Don’t Feed the Magic Reindeer!

You’ve all seen it. It’s on sale at all the craft fairs, it’s available on Amazon, and on eBay to name but three sources. Playgroups and reception classes make it for their children to take home. Someone may even have given some to your children already. I hope that someone wasn’t you, because I have some bad news.

This stuff kills wildlife.

Magic Reindeer Food is sold in little cellophone packets, tied with a festive ribbon and with a cute festive poem on the attached label. If it looks like porridge oats mixed with craft glitter with maybe a few seeds and sequins mixed in, it’s because that’s exactly what it is1. And you know what? Not only is the glitter inedible, it can also contain toxins which are absorbed from that cute little Christmas robin’s gut when he comes bob-bob-bobbing along very early in the morning and eats it before you are even awake2. As if that’s not enough, the sharp edges of the glitter can damage the lining of that gut leaving Mr Robin open to all kinds of diseases.

Of course, robins will not be the only ones to take advantage of the feast. Mice, rats and squirrels will eat it, and so will hedgehogs if they are awake, and hungry enough. Then there are the invertebrates, the slugs, snails, worms, etc.

You might not care too much about the rats, the slugs and the snails, but they will all suffer, because Magic Reindeer Food is pretty indiscriminate. And think about the wider issues; do you imagine that this stuff magically disappears after Christmas? No. It will get washed down into the soil, where it will not only utterly fail to decompose, but may pick up toxins from weedkillers and pesticides, and eventually some will find its way into streams, dykes and rivers where it stands a good chance of ending up inside a fish, or a bivalve like a mussel or a clam.

All this might not sound very important to you, but in fact microplastic is becoming a big problem in the environment – as anyone who has watched nature documentaries lately must be beginning to realise. We are now being told that since the ingestion of microplastics begins with the very lowest forms of life, which are then eaten by progressively larger animals, the amount of microplastics is being concentrated (along with those toxins) into fish destined for our own tables, and into animals which eat fish, like otters and seals. Some of these toxins affect health, including fertility. There are now whole, doomed, dolphin and orca pods which cannot breed because of the pollution in the seas.

If you are now thinking, ‘Yeah, but the small amount of glitter in my little packet of Magic Reindeer Food won’t make a lot of difference – it’ll be fine!” Well, join the club. Thousands – if not millions – of people across the UK and the US are thinking the same thing.

How much glitter does that add up to? How much wildlife will it kill, do you think? Will the 2016 batch of glitter be in your next tin of sardines?

There is, however, an alternative. Online, you can find many wildlife-friendly recipes for Magic Reindeer Food which contain the oats, but also quality bird seed, dried fruit, nibbed nuts, etc. There are even recipes for harmless, gelatine-based ‘glitter’ to which you can add natural colours like beetroot or spirulina powder. A little chilli powder in the mix will deter rodents – they don’t like chilli whereas birds don’t care, and the important thing is, it won’t harm them.

1 To be fair, there are Magic Reindeer Foods out there which do not contain glitter. I can’t say whether these are safe or not, because it depends what’s in them, but clearly they are going to be better than glitter.

2 From Wikipedia:

“Furthermore, plastic particles may highly concentrate and transport synthetic organic compounds (e.g. persistent organic pollutants, POPs), commonly present in the environment and ambient sea water, on their surface through adsorption. It still remains unknown if microplastics can act as agents for the transfer of POPs from the environment to organisms in this way, but evidence suggest this to be a potential portal for entering food webs. Of further concern, additives added to plastics during manufacture may leach out upon ingestion, potentially causing serious harm to the organism. Endocrine disruption by plastic additives may affect the reproductive health of humans and wildlife alike.”

No birds on the feeders

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Well, OK. I exaggerate a tad It’s not ‘no birds ever’, it’s ‘very few birds’.

It’s winter here in jolly old England, and my least favourite month of the season: February. January can be vicious, it’s true1, but February seems to hang onto the worst of winter with bitter obstinacy, and March with it’s blue skies2 seems months away. Usually.

This year, it’s been quite mild. There have been some days when it’s been warm enough to go out without a jacket, and I’ve been too hot in my walking boots.

