Secret Life of Birds Revealed by Scientists and School Children

8th July 2016

Birds prefer high energy foods in winter and high protein foods in April and May School children and scientists observe how birds react to changes in their environment Outreach project revealing insights into behaviour of birds selected to present at renowned science exhibition Nature lovers in Britain should feed birds high protein foods, such as mealworms, in spring, and then switch to high energy foods, such as sunflower seeds, in winter, according to a new project presented to the public this week (4 July 10 July 2016).

The Secret Life of Birds, a project launched by scientists at the University of Sheffield, is being conducted with school children from Maltby Academy to discover how birds are reacting to changes in their environment. The project has been established on fields close to the academy where pupils are working together with researchers from Sheffield's Department of Animal and Plant Sciences to understand how birds behave and the pressures they face in their environment. Birds have a limited amount of energy and resources, which mean they face decisions on what behaviours to invest in, so the research team has been observing birds in the area to discover what they have been investing in and why this is the case. The initiative was launched in September 2015 and it has now been chosen to exhibit its findings at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition a festival showcasing the UK's most revolutionary research. The Secret Life of Birds is the only outreach project in the country selected to attend. Dr Nicola Hemmings, who leads the project at the University of Sheffield's Department of Animal and Plant Sciences, said: -The habitats of birds around the world are changing, so it is now more important than ever to understand how these changes are affecting them and whether they are adapting to survive. -The students have been conducting a range of experiments throughout the year, using purpose-built feeding stations and wildlife cameras to see whether different species of birds like different foods and if these preferences change throughout the year. -The students found that in winter, birds generally prefer high energy foods such as sunflower seeds. They also prefer food that is easy to eat, such as de-husked sunflower hearts rather than husked seeds, presumably because it saves energy to process them. -However, in April and May we saw a clear shift in feeding preferences towards high-protein mealworms. The pupils hypothesised that this diet change was due to chicks hatching and requiring high-protein food from parents to help them grow and develop. As part of the project, scientists from the University have been helping children at the academy use a range of experimental approaches to test bird feeding and breeding behaviour. The pupils have then recorded their findings and experiences on a dedicated blog. -The students also found that different bird species prefer different types of feeding stations. Blackbirds and dunnocks were seen to prefer ground feeders, whereas blue tits and coal tits prefer raised ones, so in order to attract a broad diversity of birds to a site, you must vary the type of feeding station you have, Dr Hemmings added. In addition to their long-term bird behaviour studies, the project has also inspired pupils to conduct mini-investigations into a range of bird-related phenomena, such as bird egg evolution, bird song analysis, and decision-making in wild birds.

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