COUNTRY MATTERS Now’s the time that our feathered friends need us the most
*** HELPING HAND The weather outside may not be that frightful just yet, but a winter scarcity of food means it is vital to feed the birds, says Boudicca Fox-leonard
‘We’re told all the time about robins coming to people’s windows and tapping as if to say, ‘ Where’s my food?’” says Nick Turner, the RSPB’S bird food expert.
Sparrows, starlings, tits, finches, blackbirds and, of course, robins frequent our gardens all year round, with many of us forging rewarding relationships with our feathered visitors. But winter, when food is scarce and the days challenging, is when they most rely on us for a boost.
“There’s never a season when birds don’t need a helping hand. But winter is an obvious one,” says Turner.
Gardeners in the UK spend around £200 million a year on bird food. According to the RSPB, the summer is when they see a spike in bird feeders. It’s when the birds are most busy, and therefore most visible. “People can see them and are getting enjoyment out of seeing them at tables,” says Turner. But in January, before the breeding season, many are hunkered down, simply trying to make it through the dark, short days the best they can. Not unlike the rest of us. So how can we help?
Looking out of the window at your overwintering garden can reveal a stark landscape. There are none of the wonderful insect-attracting wild flowers that offer so much abundance to birds. If they’re lucky, there might be a few berries left on the bush. All of which makes supplementary feeding so important. “We recommend feeding mealworms, suet products and sunflower hearts to give them an energy boost on top of the berries they can get naturally,” says Turner.
If you’re tempted to make your own fat balls, Turner cautions against simply siphoning off the leftover Christmas turkey fat.
Birds will happily polish off leftover Christmas cake or crumbs of biscuit and mince pie, but cooked turkey fat and anything salty can be dangerous.
Cooled fat mixed with roasted meat juices can easily smear on to birds’ feathers and interfere with their waterproofing and insulation. Birds need to keep their feathers clean and dry if they are to survive the cold winter weather, but a layer of grease makes this virtually impossible.
In addition, fat from roasting tins can go rancid if it’s left in a warm kitchen before being put outside, forming the ideal breeding ground for salmonella.
Only hard fats such as lard and suet should be used to make home-made fat balls, which will give birds the energy and nutrients to survive the winter.
The RSPB uses only human-grade beef fat. “A lot of people use cheap filtered darker suet balls that are made of poorer quality fat,” says Turner.
“We also avoid cheap fillers like calcium carbonate – or chalk as it is commonly known. Some people claim
added calcium is a good thing but we worry there is no evidence for this and that too much could lead to hypercalcaemia, which can cause calcification of the kidneys and eggshells that are too hard for chicks to break out of.”
Nets on fat balls are also a no-no. “Birds trap their feet in them. It’s a really important message to get out there. Unfortunately they do still exist.”
Fresh water is incredibly important to birds all year round, and in spite of a mild Christmas, winter can be challenging if it freezes. “Put a cork in your bird bath to stop it freezing,” advises Turner.
Risk of disease is a worrying factor for garden birds. Numbers of greenfinches and chaffinches have slumped over the past decade because of the disease trichomonosis.
Turner says: “It causes lesions on their throats which mean they can’t eat. It’s really horrible.”
If you see it, he says, stop feeding for at least two weeks, until you’re sure those birds have gone away. And clean everything.
Research by the Zoological Society of London and the British Trust for Ornithology suggests that bird tables and feeders are spreading illness because they bring together species that would never normally come into contact. The risk of disease is also increased if bird tables and other feeding stations are not kept clean, so stale food, food waste and droppings accumulate, the report warned. “We encourage cleaning every time you feed,” says Turner.
Rinse feeders with a mild detergent and hot water, and then leave to air dry. “It doesn’t take vlong and will reduce disease massively.” In spite of disease, British gardens have become a haven for many birds that have suffered from habitat loss and urbanisation, and some 48 per cent of households regularly leave food out to help garden visitors.
Turner, who lives in Letchworth, makes the garden of his terraced house more bird friendly by allowing ivy to grow over the fence. “It helps to encourage birds like robins and wrens who tend to nest in bushes and ivy. Wrens are a lovely little bird. They’ve got the loudest song for their size.”
He mostly sees a lot of wood pigeons and collared doves: “I’m not a big fan of them but they need feeding as well. But they eat me out of house and home.”
Starlings also have a bad reputation for guzzling winter food. “Lots of people are a bit funny about them. They’re the likely lads about town. They muscle their way in and eat all of the food.”
The RSPB are often asked to supply feeders that will deter them. “The answer is no, and we don’t want to do that,” says Turner. And in fact, they’re actually a red listed species at the moment, having declined since the early Eighties.
The house sparrow is similarly in decline. Putting nest boxes up now could help to reverse that. While February is traditionally the month of nest box week, Turner says January wouldn’t be too early.
“It means they’ve time to scout it out. You wouldn’t just move into a home without looking at it first. You’ve got a much better chance of getting that bird nesting if you put it up early.”
He counsels against nest boxes with a feeder attached. Not only do they attract predators, but they are also unhygienic.
“With nest boxes, it is important that the birds have a good amount of space for their brood, a minimum area of 10 by 10 centimetres [15 sq in]. Birds will nest in a lot of things but we believe it’s important to give them the best chance of a healthy brood. We also make sure that the wood is of perfect thickness to keep out the cold but doesn’t overheat the birds. Do not use anything but water based stain, as toxins are bad for birds. And ensure there is adequate drainage,” says Turner.
January sees the 40th anniversary of the RSPB’S Big Garden Birdwatch, whose ever-increasing popularity gives the charity some very important information about the state of our birds.
“It’s also an indicator that people are encouraging birds to their garden more and more,” says Turner.
“People are thinking of them as regular little friends to their home. You do get used to them. If you do have a regular bird coming to your garden you do get attached.”
‘There’s never a season when birds don’t need a helping hand’