Help birds survive the year
Winter is when birds need us the most. The RSPB’s Adrian Thomas reveals the essentials to do now and how to provide for birds in your garden all year-round
We are fortunate that so many birds choose our gardens as their home; it’s no wonder we call them ‘feathered friends’. Where would we be without their songs in spring and their family antics in summer? But it is right now in midwinter that we feel most compelled to put out scraps and seeds, when natural food is in the lowest supply. However, if we want to have the greatest effect, then feeding the right food throughout the year can really help, supported by a few other simple actions. And what can motivate us is knowing that our efforts genuinely make a difference to birds’ survival. So what food should you provide? Just as our bodies need a balance of protein, fats and carbs, so do birds. Much of it they must find in the natural environment, but our handouts can be vital, and the first golden rule for providing supplementary food is to go for quality. Yes, it will cost a little more, but it is best for the birds and won’t go to waste. In particular, they tend to ignore cereal, which is used to bulk out cheap mixes and attracts pigeons. If you want, or can only afford to put out, one type of food, I recommend sunflower hearts – they contain the same high calorie content as sunflower seeds, but don’t have husks and therefore don’t make a mess. If you can provide a range of foods, however, the birds will have a choice and you are likely to attract a wider selection. A good three-course meal would include a seed mix, a fat-based product and a protein-rich source such as mealworms. You can also supply that old staple, peanuts, but you may find birds turn their noses up at them. It is all to do with mandibulation! That is where birds have to manipulate food in their beaks before they can swallow it, when all they want to do is grab and swallow – larger birds, like jays and woodpeckers, can manage peanuts, and tits will persevere if they’re all that’s on offer. That’s why sunflower hearts are preferred to larger nuts or those still in their shells – birds are looking for fast-food convenience. Dried foods are good for year-round feeding and store well for months in a sealed container. However, feed live or rehydrated mealworms in spring and summer to ensure chicks in the nest get the moisture they need.
The ideal feeding station
Where you feed is also important. While tits and finches are expert at clinging to feeders, blackbirds, dunnocks and robins are much happier foraging on a flat surface, such as a bird table, short grass or paving. The latter also makes it easier for you to clear up spillage if you need to. In fact, good hygiene is a must. A bird-feeding area can be a hotbed for disease, so clean your feeders weekly using a weak disinfectant solution, swill well and move the location of feeders every month. You can try to tailor your mixes to the season, but I like to keep it simple. I just adjust what I feed according to what gets eaten and what doesn’t – birds are good at telling you what they need. And don’t worry about breaks in feeding, such as when you go on holiday. Most birds visit many more gardens than just yours, and they are perfectly prepared to follow their stomachs. Because birds need natural food, it is vital to ensure that your garden is full of seeds, berries and particularly insects. But how do you ‘grow insects’? You grow plants! Trees, shrubs, flowerbeds and lawns will all help, as will ditching insecticides and letting the birds do the pest removal service for you. Holly, ivy, honeysuckle, teasels and sunflowers are some of the plants to try. Those plants will then, for the most part, fulfil birds’ needs for shelter, with bushes used for nesting and trees offering escape routes and safe perches. If you add a few nest boxes with holes of different sizes to satisfy tits, sparrows and starlings, plus a bird bath and/or a pond with shallow margins, you’ve pretty much satisfied all the needs of garden birds. Your job after all that? Just sit back and enjoy!
gardenersworld.com January 2019