Caged birds

Following a few reports of small birds feeding inside caged feeders seeming to be obstructed when escaping from a predator, we asked what you had seen in your gardens. Here are some of your comments:

Sparrowhawks have been seen catching birds inside feeder cages.

John Kinchington in West Sussex

One morning I was watching the birds on the feeders at the bottom of the garden as part of my Garden BirdWatch count when, much to my surprise, a male Sparrowhawk swooped down on the caged feeder which contained sunflower hearts.  It hung on the metal cage whilst it plucked a small bird from inside the feeder.  It all happened so quickly I didn't see what species of bird it had taken but I suspect it was a Blue Tit or possibly a Greenfinch. I just couldn't believe it. Since I started my BTO Garden BirdWatch I've become quite used to Sparrowhawks taking birds from the ground under the feeders, mainly Blackbirds, Robins, Chaffinches or Dunnocks and, occasionally, a Woodpigeon.

Joan Taylor-Nobbs in Shropshire

I have twice seen a Sparrowhawk grab small birds through the bars of the cage, as they could not get away quickly enough. After the second sighting I removed the cage.

Jacqueline Moore in Edinburgh

I have noticed what appears to be a change in behaviour. In the past, Sparrowhawks swooped towards my feeders relying on small birds panicking and flying out through the bars surrounding the feeders where the Sparrowhawk would give chase and nab them. This year, however, I have seen on several occasions a Sparrowhawk grab a bird through the bars and hold on until it stops struggling then let go with one foot and draw the bird out and fly off with it.

The first time I saw this I was walking down the garden and stopped in my tracks when I saw a Sparrowhawk dangling from the feeder. I was only about 10 feet away and initially I thought it had somehow trapped its self. I nearly intervened (with my gardening gloves on) to free it – then I noticed it was holding a Blue tit. I stood still and watched and, as soon as the Blue tit stopped struggling, the Sparrowhawk pulled it through the bars and flew off with it. The last few times I have seen this, the Sparrowhawk hasn’t spent so long dangling – perfected the art perhaps!

Jim & Pat thought their bar-type feeder was safe.

Jim and Pat Clark on Anglesey

We had thought the bar-type was fairly safe as we had seen birds avoid Sparrowhawks by flying to cover as it’s fairly easy for birds up to Greenfinch size to get through the bars. However, in the last week or so we’ve seen a Sparrowhawk catch two Blue Tits and one unidentified bird from this feeder – it flies straight for it at speed. There seems no avoidance of this feeder and tits particularly use it, but also Greenfinches and House Sparrows and sometimes Robin and Chaffinch. The Sparrowhawk seems to be more successful when it’s wet and windy.

Ann Wells in Devon

For some time now we’ve had two Sparrowhawks (male & female) visit our garden, land on the cage feeders and catch sparrows from inside by grabbing the bird with one leg while hanging onto the cage with the other. On one occasion we watched as a Sparrowhawk sat on top of the feeder whilst the sparrow froze on the inside – it eventually came out and a most spectacular piece of flying on the part of the hawk caught the bird. This cull of the many sparrows we have in the garden has taken out the weak so now we are left with sparrows who are 'switched on' to the antics of the Sparrowhawk.

Richard Banks in Cheshire

One day I saw a Sparrowhawk attempt to take a Greenfinch that was unable to flee in time; it hung on the cage with the Greenfinch in its talons but still inside the cage. The hawk saw me and left; I went out to the feeder and removed the Greenfinch.

Alison Maddock in Wiltshire

Some years back I saw a Sparrowhawk take a Long-tailed Tit from such a feeder. It did appear to be trapped by the bars, probably being confused about how to escape.

Thoughts from the BTO Garden Ecology Team

Feeder cages can help birds like House Sparrows to find food.

These anecdotal reports are really interesting. They show that Sparrowhawks can sometimes catch birds within feeder cages. The only other species that we have heard of doing this is Magpie, and this seems to be much less frequent. As new feeding equipment is developed and comes onto the market, it is important for such observations to be documented, so thanks for letting us know.

Before we can draw any conclusions, we need to consider a couple of important ‘unknowns’. First, we do not currently have data to enable us to compare predation rates of birds at caged vs. non-caged feeders – this would be an interesting topic for future research. It is plausible that, for instance, birds tend to be safer feeding inside cages than outside, but currently we simply do not know. Moreover, we cannot be certain that those birds caught inside cages might not have been in danger of being caught regardless of whether the cage was present or not.

Second, and more broadly, it is important to think about the benefits that cages might provide smaller birds. The food presented inside is largely inaccessible to larger species (e.g. see photo), which gives smaller birds better access to food and more feeding options. For householders looking to reduce the number of large birds eating lots of expensive bird food in their gardens, feeder cages can be an essential bit of kit.

With your help, we will keep an eye on this issue.

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