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The bird-friendly

garden

Winter is hard on birds, but our gardens can be a haven. Help the birds in your garden by providing food, water and shelter

Photographs by Izzy Bunting

Winter is particularly hard on birds. The colder nights and bitter winds mean they can fight for survival – with less daylight hours, birds can struggle to find the food they need to keep them going through the long, cold nights.


January and February are often the coldest months of the year, and birds have to use up even more energy just to keep warm.


And small birds can lose up to 10 per cent of their body weight over just one night – so they need to make sure they consume enough food during daylight hours.

Blue tit

During winter, our gardens become a haven for birds, and by taking some simple steps you can improve their chances of survival through the colder months.


Wildlife charity RSPB wants people to become stewards of their gardens, and help protect the birds that visit. The key things that birds need are food, water and shelter.

  

At this time of year, the countryside food sources that birds rely upon – such as berries and seeds from hedgerows and trees, as well as insects – begin to dwindle.

  

So the first way to help is to offer a wide variety of food. Sunflower seeds and peanuts are popular with many different species – and are an excellent source of energy. You could also offer suet balls or blocks, as these are high in fat and offer an excellent nutritional boost.

Robin

If you're keen to attract robins to your garden, put out some mealworms. And hanging a few suet-filled coconut shells will encourage blue tits and long-tailed tits to visit.

  

You don't necessarily need to spend a lot of money to help the birds. Kitchen scraps like mild grated cheese, fruits such as apples and pears, cooked rice, roast potatoes and dry porridge can give them the energy they need.

  

You can also provide an excellent full-fat winter food by making your own bird cakes or fat balls – a fun activity, that children will enjoy. Melt 250g suet or lard in a saucepan, and add 500g of dry ingredients – this can be any mixture of seeds, chopped nuts, oats, grated cheese, and dried fruit. Mix thoroughly and press into containers – old margarine tubs or yoghurt pots are ideal. If you pierce a hole in the bottom of the yoghurt pot first, you can thread a piece of string through it (before filling!), for hanging up. Leave in a cool place overnight to set, then hang up in a tree, or tip out onto the bird table.

long-tailed tit

There are some foods you should avoid as they can be dangerous for birds. Cooking fat from roasted joints of meat mixes with the meat juices during cooking to make a runny, greasy mixture. This sticks to feathers and stops them from being waterproof. Other foods to avoid are dried coconut, cooked porridge oats, milk, and mouldy or salted food.

  

Ensuring your garden is filled with food will improve your chances of having a successful Big Garden Birdwatch. The RSPB's annual event runs from 25 – 27 January 2020. To take part, all you need to do is spend one hour at any time over that weekend noting the number of feathered visitors to your garden or local green space. You can sign up for the Big Garden Birdwatch at rspb.org.uk/birdwatch.


Keep it fresh

Another essential is fresh water for drinking and bathing. Finding sources of water can be hard with freezing temperatures, but a simple trick will help keep a patch of water ice-free. Float a small ball, such as a ping-pong ball, on the surface of the water and even a light breeze will stop it from freezing over.

Blackbird

Providing shelter from the harsh weather is also extremely important – and something to bear in mind if you're planning to plant new shrubs or trees in your garden over the coming months.

  

Dense hedges with plants such as privet, hawthorn or ivy provide a protective place for birds to rest and roost, safe from predators.

  

Ivy is an excellent plant for all kinds of wildlife. Birds will make nests in thick patches of this evergreen plant, and in autumn and winter the black berries are a superb food source. So avoid cutting it back in autumn if you can.

Ivy
Wren by Vincent van Zalinge

And to keep garden birds on your patch right through until spring and summer, consider putting up a nest box or two.

  

In fact, nest boxes are not just used over the summer egg-laying season – many birds will use them on a cold winter's night. These boxes are frequently communal with many residents packing in together for extra warmth. The record number of birds found in one box is 63 wrens!

By taking just one of these simple steps, you'll be making a huge difference to the birds in your garden. With many of the UK's bird species in decline, they need our help now more than ever. So stock up those bird feeders before the worst of the winter weather hits, and give our feathered friends a helping hand.

Little Green Space January 2020