News: Letter to the Veterinary Record

Subsequently published, in a shortened form, in Vet Record – vets urged to promote sensible, safe, feeding of garden birds, using properly tested diets, by John E Cooper 1, Margaret E Cooper 2 and Simon King

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Feeding bird food to wild birds has never been more popular, but its merits have often been challenged by scientists. So, when recent findings from the BTO suggested that garden bird feeders boost bird populations we were all ears. This is, of course, welcoming news; however, there’s a caveat which goes something like this: a bird food is only as good as the quality control process and the bird food supplier that’s presenting it to the market and we feel vets are perfectly positioned to encourage wildlife enthusiasts to feed healthy seed to Britain’s bird population.

Letter to the Veterinary Record 

Ms Adele Waters

The Editor

The Veterinary Record

 

Feeding garden birds

Dear Madam

The recent widely-publicized report from the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), entitled “The composition of British bird communities is associated with long-term garden bird feeding” (Nature Communications 21 May), presented scientific evidence that providing supplementary diets supports and augments the numbers of garden birds in Britain.

The findings detailed in the BTO study are to be welcomed. For years there has been debate, sometimes a degree of acrimony, regarding the pros and cons of “garden bird feeding”. The British have long been enjoying the company of birds in their gardens by providing them with food but the real pioneer and initial proponent of the practice was the eminent naturalist (and MI5 agent), Maxwell Knight, a great friend of the veterinary profession. He was author of the book “Bird Gardening. How to Attract Birds” (Knight, 1954). Knight emphasized in his writings and lectures that putting out food appeared to cause no harm (individual birds were seen to return time and time again, sometimes in succeeding years), probably did a lot to help birds in the winter, and (perhaps his strongest argument) the practice brought ordinary people into closer contact with wildlife and the natural world.

“Veterinary surgeons, together with members of the public, field naturalists and the bird food industry, have an important part to play if the encouraging trend in our garden birds reported by the BTO is to be sustained while at the same time continuing to protect the long-term health and welfare of our native avifauna.”

In her feature in the Veterinary Record of 7th June entitled “The Big Picture: How feeding garden birds has changed the pecking order” Georgina Mills commented on the BTO report and wrote:

“If feeding continues to intensify as it has done, the increase in numbers and diversity will continue, the researchers say. However, the negative impacts of feeding must also be borne in mind, such as increased disease transmission at feeders, and the potential poor nutritional quality of some food supplements”.

This is an important point. The BTO report does not specifically mention the possible danger of spreading of pathogens (for instance, if the food being offered is not of the highest quality, or if presentation and hygiene are poor) nor of the conceivable risk of inducing other (largely metabolic) avian diseases by overfeeding. These considerations have, however, been taken into account by responsible purveyors and users of garden bird food who have tailored their production, selling and use of products accordingly.

When discussing garden bird feeding with clients, the veterinary practitioner should emphasize the importance of being discerning in the type and quality of diet being provided.

Before bird food is offered for sale to the public it should be subject to gross and microscopical examination and appropriate laboratory tests. A quality control programme for bird diets that has now been in continuous use since 2012 was described and advocated as good practice three years’ ago (Cooper, 2016).

Veterinary surgeons, together with members of the public, field naturalists and the bird food industry, have an important part to play if the encouraging trend in our garden birds reported by the BTO is to be sustained while at the same time continuing to protect the long-term health and welfare of our native avifauna.

Yours faithfully

John E Cooper 1, Margaret E Cooper 2 and Simon King 3

Wildlife Health Services, Norfolk, PE32 1JQ (1 and 2)

and John E Haith Ltd, NE Lincolnshire, DN37 9TU (3)

References

Cooper, J.E. (2016).  The importance of diet quality. Laboratory testing and investigation of diets. In Samour, J. Editor. Avian Medicine 3rd Edition. Elsevier, St. Louis, Missouri.

Knight, M. (1954).  Bird Gardening.  How to Attract Birds.  Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.

28th June 2019

 

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