Feeders and feathers and fear-scapes…oh my!

Greetings, fellow naturalists!

Karis here, with an update, the end of a journey, and the start of something new.

So much can change in a short period of time, and this year is full of the unexpected!

Just two weeks ago, armed with my backpack, camera, and a box of well-loved field guides, I bade farewell to my beloved flat in Cape Town and opened the door to a new chapter, and a new home. Though I had a few reasons to relocate, one factor heavily weighted the decision: green. I so missed having a garden, a place to live and work outdoors, and soak in the sounds, sights, and smells of the natural world.

And so it is that today, I write from the endless charm of a cottage kitchen beneath a grey and drizzly sky, thankful for the thatch-roof above my head and the mingled smells of earth and rain drifting through my window.

As I settled in through my first day in the cottage, I began to notice a few birds: Cape White-eyes calling in the trees, the liquid notes of a Southern Double-collared Sunbird spilling over from a neighbour’s garden, the shrill alarm call of an Olive Thrush. For my own amusement, I began to absent-mindedly write these down—the species name, the date, and a tick if I had seen (rather than just heard) the bird. I pinned the list to my fridge, and left it. Over the next few days, it began to grow. A Hartlaub’s Gull flew overhead. White-backed Mousebirds shared dust-baths in the sand, and a Red-eyed Dove (which sounded as though it was singing IN my ear) startled and burst into song at 04h30 in the morning.

The interest continued to increase when I mentioned the list to my landlords; they were excited by the prospect of having a bird list for the property, and gave me free rein to make the garden more bird-friendly! By this point, I was thoroughly invested—I had been keen to try my hand at maintaining an indigenous garden, and this was the perfect excuse to do so. That same day, I contacted Communitree, a brilliant urban-greening organisation based in Cape Town. Communitree answered my questions and matched my enthusiasm, and I delved into the process of dreaming and scheming a design which will incorporate as many native species as possible, whilst also attracting a wide variety of insects and birds.

Though promising, this level of transformation takes time, and I wanted something to “do” in the interim. So, I enlisted the aid of my doctoral supervisor, Les Underhill, and he responded in the form of two bird feeders, on conditional loan: I could use the feeders so long as I collected observational data and turned it into writing! I readily accepted the offer, and am keen to keep up my end of the bargain. After some deliberation, we decided on the following very basic protocol:

-2 feeders, one surrounded by open space, and one close to a shrub, hedge, or tree,

-2 10-minute bird counts conducted at set times in the morning and afternoon, and a series of 10-minute counts scattered throughout the day, with 30-minute breaks between observation periods.

These simple counts will provide surprisingly rich information. First, the position of the feeders is significant. Les has noticed (as those of you who regularly feed birds in your garden may also know) that one of his feeders consistently attracts more birds. Though many factors likely play into this reality, one is of particular interest; the “busy” feeder hangs from a tree, affording visitors a quick and easy escape either further into the tree or into the nearby bushes, while the less popular feeder stands in the open. This addresses a phenomenon within behavioural ecology called the “landscape of fear.”

This model contends that species which are often predated modify their behaviour within a habitat based on where they perceive themselves to be at the greatest risk of predation. For instance, returning to our bird feeder example, let’s imagine a Cape Sparrow who has a choice between two garden feeders: Feeder 1, a crowded spot next to a shrub, or Feeder 2, a quiet feeder in the middle of the garden. Even though the quality of food at both feeders is identical, whichever feeder our sparrow chooses requires a sort of trade-off. 

If he chooses Feeder 1, he can easily escape from predators, but has to compete with several other birds for food—that takes energy. If he chooses Feeder 2, he no longer has to compete for food, but is at a greater risk of being spotted and snatched by a predator before he can retreat.

Placing one feeder in each location and monitoring which attracts how many birds, of what species, and when can spark thought-provoking questions into the other factors playing into how each bird makes its foraging gamble. Are some sparrows “bolder” than others, and more likely to engage in risky behaviour? Does that risky behaviour pay off, or are “bold” birds more likely to be eaten? Are species which forage in groups more likely to visit a risky, exposed feeder? Does foraging in a group actually reduce the risk of predation? What about visibility? Will some birds engage in riskier behaviour when visibility is poor, and they have a lower chance of being spotted by a predator? These are a just a few examples—there are SO many questions we can ask based only on where we place a bird feeder in the garden!

Feeders are also great opportunities to look at inter-species interactions—which birds are territorial around the feeder (another energy-costly behaviour!) and when? Are male birds more likely than females to be territorial, or vice versa? Does behaviour change seasonally? Though many of these questions have seemingly intuitive answers, they may still bring a few surprises!

Here’s a challenge for all you garden birders: spend 10 minutes each day with a notebook and a pencil watching birds in your garden, and simply write things down as you notice them. Do you notice the number and diversity of species? Do you notice variations in plumage? Or behaviours and interactions? Try this for a week or two, and then review your notes, paying close attention to what you noticed. This is a simple trick for learning what you are curious about. Once you have an idea that interests you, put that curiosity to use! Make a spreadsheet to track the species in your garden each day. Take photos of birds in moult or with unusual markings (and submit them to BOP on the Virtual Museum!). Choose one or two species to focus on, and use an ethogram to keep a detailed account of the behaviours you observe in a thirty-minute block of time. Check out the “Birds” section in this resource from the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland for a few tips on creating an ethogram.

For a simulation of foraging ecology, check out this link. The model allows you to experiment with how predation survival changes when birds forage in groups versus individually.

In addition to generating some interesting ecological ponderings, conducting counts is a great way of monitoring changes in local species composition and phenology over time. What birds are active in the morning? What birds are active day-long? What birds are present for only a few months of the year? What species are moulting, and when? Something as simple as two or three daily counts (and a few photographs for BirdPix) can provide a detailed picture of the species and traits which are most prevalent in a given place at a given time, again, paving the way for more complex and nuanced questions of seasonality, movement, and range.

Well, this has been a very long-winded way of saying…

  1. Gardens are a great place to study ecological principles, and
  2. You can start your own study at home!

I will be checking in every few months or so with an update on my garden situation, and in the meantime, I would love to hear your stories! Have you already noticed interesting patterns, behaviours, or changes at your garden feeders? What questions arise from your observations? Comment on this post or send an email to get in touch. We may even include one or two interesting stories in a future issue of the BDI Bridge.

Happy exploring!


Further reading on the ecology of fear (this is the article that started it all):

The Ecology of Fear: Optimal Foraging, Game Theory, and Trophic Interactions

Joel S. Brown, John W. Laundré, & Mahesh Gurung,

Karis Daniel
Karis Daniel
Karis Daniel has been fascinated by birds since she was young, but while she was at university they became a passion. On a study abroad programme in South Africa, she was captivated by the diversity and abundance of bird life she encountered, and ultimately found herself drawn back to study them further. She completed her undergraduate studies at Wilson College in Pennsylvania. In 2017, she also received the opportunity to study wildlife ecology and conservation at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, where she completed her honours research and developed a focus on conservation science. Karis is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Cape Town.


  1. We are so excited about this fun project in our own back yard. And not just a fun project but some super interesting observations will come from it and be backed with a methodical and scientific approached. Can your next paper be on how to get babies to sleep on demand? Because you’re welcome to use Alex as your study! No ethical clearance concerns with parental approval. We can play bird sounds and determine which birds sounds are most effective for lulling babies to sleep. You can have him every night flr the next 3 months. I’m sure your supervisor will support a paper on this. 😉

Comments are closed.