After a strangely warm autumn, winter is seriously kicking in now, with snow and winds of 100mph and more in some parts of the UK during the last week – and this stormy weather looks set to continue. It’s getting bitingly cold for us humans, but can you imagine what this weather is like for wildlife; especially for the birds in your garden?
Birds can really suffer in such severely cold conditions, particularly young adults and the old or sick. They all need food with a high fat content to help them stay warm in their roosts during the cold winter nights, and if they can’t find enough suitable wild food, they simply won’t survive.
Which is where you come in. As the colder weather begins to bite, putting some food out for the birds in your garden could help them get through the icy winter by supplementing their meagre wild diet at this time of the year – and hopefully give them a better chance of breeding come next spring.
Feeding the birds in your garden (or even on your balcony) is also an immensely rewarding process. It’s fascinating to watch as various types of birds visit your feeder or bird table – in my mum’s small suburban back garden, for example, just one bird feeder brings in more than half a dozen different species, including a very cheeky, very territorial robin who acts like he owns the place!
And if you have children, putting food out for the birds can be a great way of getting them interested in wildlife and the natural world, even if you live in an inner city area. Growing up in London, I can clearly remember as a child carefully hanging a bird feeder out by the kitchen window, and watching impatiently for any new avian visitors to it.
However, there is a lot of confusing and complicated information out there about what (and how) you should and shouldn’t feed garden birds, so I’ve put together a brief guide to show you how you can join with millions of other Brits in helping to look after some of our favourite wildlife.
What to feed:
This can depend on which birds you wish to attract as well as which birds are common in your area. However, at this time of the year, birds need food with a high fat content to keep them warm and ensure their survival, so try some of these: good quality bird seed mixtures, black sunflower seeds, nyjer seeds, peanuts (although these must be of good quality as cheap peanuts sometimes contain a toxin that can be fatal to birds), bird cake and food bars, fat balls, live mealworms, or fresh coconut in its shell.
You can also put good quality human food scraps out for the birds, including the traditional bread! Birds will also happily eat crumbled or grated mild cheese, lard, suet, pastry, stale cake, crumbled biscuits (moisten if very dry), cooked plain rice, potato and pasta, raisins and other dried fruit (soaked in water first), bruised fruit such as apples and pears and breakfast cereals.
What feeders to use:
Bird tables and bird feeders can be equally effective, but it’s really important not to put out bird food of any kind in those nylon mesh bags – birds, particularly small ones, can get their feet caught in the mesh, injuring and sometimes killing them. The holes in the mesh itself are often too big, meaning birds can easily access large chunks of food (for example, peanuts) that could be big enough to choke them.
A steel mesh feeder with holes of about 6mm will be just right for most birds, or use a special seed feeder if you’re putting the smaller sized bird seed out. If you’re using a bird table or tray, make sure it has a rim to keep the food in place, and small gaps to allow rainwater to drain away.
Make sure you site any feeders or bird tables in a clear area, away from any large shrubs or trees where cats or other animals could lurk, ready to pounce on your birds. You can’t prevent the local moggies from doing what they’re hardwired to do (although our cats were never particularly talented when it came to hunting live prey!), but you can minimise the effects by the careful siting of your feeders.
When to feed:
It hasn’t always been the case, but many people actually feed garden birds all year round these days. Theoretically, however, if you want to feed the birds in winter, you really should start putting food out as early as October (this allows the birds to get used to there being food in your particular garden), but even putting a feeder out when a cold snap starts is better than not feeding at all!
Make sure you put the food out regularly – early in the day for preference – and monitor consumption so you can judge how much food needs to be put out each time and whether more is needed at any point during the day. Try not to put food out in the evening as it may attract vermin rather than the birds you’re expecting (a lot of birds will be roosting by then anyway).
What birds to expect:
This really depends on where you live and what food you put out – but even in inner city areas you’re likely to attract a variety of different birds. Common visitors to bird tables and bird feeders include starlings, house sparrows, blackbirds, blue and great tits, robins, greenfinches and collared doves, but you’ll probably spot others too.
In some areas, you might attract more exotic species – a friend of mine in Liverpool gets regular visits to his feeder from a beautiful pair of woodpeckers (he also has owls in his garden, something I’m very jealous of!), or perhaps those colourful, noisy ring-necked parakeets might even pay you a visit if you live in the south-east.
At this time of the year, you might get some seasonal visitors too, as there are many birds from colder climes who like to spend the winter in this country. Fieldfares and redwings, for example, are Scandinavian birds who regularly overwinter in the UK, and they will frequently visit gardens where there are fruiting plants available to them – they love berries (see below for more on wildlife gardens).
Make sure you clean your feeders or bird table regularly and clear away any rotten food and droppings that may be scattered around the feeding area – otherwise it can become a breeding ground for infections and other nasty bugs that can devastate the local bird population, as well as affecting other wildlife and pets.
If you’re putting food out for the birds, always put out a container of fresh water too. Like all animals, birds need to drink and bathe, so water is necessary, especially if what you’re feeding them is quite dry. You’ll need to check the water frequently for ice in this weather, replace it on a daily basis to ensure it’s fresh, and you’ll also need to clean the container regularly.
As a long-term tactic for attracting birds and other wildlife to your garden, it’s worth thinking about growing plants and herbs in your garden that will provide extra food (in the shape of berries, nuts, fruit and the insects that are attracted to many plants) for the local feathered population at those times of the year when natural sustenance may be short.
Finally, I’d recommend investing in a decent bird book which will help you identify any unfamiliar visitors to your feeders, and keeping it easily to hand for those moments when you spot a new bird in your garden – I’ve found my bird books very useful in situations like that (another good place to identify any mystery birds is the Bird Identifier section of the RSPB’s website).
Good luck and let me know if you spot anything exciting on your feeders this winter!
The RSPB website also has a shop where you can buy good quality feeders and bird food, alongside books and other bird-related goodies.