Feed the birds

Attract birds of all types to your garden with expert guidance from naturalist Wendy Carter of Worcestershire Wildlife Trust.

2019’s State of Nature report estimated that we’ve lost 44 million breeding birds in the UK since 1967. This means those of us who love wildlife have a real incentive to do what we can to help - and more than half of us are now feeding birds in our gardens.

 

Just 40 years ago feeding birds was a relatively unusual activity but as our landscape has changed – with the loss of trees and hedges, the tidying up of farms and the use of chemicals on the land that has destroyed insect populations - our gardens have become important refuges for wildlife.

 

Whether you’re a seasoned hand or are just starting out, here’s a practical guide to feeding our feathered friends as winter takes hold. Any effort you make will create a real difference to their chances of surviving the harsh months ahead. It will also be hugely rewarding, bringing colour, life and moments of wonder to your world.

 

Appetising buffet

With a multi-million pound bird food industry offering us everything from sunflower seeds to suet cakes, how do you know where to start? Different birds need different foods so the safest route to success is to provide a variety.

 

Black sunflower seeds provide a high-energy nibble for tits, greenfinches and sparrows; the husks are easy for the birds to peel off but can leave a mess behind so some people prefer pre-shelled sunflower hearts. Nyger seeds were once the sure-fire way of attracting beautiful goldfinches to your garden but, in my plot at least, they shun these tiny seeds if sunflower hearts are available.

 

Peanuts are a favourite with many species, from the diminutive long-tailed tits to the larger great spotted woodpeckers and nuthatches. High in oils and proteins, they can, however, become poisonous if allowed to rot so be sure you replace them regularly and never put them out if they are mouldy. Always put them in wire mesh feeders to protect smaller birds that can’t cope with whole peanuts as they can pose a choking threat, particularly to chicks.

 

Suet is a great energy supply, particularly in the coldest weather. Buy it in balls, cakes and pellets or make your own by adding seeds to melted suet or lard then shaping it, smearing it on pine cones, or putting it into moulds.

 

Mealworms will attract many birds but live mealworms are better than dried ones. If you do serve dried mealworms please avoid doing so during the breeding period as their desiccated nature can be harmful to growing chicks that don’t have access to water.

 

Seed mixes are a good all-round choice as they contain seeds favoured by different species. Pinhead oatmeal and small grains like millet attract a range of birds from house sparrows to chaffinches and reed buntings. Try to avoid mixes that are heavy with wheat, barley or split peas as these can usually only be eaten by bigger visitors like wood pigeons. Mixes that are bulked out with these large grains are usually cheaper but are false economy as they attract a smaller variety of birds.

 

Take care to choose a sustainable supplier, who grows with wildlife habitats in mind, and try to buy UK grown food where possible. Vine House Farm manage their farm sustainably and donate a percentage of profits to Wildlife Trusts; in Worcestershire we’ve received more than £20,000 in the last ten years as a result. The RSPB, also, only supplies bird food that has been grown in line with their Conservation Grade standards.

 

Water is a really important resource for all wildlife, including birds. To keep ice away during the winter months, try floating a small ball in your birdbath; the bobbing motion should help to prevent the water from freezing over in all but the coldest weather.

 

Natural food

Try to make your garden as wildlife friendly as possible. Plant trees or shrubs that will be laden with berries in winter as they will give a natural boost to the food chain; blackbirds and song thrushes will certainly appreciate it. Make sure there’s a diverse range of habitats – from plants to log piles – to harbour the many creepy-crawlies that birds like wrens, dunnocks and blackcaps love to feast on.

 

If your garden is big enough, grow some seeds yourself – sunflowers, for example, will bring bees in summer and birds in winter. And always prune with wildlife in mind, leaving ivy until all the berries have been gobbled up and letting shrubs such as buddleia and seedheads such as teasels, stand until spring.

 

What not to feed

Feeding scraps from your dining table can be both good and bad news so it’s worth pausing to think before throwing something out for the birds. Ask yourself a few questions:

 

Is it processed, with added sugars and salts? If so, it won’t be good for them as salt is actually toxic and can affect their nervous system.

 

Is it sticky? Fat from the Sunday roast, for example, can be harmful as it may end up smeared on feathers, reducing their waterproofing and insulating properties.

 

Does it contain unsaturated fats? These type of calories will be burnt off too quickly and can leave a bird starving, unable to survive a cold night.

 

Finely grated cheese and unsalted meats, cut small, are acceptable but cured meat like bacon is best avoided. Chopped fruit will be welcomed all year round and blackbirds, fieldfares and other thrushes will be particularly pleased if you cut up a few apples or pears on cold winter days.

 

Bread has long been fed to birds and is nutritious in small quantities and as part of a varied diet. On its own, however, it lacks nutritional value so the danger arises if birds eat bread alone. Soaked bread is better than dry and brown is better that white. Avoid feeding bread during the summer months because parents might unwittingly gorge their chicks on it.

 

The small print

A word about bird health and safety. Feeders should be hung up high, out of reach of ground predators like cats. Birds like to know that they can reach the safety of cover quickly so place your feeders or tables a couple of metres away from bushes, trees or ivy. If a feeding station doesn’t work where you initially put it, don’t give up, try it somewhere else.

