At the height of the recession, a few of years ago, I read that we in the UK spend around £200 million a year feeding our garden birds to supplement the food they find in our hedging, woods and fields. A jaw-dropping figure that speaks volumes to our commitment to our own back-yard nature reserves, and of our love of wildlife. I, myself, contribute to this sum more than I sometimes care to think about. Now, while I’m certainly not going to advocate that we stop doing this, there is another food source we could be investing in that wouldn't cost us a penny and is equally, if not more, important.
Regardless of whether a bird is a seed-eater or not, nearly all their nestlings are fed on insects and other invertebrates. Pigeons, incidentally, are a notable exceptions to this, feeding a form of milk to their young called ‘crop milk’.
Of course there are many birds that shun seed eating altogether, feeding solely on insects throughout their lives. Some of these birds travel thousands of miles to enjoy the UK’s summer offering of bugs and flies. These include our familiar visitors: swifts, swallows, house martins and, sadly the increasingly rare, spotted flycatcher.
Take time to watch an occupied nest for feeding activity and you will see that it is noticeably busy; parent birds going to and fro with beaks full of insects and other invertebrates to stuff into the apparently insatiable, wide-open, begging baby beaks. These parent birds will be working full pelt just to keep dinner on the table. If there is an abundance of suitable food nearby, then this will help the birds conserve energy and allow them to feed their young more efficiently. When there are scant local food sources the birds will need to search for longer and travel further afield. This is energy expensive and will make life harder, possibly just too hard for a full and successful brood launching.
So we can all help by keeping our gardens stocked with insects and other invertebrates. And this help is needed, it really is. There is much evidence, both anecdotal and research-based, which points to the decline in our invertebrate life. I can remember family summer holidays when my Dad would have to stop the car and clean a bug-splattered windscreen to enable a clear view ahead. That simply does not happen now. There is quiet crisis in our invertebrate life with plummeting numbers of little lives few of us even know the names of. And it does matter - it matters very much indeed - for these invertebrates are so much more than just food for birds.
Sir David Attenborough describes the problem succinctly:
‘If we and the rest of the back-boned animals were to disappear overnight, the rest of the world would get on pretty well. But if the invertebrates were to disappear, the world's ecosystems would collapse.’
A relative newcomer to the conservation scene, the marvellous Buglife that works so hard for invertebrates, notes that of the more than 40,000 invertebrate species in the UK many of them are under threat as never before. The possibilities of local and wider extinctions are worryingly real.
Go into your garden and observe, look for all things insect and bug-like. Do it when the sun’s out and take your time.
If you need an excuse to linger take your cuppa out there or pour yourself a glass of something stronger, and sit and watch. Look at all your flying visitors - you know the familiar bees and wasps, but did you know that there are 24 species of bumble bee, more than 200 species of solitary bee and about 250 species of wasp in the UK? And then there are the butterflies, moths - both day and night flying, flies & beetles.
They all add up to a huge number of individuals and species. All of these creatures have a job to do and an ecological niche to fill. Look on your plants, look on and in the soil; the more you look the more you’ll see. Some you’ll know the names of, many will remain just flies, bugs & beetles. This is your nature reserve in action, thriving and coming together to play a part in the whole ecosystem which is life itself and, of course, of which we are just a part.
Remember too that it’s not just birds that rely on invertebrate and insect life for food.
Frogs, toads, newts and slow-worms will be eating their fair share and if you stay late in the garden you may be lucky enough to see a hedgehog or visiting bats hunting their insect prey.
I can hear some of you responding with yes I can see these little creatures on my plants and they’re eating them. And some of them will undoubtedly be doing just that. On a little allotment area I had grown some broad beans, grown under the helpful and watchful eye of an experienced allotmenteer. And on those beans black-fly arrived en masse. “I’ve got some spray that will sort those out” I was told. This was not the dressing I had in mind for my food, so I politely declined the kind offer and did something else - absolutely nothing. Well-meaning reminders were duly issued and the pending disaster clearly pointed out, but I resisted. Not too long after, the attack did develop, but not as foretold. Seemingly from nowhere a surprising number of ladybird larvae arrived on the beans. They were plainly hungry and the only thing on the menu was black-fly. It didn’t take long for the meal to be consumed in its entirety. No insecticides, no toxins for the plant, the soil, the ladybird larvae or for me. Job done with only the effort of waiting and watching.
We need to think of our gardens as a place to also grow wildlife. If we can learn to love our bugs, to welcome their presence and not reach for our so charmingly named ‘bug-gun’ - a spray-bottle that should more aptly carry a skull & crossbones - we really will take a step in the right direction, making our gardens and our wider environment better places. And if we could bring about this change into our wider farming countryside too, then our birds and other wildlife might just be in with a fighting chance.