Wildlife always battling for survival during the winter, when creatures like birds struggle to feed they are lucky to have us to step in to help.
After the long hot summer we’re all braced for winter, and salads and ice creams will be replaced with hearty casseroles, warming soups and hot chocolate in front of the fire. But for our feathered friends, the switch to the colder weather isn’t so easy to feed during winter and can be a brutal battle for survival as the temperatures dip below freezing and natural food sources come to an end for birds. Berries and seeds are quickly stripped by hungry birds in autumn, water sources will start to freeze over and insects are almost non-existent.
Birds like blackbirds and song thrushes who often feed on the ground and can be seen tugging juicy worms from the grass, will have to forage further afield under trees and bushes. Tiny birds like blue tits and wrens who weigh little more than a pound coin will have to make even more journeys back and forth to find their lunch and each journey uses up vital energy. But luckily, we can do a lot to help feed birds during winter, and the hospitality we offer in our gardens can make a real difference.
So what’s the perfect menu for hungry garden birds? Feeding them is easy and doesn’t have to be expensive – and is extremely rewarding! Here’s the RSPB’s top tips on what to feed your garden birds during winter…
Nuthatches, tits, finches and great spotted woodpeckers are just some of the birds that love these delicious treats. They’re a real superfood, bursting full of energy – you may even see small nuthatches stealing away a large nut and burying it in your garden to eat later! Peanuts sometimes contain high levels of natural toxins so make sure you buy them from a trustworthy supplier.
Bird Seed Mixtures
This is the most common food and great for lots of different birds. It’s good to get one with small seeds for dunnocks, sparrows, finches and collared doves. Mixtures that use wheat, barley, beans, lentils or dried rice will mainly attract bigger birds, like pigeons, which will scare off the smaller birds so it may be worth putting this somewhere different if you have both. Some bird food mixtures can be really cheap to buy, but make sure you check the ingredients as they are often filled out with things which offer no nutrition at all.
Black Sunflower Seeds
These are great all-year-round seeds, but with a high-oil content they’re perfect for helping birds build up fat to keep warm over winter. The hearts (the seeds without the hard outer coating) are a popular no-mess food and will attract prettily coloured siskins and chaffinches.
This oil-rich, energy-giving black seed is highly nutritious and may well entice goldfinches, greenfinches and siskins into your garden, if they are already in your area. It’s best to use a special nyjer feeder with a seed tray to reduce waste because these seeds are so tiny.
Birds Cake and Food Bars
During the colder months, it helps to feed the birds in your garden something a little heavier. Fat balls or suet bars are excellent winter food and you can either buy them or make them. Leave suet or lard in a room to warm up, then cut up into chunks in a bowl. Throw in bird seed, raisins, peanuts and a little grated cheese, and mix with your fingertips. Keep squidging until the fat holds it together, then stick into half a coconut or an empty yoghurt pot. Hang upside down from your bird table or tree for your hungry guests!
These will be devoured by birds like longtailed tits, starlings and blackcaps. The balls are really nutritious and high in energy, and can be put outside whole or crumbled into smaller pieces. Just make sure you remove any mesh bags they may be packaged in as beaks and feet can get caught in them.
If you’ve filled up on your dinner, some of the leftovers can go straight onto the bird table. Chopped unsalted bacon rind, dried fruit, old apples and pears and crumbled cheese will all be enjoyed by your garden visitors. As we near Christmas, treats like crumbled up pastry from any surplus mince pies will go down a treat too and offer a valuable source of energy. However, there are some foods you should avoid as they can be dangerous for birds. Cooking fat from roasted meat combines with meat juices during cooking to make a runny, greasy mixture. This sticks to birds’ feathers and stops them from being waterproof. These juices are often full of salt too, which is toxic to birds. Other foods to avoid are dried coconut, cooked porridge oats, milk and mouldy food.
All birds need fresh water for bathing and drinking but it can be difficult with many ponds freezing over. Keep your bird bath topped up, and float a ball on the surface to stop the water from turning into ice.
Like us, birds need food, water and shelter to survive so if you’ve been thinking about putting up a nestbox but assume you’ve missed the prime nesting season, fear not it’s never too late! Birds may use your nest boxes to shelter in over winter and with any luck will have found it so comfy, they’ll come back during the breeding season to raise their family!
And of course its not just birds that visit our gardens at this time of year. Hedgehogs may well snuffle their way under your fence for a good feed before their winter hibernation so you can leave out some wet cat or dog food, or dry cat biscuits, if your pets are willing to share!
Contrary to popular belief, you should never feed hedgehogs milk or bread as they can’t digest them properly and it upsets their stomachs. If you need an excuse not to tidy up the garden after the summer, creating a haven for insects, small mammals and also birds is the perfect reason. Keeping grass a bit longer, leaving piles of leaves or twigs and not moving any bigger pieces of wood that you may have lying around will all create places for creatures to wriggle into.
For more information on feeding garden birds and giving nature a home, visit www.rspb.org.uk