Hands up if you know who sang the following words:
“Feed the birds, tuppence a bag, / Tuppence, tuppence, tuppence a bag. / “Feed the birds,” that’s what she cries, / While overhead, her birds fill the skies. ” Yes, of course, everyone knows that it was Julie Andrews who sang the lyrics of Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman’s song, ‘Feed the Birds’ in Walt Disney’s film, Mary Poppins. And everyone knows the closing lines of the song, “Though her words are simple and few, / Listen, listen, she’s calling to you: / “Feed the birds, tuppence a bag, / Tuppence, tuppence, tuppence a bag.” Well, it may not be the world’s finest poetry, but don’t forget that the Sherman brothers enjoyed great success, writing more musical film song scores than any other songwriting team in motion-picture history. As well as Mary Poppins, the Sherman Brothers’ film scores include Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Jungle Book, The Aristocats and Charlotte’s Web. And I, for one, cannot afford to be snooty about men whose lyrics bought them so much money and which gave so much pleasure to so many people.
Now, while the poetic merits of the words from ‘Feed the Birds’ may be debated by others, there’s no debate about the correctness of the sentiment expressed in the title. Our feathered friends … to use one of the most hackneyed synonyms known to writers … do, indeed, need our help to see them through the winter. Housing developments, industrial and retail parks, modern farming methods and the passion of many householders for paviour block have all contributed to a reduction in the number of sources of winter food for wild birds and to a reduction in the quantities available. The most obvious is the efficiency of contemporary harvesting techniques, which leave a minimum of uncollected seeds and fruits behind, depriving wildlife of a one-time passably well-stocked larder to see them through the short days of winter. Even when birds could find enough food, they moved closer to human settlements in search of discarded foodstuffs. And today, the need for food brings otherwise shy varieties of birds into our towns and cities in their endless quest for enough to eat.
Tuppence a bag may have been a fair price for birdfood in Victorian London: it certainly won’t buy much of it today! But bakery scraps containing seed make a welcome addition to the winter diet of seed-eating birds; and leaving grass a little longer during the winter months helps a bit, as does pruning shrubs less severely in the autumn, especially berry-producing varieties; and, as a well-known supermarket never tires of telling us, “Every little helps.” Likewise, gardeners who limit their use of chemical pesticides to what is really necessary … in preference to having a policy of wiping out as much insect life as possible … help insect-eating birds.
However, despite these practical measures, winter often takes a heavy toll on the wild bird populations; and many people do buy wild bird food to encourage birds into their gardens as well as to help them through the lean months. There are some straightforward rules about putting out bird food. First of all, make sure that the supply is regular. We would be disappointed to find closed doors were we to go to our favourite fast-food shop for a takeaway meal of an evening. But we can go elsewhere; the disappointed birds, finding no food where they expect some, may have no alternative, particularly if the light is fading and the temperature dropping. Don’t put out lots at one time. Make sure that the feeding area(s) are located where cats and other predators cannot lurk. Clean the feeding area regularly to inhibit the spread of any bird illnesses. And do make sure clean water is always available, particularly during periods of frost. Get to know the birds that frequent your garden in winter.