Wild birds scorn organic seed

Posted by Nicole Eckersley on 1st June 2010

Newcastle University bird feederA three-year study at Newcastle University in the UK has found that wild birds prefer conventional birdseed over organic.

Lead researcher Dr Ailsa McKenzie said the results might be of “considerable interest to the general public in the debate over the relative merits of consuming organic food.”

“Our results suggest that the current dogma that organic food is preferred to conventional food may not always be true,” said Dr McKenzie.

“Protein is an essential nutrient in the diet of all birds and mammals and getting enough of it — especially in winter — can be hard.

“We showed that when given free choice, wild birds opt for the conventional food over the organic, and the most likely explanation is its higher protein content.

The study placed pairs of wheat-seed feeding stations in 30 gardens across England’s north.  The birds showed a strong preference for the conventional seed, eating significantly more than the organic. When the feeder positions were switched, the birds ‘learnt’ the new position of the conventional seed and continued to select it in preference to the organic.  The results were confirmed in the lab with a similar study on canaries.

Analysis of the wheat found the conventionally-grown seeds to have an average 10% higher protein content than the organic seeds. Other differences between the samples (e.g. in mycotoxin levels, grain size, energy content or pesticide residues) could not explain the preferences shown by the birds.

“This study is only looking at one aspect of the organic food debate – it does not take into account the long-term health implications of using chemical fertilisers and pesticides, or the often negative environmental impact of conventional farming; for example, other work has shown that pesticides can strongly reduce availability of seeds for birds.

“But it does raise questions about the nutritional benefits of organic food and what consumers are being led to believe.”