Hints & tips to help your birds and other garden visitors this winter
As the autumn leaves start to fall and the weather is starting to turn colder, one thing we must all remember to do is give a little extra help to our songbirds and other wildlife over the winter.
We know that birds and other animals can survive without our help, however this is the hardest time of year. Natural food sources are in short supply and with it being so cold, they need extra food to keep their energy levels up to stay warm.
This is where you can help; we've put together a few simple ideas to try for a safe and inviting garden this winter.
Offer a wide variety of food
Offer them a variety of food, especially fatty foods which are high in protein.
From fat balls to pastry there are plenty of foods that birds love to eat.
Fat balls, fat cakes & Flutter Butter are extremely popular in the winter months. They can contain lard or beef suet, giving our feather friends plenty of energy in the cold months.
These can be purchased from most garden centres or large stores or why not try making your own at home, an activity children thoroughly enjoy. However please do not use chicken, turkey or vegetable fat, as these can be transferred onto the birds feathers during preening, clogging feathers and hindering flight.
Our birds love peanuts, but please do buy peanuts especially for birds, other sources may not have been checked for aflatoxin and could be harmful to birds. We would also recommend chopped nuts instead of whole, so they don't get stuck in their throats.
Seed mixes are another hit in our gardens, however we would recommend you avoid the cheaper versions which contain larger seeds such as barley, lentils or split peas, which are only really eaten by bigger birds such as pigeons.
Sunflower hearts & seeds are another firm favourite but did you know the black sunflower seed is better than a stripy one? The black seed has a higher fat content so are much better for birds. Sunflower hearts don’t have husks that some seeds have. This means birds use less energy, as de-husking will not be required and there will be less waste (and mess) at your feeding station.
Our birds also love a range of fresh and dried fruit (please soak your dried fruit first to avoid it expanding in the bird's tummy). Raisins, apples and bananas are firm favourites, but do be aware if putting out sultanas, as if you have a dog they can be harmful to them.
Birds also enjoy other common household foods such as uncooked porridge oats, bacon rind, small amounts of cake or biscuit crumbs (robins love a bit of Christmas cake), cooked unsalted rice, small amounts of mild grated cheese and unsalted dry breakfast cereal e.g. Cheerios or corn flakes.
Do NOT feed:
Bread, especially white bread; it is not a high quality food and will not give them the energy they need to survive.
Milk can upset their tummies and make them very poorly, as can mouldy or stale food.
Salty food can dehydrate birds.
Desiccated coconut can swell in birds’ stomachs.
Feed on a regular basis
Pick a time each day you will be free to top up those feeders, then your birds won’t waste precious energy visiting and hunting for food in your garden. This can be any time during the day, just try and keep it at roughly the same time.
Don’t use plastic net feeders
The plastic nets around fat balls etc., are very dangerous for birds; they can get tangled up in them, so make sure never to hang them out with the plastic nets on. Most garden centres offer wire cages at little cost.
Don’t forget your ground feeding birds and other small creatures
Certain birds such as blackbirds, robins & dunnocks prefer to feed on the ground.
If you don’t wish to scatter food on the ground, a small dish will be sufficient. Fill with ripe fruit such as apples or raisins, songbird mixes or mealworms. A great way of keeping these vulnerable ground-feeding birds safe from predators, such as free-roaming domestic cats, grey squirrels and sparrowhawks, is to put an old dog carrying cage over the scattered food, trays or dishes. This allows the smaller birds to access the food while keeping predators, scavengers and larger competitor birds like crows, magpies, jackdaws and pigeons out.
Clean water and food will encourage visiting hedgehogs to return regularly to your garden. Minced meat, fresh liver, tinned dog food (not fish based), or even scrambled eggs appeal to these prickly creatures.
Keeping the food under a platform or ridge tile will help to prevent other animals such as cats, dogs and foxes stealing the hedgehog's food. Build or buy a small feeding station or house to put the food into that will only allow hedgehogs to get in.
Be aware – hedgehogs like milk but it may cause severe diarrhoea in youngsters. It is best to provide fresh water each night in a shallow bowl.
Don’t let your bird baths freeze over
When it freezes, birds struggle to find a natural source of water as ponds & puddles may be frozen over. Keeping your bird baths, ponds or even a water bowl clean and frost free will really help them. To stop them freezing over add a clean ball (eg golf or ping pong ball) or wobbly rock to the water.
Many birds will be grateful for clear patches in the snow and ice. Grit and other nutrients available from the soil and ground are also needed to help with digestion and general health.
Think about shelter the next time you’re planting your garden
Like us, birds look for shelter to keep warm. Evergreens are a good source of shelter and will offer them some comfort in the cold weather.
Some ornimental conifers offer good cover as do privets, laurels and Pyracantha. Holly and ivy provide great cover and can be a saviour for many small birds.
Making a windbreak can be an effective way of keeping an area of your garden clear from drifting snow and bitter winds, allowing the birds access to feeders during the winter.
An old Christmas tree, or a pile of branches and other foliage can be placed on the ground. Adding a sheet of plywood to serve as a wall will drastically reduce the wind. Behind the contraption, on the sheltered side you can clear the snow from the ground and either scatter seed or use ground feeders.
Providing a place for birds to hide near to a feeding station should encourage them to come as it means its only a short distance to the food and water which allows them to expend as little energy as possible to reach their meals. this way they have more energy to stay warm!
Don’t forget that predators will be hungry too!
In the cold weather predators will need to eat more to keep warm as well. There are a few things you can do to avoid them snacking on your songbirds. Place bells on cats' collars so that they can alert the birds when they are too close. Predator-proof feeding stations are also very helpful.
How to help more wildlife in your garden this winter
Leave undisturbed wild areas in your garden – piles of leaves or brushwood can make the perfect nest in which animals can hide, rest and hibernate.
If you have a compost heap, this will become a welcome habitat for toads, and even grass snakes and slow-worms.
If your garden pond freezes over, ensure you make a hole in the ice. Toxic gases can build up in the water of a frozen pond, which may kill any fish or frogs that are hibernating at the bottom.
Never break the ice with force or tip boiling water onto the pond, as this can harm or even kill any fish that live in it.