 

It’s also important to clean your feeders as there is evidence that diseases transmit more easily when bird are invited to congregate to eat rather than feeding in a wild environment. Greenfinches, in particular, have been hit by Trichomonosis which has wiped out large numbers. Wash feeders and birdbaths regularly with hot water and a mild disinfectant and make sure they’re dry before refilling with food.

 

Avoid suet balls and nuts sold in nylon mesh which birds can easily get entangled in. Discarded mesh is also a hazard to wildlife so buy fat balls and nuts loose to put into permanent feeders. Always take care to secure lids on feeders so that curious birds don’t end up stuck inside them.

 

Unwanted visitors

In an ideal world, we’d all have lots of feeders and trays hanging up as well as a seed tray on the ground for birds like blackbirds, robins and dunnocks who don’t like eating mid-air. With all this food around, however, you can attract unwelcome mammals. To minimise this, beware of over-feeding; if the food doesn’t go down quickly, put out less each time. Keep the area beneath feeders clear of waste by regularly forking over the soil or sweeping slabs.

 

In all the years that I’ve been feeding birds I’ve only seen squirrels or rats a handful of times but some people battle with the former on a daily basis. Squirrel baffles, feeders with special guards and guardian cages can stop squirrels to some extent but won’t stop them leaping onto feeders from nearby trees, vegetation or buildings. If it’s a problem, try adding chilli powder to your seed mix; birds seem not to be bothered by it but squirrels can’t stand it!

 

Shelter too

Once you’ve attracted birds to your garden, the next step is to keep them there by investing in nest boxes. Although they are primarily used for breeding, they also provide essential shelter against the elements during winter and may be used as overnight roosts, sometimes by multiple birds. Whether you’re buying one or doing a bit of DIY, try these tips:

 

• Choose a material that insulates well – wood at least 15mm-thick is the obvious option but you can buy boxes made from a compound of wood and concrete that lasts longer. Avoid metal or ceramics as the temperatures within them fluctuates and can end up killing chicks. Be careful to use only nontoxic preservatives and don’t treat the interior.

 

• Aim for an interior size of 130cm2 (20in2). Whilst you don’t want the birds to have to work too hard to fill an enormous space with nesting materials, they will lay fewer eggs in smaller boxes.

 

• 32mm is a good size entrance hole for sparrows and tits, 28mm if you want to restrict it to blue tits; secure it by adding a metal ring around the circumference to stop predators getting in. Sparrows like to nest in colonies so you could try a terraced box with three compartments and entrances. Tits are happier with just one compartment whereas robins like open-fronted boxes.

 

• Ensure any existing boxes are cleared of nesting materials and their associated pests in autumn.

 

• Site your box out of reach of predators, sheltered from prevailing wind, rain and strong sunlight. Open-fronted nest boxes should be tucked into vegetation but hole-nesting boxes should not be obscured by vegetation. Don’t site boxes too close to a feeding area as breeding birds may come into conflict with feeding birds. Similarly, except for sparrow terraces, don’t site boxes too close to each other as bird territories may overlap.

 

Birds start looking for nests from February so installing a box is a great job for the winter and an ideal Christmas present idea. Persevere if your bird box isn’t used in the first year; mine was unoccupied in year one but I’ve had birds nesting in it every single year since. 2019 was the first year that blue tits lost out to great tits so I installed a second box elsewhere and was rewarded with nesting blue tits in my garden too.

 

 

What’s On

 

Thur 19th Dec – The Return of the Pine Marten – talk by Johnny Birks. Pershore, 7.30pm. £2.50

 

Sat 4th & Sun 5th Jan – Log sales - Tiddesley Wood, Pershore. 10am-1pm

 

Wed 15th Jan – Go Wild for Worms – talk by Anthony Roach. Worcester, 7.30pm. £2.50

 

Sat 1st & Sun 2nd Feb – Log sales – Tiddesley Wood, Pershore. 10am-1pm

 

Wed 19th Feb – Snapping early signs of spring in half-term – Lower Smite Farm. £4, booking essential

 

Thur 20th Feb – A Sideways Look Through Birds’ Eyes. Pershore, 7.30pm. £2.50

 

Thur 5th Mar – Britain’s Wildlife – talk by Brett Westwood and Stephen Moss. Malvern, 7.30pm. £15+booking fee, booking advised

 

 

More info www.worcswildlifetrust.co.uk/whats-on

 

 

Get involved

 

• Join more than 60 people in southeast Worcestershire who’ve pledged their patch to help wildlife
www.worcswildlifetrust.co.uk/pledge-a-patch

 

• The UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. Help us to secure a Wlider Future for us all.
www.worcswildlifetrust.co.uk/a-wilder-future

 

For daily updates about wildlife around the county please follow us on twitter @WorcsWT

 

www.worcswildlifetrust.co.uk

Tel: 01905 754919

 


Cover photos courtesy of:
Pete Walkden www.petewalkden.co.uk

Brian Eacock www.eacock.co.uk

 

 

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