Garden Birds

Published on 12 November 2019 in Book reviews

By Mike Toms

William Collins, 2019

Pbk, 454pp; many colour photographs; ISBN 978-0-90-816475-1

£35.00 buy it from the BB Bookshop

(Hbk, 978-0-90-816474-4; £60.00)

A lot of books, articles and leaflets have been written on and around the subject of garden birds and bird gardening, by numerous authors (me included). The appearance of one in the prestigious New Naturalist series (No. 140) might raise eyebrows, but this is something rather different. This is not a ‘popular’ or purely advisory book, but a work of ornithology in the true meaning of the word. The conventional wisdom in those other works is that bird gardening is a good thing and while, with various caveats and qualifications, that is generally confirmed here, this book actually seeks to tell us how and why. While it does not lack information on what to feed birds, what to plant to help them or how to provide nestboxes, it is more about the ecology of birds in the garden environment, showing how they have adapted to it (or not) and what has happened to their status, numbers and distribution.

The background is that 87% of us have a garden of some sort, but that the total UK area covered is not much bigger than that of Suffolk and represents under 10% of the land which enjoys some form of statutory protection. In a wider context, it is estimated that about half the global population of humans live in urban areas and that by 2050 two-thirds will do so. As for the gardens themselves, they are extraordinarily difficult to classify in habitat terms: grouping them under the traditional headings of urban, suburban or rural is useful for research purposes, but things get complicated when you look at the many variables likely to be involved – size, geographical location, neighbouring ‘wild’ conditions, and so on – to say nothing of the obvious problems of access.

That said, it comes as a surprise to find how much relevant study has been done or is in progress. This book allocates no fewer than 50 pages to its References section, with a staggering 900 entries, which shows what a huge task Mike Toms set himself in producing this overview of the present state of our knowledge (and, as he constantly reminds us, how much we still have to learn) about garden birds. The reference material goes beyond work in the UK and includes much from the rest of Europe, from North America and from Australasia. Adding all this to his own considerable expertise on the subject, gained from his work at the BTO, Mike has produced a hugely valuable and informative work of reference that will surely be the standard go-to for years.

Six chapters deal with: the ecology of gardens and garden birds; foods and feeding; nests, nestboxes and nesting; ‘opportunities and risks’ (where there is discussion of bird predators, and cats); bird behaviour in a garden context; and, in a particularly thought-provoking discussion, birds, gardens and people. This final section highlights the important contribution of ‘citizen science’ to the study of garden birds, in which the BTO Garden BirdWatch has been such an outstanding success. The final 125 pages are species accounts, rich in information, of the 48 birds which occur most commonly in UK gardens.

I have to admit that some of the technical language used in the discussions of nutrition and diseases went rather over my head, but that aside I consider Garden Birds to be very well and very clearly written. It has certainly been superbly illustrated. If it sometimes seems to be slanted too much towards those with a reasonable knowledge of birds and wildlife, rather than the ‘interested layperson’, that should not detract from its excellence. Mike Toms must be congratulated for an outstanding job.

Mike Everett