With summer well and truly behind us, our thoughts turn to cosy jumpers, warm drinks and snuggling down for the evening. As the seasons change, so does the activity in your garden and you may have noticed a lull in activity as autumn progresses. But there’s no need to worry as during this time the birds in our garden abscond to the countryside to take advantage of nature’s plentiful bounty
Hedgerows full of berries, buzzing insects and nuts aplenty are keeping our birds well fed before the cold weather comes rolling in. Prolonged periods of cold weather leave birds vulnerable as natural food sources become harder to come by and water sources freeze over. More energy is needed just to keep warm and the short days leave less time to find something to eat. It’s then that we start to see a return to our gardens, and feeding garden birds during winter can potentially be the difference between life or death for a small bird.
Over 60% of the UK regularly feed their birds – and new research suggests that this helps around 196 million birds a year. As a nation of wildlife-lovers, it’s obvious that we want the best for our birds but what are the dos and don’ts to be aware of?
First, consider your tools. Birds feed in different ways and this will influence which bird feeding equipment you’ll need for your garden during winter. A bird table will accommodate most birds whilst tits, siskins and greenfinches like hanging feeders. Dunnocks and thrushes hop along the ground so food should be scattered but kept away from cover where cats can jump out from. Sparrows and tits hang eagerly on fat-filled coconut shells dangling from a tree or your bird table.
If you’re new to feeding birds, don’t be discouraged if your feeders and tables aren’t attended to immediately – it can take a little while for birds to find you. Feeding regularly will help show that your garden is a great place to come to, and you will eventually have a steady stream of visitors coming to your feeders.
A bird food seed mix is probably the most common food that you will find but make sure that it offers all the nutrients that your birds need! A good mix will have lots of sunflower hearts, millet, canary seed, naked oats, kibbled maize and sunflower seed.
Avoid anything with large amounts of wheat or any with beans, lentils, dried rice, red dari, barley grains, split peas or oilseed rape as these are added to cheaper mixes to bulk them up and are largely ignored by most birds.
Nyjer and sunflower seeds are packed full of oil and make great all-year round food. Nyjer seeds are adored by goldfinches and siskins but these black seeds are particularly small so you’ll need a special feeder. Black sunflower seeds are better than striped ones as they have a higher oil content but just be aware that birds will leave the husks and so they can be a little messy. You can buy them without the husk (search for sunflower hearts) and these make a popular no-mess food.
Peanuts are a traditional bird food, popular with finches, nuthatches, tits and woodpeckers who eat them from hanging feeders. Only buy peanuts from a reputable source, as they contain a natural toxin called Aflatoxin which in high doses can be harmful to birds. Never feed dry roasted or salted, and always put them in a feeder so that young fledglings won’t choke in them.
Another essential for vulnerable birds is fresh water for drinking and bathing. Finding sources of water can be hard for birds when there’s been a freeze, but with a simple trick you can help to keep a patch of water ice-free. The RSPB recommends floating a small ball, such as a pingpong ball, on the surface of the water as a light breeze will stop an area of water from freezing.
As birds come together at feeders and bird baths, diseases can be spread between them. The best way of preventing this is to make sure your equipment is cleaned regularly using a non-toxic cleanser such as Ark-Klens. Give feeders a quick wipe over every time you fill them but clean thoroughly every other week. Bird baths should be rinsed daily to prevent the build-up of algae, droppings and leaves but should be given a thorough clean every week or so.
Providing shelter from the harsh weather is extremely important. Putting up a nestbox in the autumn will give birds a great place to roost in and shelter from the elements. These roosts are frequently communal with the birds packing together for extra warmth. The record number of birds found in one box is 63 wrens!
Feeding your wild neighbours needn’t be an expensive affair. Many of our leftovers are good sources of fat and protein for birds. Chopped up unsalted bacon, crumbled cheese, pastry, suet crumbs, cooked potatoes, and old apples and pears are all suitable. Dried fruits such as raisins are good too but don’t put these out if you have cats or dogs, as eating these will harm for your pets.
Avoid cooking fat from your Sunday roast or Christmas dinner. Fat will have merged with meat juices during cooking, producing a greasy mess that can smear on birds’ feathers, reducing their insulation and waterproofing.
Bread is ok for birds if used sparingly and part of a more varied menu: while they’ll usually eat it, it doesn’t have anywhere near the nutritional value of some of the foods listed above. While fresh coconut is very good for birds and a good source of fat, carbohydrates and vitamins, you should never offer desiccated coconut as this can swell up inside their bodies.
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If you have the space, plant berry bushes such as rowan and you’ll get flocks of winter garden birds feeding on your berries. You might even get exotic-looking waxwings which come over from Scandinavia just to feed. Hedges also provide nesting places for birds, as well as a safe spot to roost. House sparrows are extremely gregarious, often going around together in small flocks, and love big hedges where they can hide together and chat away to each other. Grow delicious seed-full plants such as millet, teasel or sunflowers and let the seeds drop for the bird such as goldfinches later in the year.
By Caroline Offord, RSPB