend their territories, while females want to be feeding up to gain enough nutrients to lay their eggs. Amidst the unseasonably cold conditions, many birds are being forced to postpone nesting activities and, instead, to focus on survival.

Thankfully – as is so often the case – food provided by householders is providing vital support. Latest results from the BTO Garden BirdWatch survey show that visitors ranging from the tiny Long-tailed Tit to the portly Woodpigeon have been spotted much more often in gardens over the past fortnight compared with the previous three-year average.

Species                      % increase in BTO Garden BirdWatch counts:
March 2013 vs. March
2010–12 average
Siskin 187% higher
Woodpigeon 53%
Long-tailed Tit 45%
Fieldfare 42%
Redwing 41%
Chaffinch 39%
Jackdaw 29%
Blackbird 28%
Goldfinch 24%
Robin 12%

Dr Tim Harrison, BTO Garden Ecology Team, commented: “Mid to late March is a terrible time of year for such testing weather conditions to set in. A few months ago birds were essentially focused solely on survival but now they are also trying to get on with nesting, with some still needing to migrate to their breeding grounds.” 

He added: “Thanks to citizen scientists who take part in the weekly BTO Garden BirdWatch survey, we have been able to chart this critical period in unique detail. The most remarkable increase has been in the Siskin, which visited almost two in five gardens last week – its highest reporting rate since 1995. Its cousin, the Goldfinch, has also been seen in large numbers, delighting over two thirds of householders last week.”

Top tips for feeding birds in cold weather:

  1. Grind up peanuts and scatter these on bird tables and on the ground.
  2. Provide sunflower hearts in tube feeders and on the ground.
  3. Finely grate cheese, beef or vegetable suet on bird tables and the ground. You could also provide a few bread or cake crumbs.
  4. Put out windfall or fresh fruit on the ground for Robins and thrushes.
  5. Mealworms can be a real hit for invertebrate-eating birds such as Blackbirds and Wrens.
  6. Don’t forget that birds also need clean, fresh water for drinking and bathing.

For information about how to become a BTO Garden BirdWatcher, including a free copy of our quarterly magazine ‘Bird Table’, please email gbw [at] or telephone 01842-750050.

Notes for Editors

  1. The BTO Garden BirdWatch is the only nationwide survey of garden birds to run weekly throughout the year, providing important information on how birds use gardens, and how this use changes over time. Currently, some 15,000 people take part in the project. The project is funded by participants’ contributions and is the largest year-round survey of garden birds in the world. For more information see
  2. The data presented here are from BTO Garden BirdWatch from mid to late March.
  3. The BTO is the UK's leading bird research charity. A growing membership and up to 60,000 volunteer birdwatchers contribute to the BTO's surveys, collecting information that underpins conservation action in the UK. The BTO maintains a staff of 100 at its offices in Thetford, Stirling, Bangor (Wales) and Bangor (Northern Ireland), who analyse and publicise the results of surveys and projects. The BTO's work is funded by BTO supporters, government, trusts, industry and conservation organisations.

Contact Details

Dr Tim Harrison
(Garden BirdWatch Development Officer)

Office: 01842 750050
(9am to 5.30pm)
Email:tim.harrison [at] ( )tim.harrison [at]

Paul Stancliffe
(BTO Media Manager)

Office: 01842 750050
(9am to 5.30pm)
Mobile: 07585 440910 (anytime)
Email: press [at]

Images are available for use alongside this News Release. 
Please contact images [at] quoting reference 2013-13

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