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

The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday - - Property -

‘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’

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