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

Gardeners' World - - Contents -

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!

gar­den­er­ Jan­uary 2019

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