Winter can be hard on birds. Finding food at this time of year is difficult enough even if the weather stays fairly mild, but when the temperature plummets and there’s snow on the ground, life very quickly becomes a real challenge for our feathered friends. It’s probably just as well that more than half of Britain’s adults feed the birds!
For the wildlife gardener, quite apart from helping the birds make it through tough times, there is, of course, the opportunity to watch your regular garden visitors at closer range and for longer – and the chance that something really unusual will drop in for a feed.
What To Feed
Bread and kitchen scraps were once the typical bird table fare, but today there’s no shortage of pre-packaged specialist foods to choose from – which certainly makes it much easier to keep things hygienic. Some of the most popular kinds include:
- Peanuts – a great favourite, especially with acrobatic tits, but always buy from a reputable source as some kinds can be harmful to birds.
- Sunflower seeds – popular with a number of birds; the black variety have a higher oil content than the usual striped kind.
- Seed mixes – look out for ones that have plenty of sunflower seeds, millet seeds, ground peanuts and flaked maize; as you might expect, little bits are best for smaller birds.
- Bird cakes and fat balls – ever popular additions to the bird table; if they come in a plastic mesh, the RSPB recommend you take it off first to avoid birds injuring themselves.
- Nyjer seeds – small black seeds, packed with nutritious oils; you’ll need a special feeder for them, but it’s worth the effort as your local goldfinches and siskins will love them!
- Mealworms and waxworms – live insect larvae, often sold in pet shops as a live food for reptiles; they are becoming increasingly popular as a winter supplement for insect eaters.
Who’s Coming To Dinner?
The guest list will, obviously, largely tend to depend on where you live – and what food you have on offer – but for most UK gardens the likes of starlings, blackbirds, house sparrows, blue tits, robins and greenfinches would be a fairly typical line up. They are commonly joined by a range of others, including great tits, wild or semi-wild pigeons and doves, woodpigeons, chaffinches and song thrushes, while if you live near woodland, you may also find your garden visited by woodpeckers and nuthatches.
Beyond what you could call these ‘garden regulars’ there are any number of birds which might make an occasional feeding stop, depending on the weather and your luck – and in many ways, not knowing what might stop by next is a big part of the fun.
In parts of South West Wales, the West Country and along the South Coast, chiffchaffs may put in an appearance, while Scandinavian visitors such as redwings and fieldfares are common sights, especially further north. Blackcaps, coal tits and long-tailed tits are also coming into gardens to feed increasingly often – and there are even reports of feral ring-necked parakeets on the bird-tables of the south-east of England!
Water and Shelter
It’s important to remember that birds need water too, especially when their usual sources may have become frozen. It doesn’t really matter whether you opt for a traditional kind of garden bird bath on a plinth or simply offer them a ceramic dish to drink and bathe in – just keep it topped up and ice-free and you can be sure that they will make good use of it.
Birds also need somewhere to shelter during the colder months and they’ll often choose a nest-box to hide in, especially if the weather turns really bad. Although there’s bound to be a nest-box or two already set up in wildlife garden, if you’re planning to add any more, don’t wait until spring. Put them up now and there’s no knowing what kind of winter guests they may attract.
While helping birds in the winter is a really worthwhile thing to do in its own right, it’s also a golden opportunity for the avid wildlife gardener. There’s probably no easier way to enjoy so many hours of easy bird-watching, quite literally on your own doorstep – and you can never quite know what you’re going to see next!