Blackcaps migration strategy influenced by garden bird feeding

Blackcap. Photo by Mick DrydenFrom Birdguides

New research by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) has revealed that bird food provided in our gardens has helped blackcaps to rapidly evolve a successful new migration route. This is the first time that garden bird feeding has been shown to affect large-scale bird distributions.

Blackcap. Photo by Mick DrydenHistorically, the migratory blackcap was only a breeding summer visitor to the British Isles. However, over the last 60 years there have been surprising changes in the species’ migration behaviour, with birds from central Europe visiting our gardens in winter, rather than heading to their usual wintering grounds in southern Spain. The reasons why the British Isles have become great for blackcaps were previously unclear, but now scientists have been able to uncover some answers, using the extensive data on garden birds and feeders collected by thousands of volunteer birdwatchers for the BTO’s weekly Garden BirdWatch survey.

The new study, published in the international journal Global Change Biology, has revealed that blackcaps are becoming increasingly associated with garden bird feeding over time, and that supplementary foods, particularly fats and sunflower hearts, are affecting their national distribution in winter. The findings also indicate that changes in the British winter climate have been important in shaping the evolution of this new migration behaviour.

Blackcap (female). Photo by Mick Dryden

Dr Kate Plummer, BTO Research Ecologist and lead author of the paper, said: “This is the first scientific evidence that supplementary foods provided in gardens can influence the evolution of wild birds, so the findings are extremely important.

“It’s been suspected for a long time that blackcaps started coming to Britain in winter to take advantage of the bird food being provided in gardens. However, it’s only now that we have actually found concrete evidence to support this, thanks to the efforts of citizen scientists.”

Kate Risely, BTO Garden BirdWatch Organiser, added: “The thousands of people who send us information on the birds and bird food in their gardens can be very proud of the part they have played in this research. It is only by collecting regular records of birds that we can find out how our activities are affecting them.”

As the global environment rapidly changes due to human activities, it is becoming increasingly important that we understand if, and how, species are able to respond. These findings indicate that some species, like blackcap, may be more resilient to environmental change than we previously assumed.

The research is set to continue with an investigation into how garden bird feeding has affected goldfinch numbers, and over the winter the BTO will be calling for observations from people who feed goldfinches in their gardens.

In Jersey, our own Garden Bird Watch results have shown increasing numbers of blackcaps in the Island’s gardens. Interestingly, and supporting the new study, our own monitoring shows that the blackcaps that spend the spring and summer in our woodlands all but disappear over winter while they are easy to find in gardens over this period.

Blackcap. Garden Bird Watch 2002-2015

Blackcap. Jersey Garden Bird Watch 2002-2015

Read the abstract of the full paper Is supplementary feeding in gardens a driver of evolutionary change in a migratory bird species? here

2 thoughts on “Blackcaps migration strategy influenced by garden bird feeding

  1. Very interesting. Every winter we now get at least 2 blackcaps (in our urban garden) regularly at the bird feeder.

  2. My garden has had a resident feeding pair of blackcaps all this winter and still here. Not sure how long they live for but have been coming and going for some years now. It is only recently that i have seen them investigating the feeding stations. The are now enjoying the fat balls and particularly the square fat cake, the female was even brave enough to challenge the starlings for a corner share last week.