Bad harvest likely to send birds into towns and cities early


© Peter Howlett/BTO

Bumper numbers of hungry birds could be heading into towns and cities early this year, as food supplies in the country run short.

According to the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), this year’s disastrous harvest is likely to be as bad for birds as farmers, and pressure on scant supplies of seeds and hedgerow berries will only increase as large numbers of finches and thrushes head to Britain from Scandinavia and Eastern Europe.

Britain is a key wintering destination for immigrant blackbirds, redwings, fieldfares and starlings, which are all berry-eaters, as well as greenfinches, chaffinches and bramblings, which eat seeds.

“Many birds will start off in the wider countryside, the seed-eating finches in woodland, the berry-eaters in farmland, and then move into urbanised areas as the seed and berry crops elsewhere are depleted,” says Mike Toms, Head of Garden Ecology at the BTO.

City gardeners can help, not just by putting out food, but also by planting a variety of berry- and seed-producing plants, says Toms. “Berry and seed crops tend to fluctuate from one year to the next but there is variation between different plants. This means that the more berry- and seed-producing plants that we can establish in our gardens the better, with native species likely to be better than non-natives. However, a key feature is seasonality, so a mix of plants that produce their seeds or berries at different times during the autumn and winter is better than having lots of things that produce their seeds at the same time,” he says.

The BTO is also asking urban gardeners to help out with two studies this autumn and winter: one looking at the types of garden fruits and berries favoured by birds and the other recording thrushes, some populations of which are in widespread decline.

The Winter Thrushes Survey is looking for volunteers, particularly those who walk a regular route, to record the birds they see when they are out and about and to note their location and what they are eating. No specific birdwatching experience is necessary. “The urban habitat is often under-recorded and parks and other areas of urban greenspace may be important,” says Toms.

More information on the study is available at



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