We live on the edge of the village, so on one side of us there are open fields, and on the other the houses continue, and grow denser. Usually we get a fair variety of bird visitors in winter, including magpies, jackdaws, fieldfares, goldfinches, blue tits, great tits, starlings, dunnocks and the occasional green woodpecker. Not forgetting the robin (singular) and last year we had Bob the blackbird, who would hop into the conservatory to clean up any dropped bits of kibble from Jeffie’s dish. He got quite impatient if breakfast was late, or if Jeffie didn’t drop any, but Jeffie usually did drop quite a lot so that was alright. OH got quite used to going into the conservatory with his cup of tea only to see Bob’s truculent little face pressed against the glass door. If he’d had fingers, we’re convinced he’d have been tapping them, while muttering things like ‘Bloody lazy humans .. Come on, come on! Do you think I’ve got all day?’

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This year, the birds have been conspicuous by their absence. We have two bird feeding poles, each with a hanging seed feeder and a mesh tray. I put ‘no mess’ bird food into one feeder and a ‘winter warmer’ mix into the other, and mealworms and a corn mix into the trays for the starlings, jackdaws and the aggressive little bastard robin3. I sprinkle mealworms occasionally into the dormant vegetable trugs for Bob, because blackbirds are ground feeders by choice. I also sprinkle a small amount of seed mix on the ground for the dunnocks, but I don’t know why I bother because the starlings tip enough onto the ground anyway once they get here.

But that’s the problem. This year, the bird numbers are way, way down. I have had, at the most, five starlings on a feeding station at one time, whereas usually, there are somewhere around fifteen or twenty.

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The dunnocks are still hopping around in ones and twos, but the collared doves, wood pigeons, tits and so on are, quite simply, infrequent visitors. I’ve seen a jackdaw once, and I haven’t seen a goldfinch or a woodpecker4 this winter at all. Even Bob is conspicuous by his absence. Good heavens, I’ve only had to buy one pack of each type of food for them! I’m filling the seed feeders once a week, instead of every couple of days.

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I don’t think it’s a lack of bird numbers. I think it’s the unseasonal weather. I think that the birds are finding plenty to eat in the fields and hedgerows without having to venture into gardens – which is why the mealworms are going, I suppose, mealworms being to the winter bird diet as a restaurant meal is to us; something rich and special, to be grabbed if you can.

There’s a ‘Winter Invertebrates’ thread on a wildlife forum I belong to, and it’s really quite busy with sightings of flies, slugs, beetles etc all awake and doing when they should be asleep, and there are flowers blooming which shouldn’t be5. No wonder the birds aren’t at the all-you-can-eat buffet we call the feeders! What with all this untoward activity, plus the habit farmers have of planting crops earlier and earlier, they have the equivalent of a roast dinner out there for the taking!

Ah well. I bet come nesting season they’ll be back. For a brief month or so the feeders will be emptying as if they had holes in the bottom.

Oh .. wait … they do!

1 … and so can March, April, May, September, October, November and December. In fact, you can throw in June, July and August as well, because I can remember some vicious days during those months too, like the day we battled to the get to the school’s summer fete in driving snow one July dressed in our winter’s finest and with our umbrellas turning inside out, and the August day I tried to cycle into Brighton from the north against a full-on, bitterly cold gale. In fact, just go and listen to Flanders & Swann’s ‘A Song of the Weather‘, and you’ll get the idea.

2 See footnote one.

3 People seem to have such an affection for the robin that they tend to overlook the hugely aggressive nature of this little bird. They berate starlings for being dirty, noisy, antisocial and aggressive, but in fact starlings are a) no dirtier than robins, although considerably less dainty, b) extremely social with a very organised ‘family’ structure, and c) only aggressive with each other. I have never seen one chase a bird of another species away or attack them in any way, but OK, you’ve got me on the ‘noisy’. Robins, on the other hand, will kill their own mate if she doesn’t bugger off the minute raising the family is done with, and likewise the nestlings if they hang around once their red breast feathers develop. They will attack small birds of other species without provocation, and will even attempt to kill a stuffed model robin, or their own reflection in a window.

4 Though I know the woodpeckers are around because I hear them.

5 Like the white rambling rose at the bottom of the garden, and the periwinkles, for goodness’ sake!