Over the past fortnight we have seen an upturn in the numbers of small birds visiting our hanging feeders. Being the festive period, we have been around the house more but we’ve also seen the quantity of sunflower hearts in the feeders falling more quickly, a sure sign that more birds are making use of the supplementary food. While it is the visiting goldfinches that have dominated the feeders, we’ve also seen smaller numbers of greenfinch, chaffinch and the usual great and blue tits.
Also present, but as an occasional visitor, has been the coal tit. This small member of the tit family does well in Breckland, reflecting the fact that it is really a bird of coniferous woodland. Its small size and thin but pointed beak, enables the coal tit to search for insects within the evergreen needles of conifers. Being small has its disadvantages, however, and the coal tit often loses out to the other, larger, species that use the bird feeders. It is interesting to note how the coal tits that visit our garden tend to fly in, grab a sunflower heart from a vacant feeder port and then fly off to feed elsewhere. Larger birds, particularly the greenfinches and goldfinches, choose instead to feed at the port, striking out at other individuals that attempt to displace them.
The use of garden feeders by coal tits has been shown to vary according to the availability of natural food supplies elsewhere. Coal tits also take conifer seed and in those years when conifer seed is abundant they do not make as much use of garden feeders. In years when the conifer crop is poor, garden feeders become more important and are used to a greater degree. This pattern has also been demonstrated for the siskin, another conifer specialist, for which it has been noted that the use of garden feeders increases on damp winter days and drops on dry ones. Conifer cones remain closed on damp days but open on dry ones, determining whether or not their seeds are available to small seed-eating birds like siskin and coal tit. That small birds make use of garden feeders more when food is less readily available elsewhere underlines how the food we provide can help when times are tough.