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With songbirds beginning to nest, householders naturally feel tempted to put out plenty of food so that the parents have a ready supply for feeding their broods. The RSPB used to discourage this practice, believing that it was bad for the health of the chicks; but now the society has modified its advice, and says that only peanuts are positively dangerous, because lumps may physically choke infants. If peanuts are dispensed at all, they should be put into containers with fine mesh, so that foraging birds can peck out only small particles. Hygiene is also important: salmonella on the bird table can be just as deadly as salmonella in the kitchen.

In fact, recent research by the British Trust for Ornithology suggests that parent birds distinguish between artificial and natural food. Although they take items such as peanuts and sunflower seeds for their own consumption, they prefer natural sources of protein such as insects for their offspring - and there is nothing better than juicy caterpillars for inducing growth spurts. Whatever food they are fetching, the industry of small birds is astonishing: trip counters have shown that a pair of bluetits, for instance, may make more than 400 visits to their nest in a

single day.

Duff Hart-Davis