Haute cuisine for our feathered friends

Robins can be attracted to a bird table by providing mealworms

Now the weather is getting colder, it’s time to think about feeding the garden birds. Birdwatcher ANTONY CLAY serves up some advice.

ONE of the best ways to get close to nature is to feed the birds in your garden. This incredibly popular activity across the UK brings wild creatures close to you and helps them survive as the weather gets colder and bleaker during the winter months.

To see wild creatures up close and personal, and knowing that what you are doing could mean the difference between life and death for them, is very satisfying.

Like feeding the ducks in the local park, it can also introduce children to the wonders of nature and steer them away from computer games and TV.

Staring out at the birds can be a fascinating experience: seeing the relationships between different species, seeing how they react to their own kind, finding out what they prefer to eat and what they don’t.

You can also learn what’s out there and find out how to distinguish a great tit from a blue tit, a blackbird from a starling, a dunnock from a house sparrow. Ask most birdwatchers and they will tell you that watching garden birds is probably what got them into birding in the first place. It is certainly how it started for me.

The good thing about feeding the birds in your garden is that it takes relatively little effort. You could just throw out some bread or scraps left over from your meal e.g. meat fat and mashed potato goes down well, in my experience.

Or you could hang a feeder from a tree branch and fill it with peanuts.

Great tits are usually one of the commoner visitors to a bird feeding station

Years back this was pretty much how you fed the garden birds but nowadays it can almost become a Cordon Bleu dining experience for our feathered friends if you indulge them in every culinary offer available from supermarkets, garden centres and nature reserve shops, not to mention the many online suppliers of bird grub.

You can now stuff the birds with mealworms, suet nibbles, suet balls, coconut halves stuffed with fat, Niger seeds, sunflower seeds, special seed mixes, insect or fruit-laced fat blocks… The list can go on and on.

And how they choose to dine can also be an opportunity for you to show off to the neighbours. You could have a simple flat bird table on a pole or you could have a multi-layered table, with separate feeders hanging down the side, or a metal post with arms from which peanut holders and fat holders can dangle like decorations on a Christmas tree. You can also hang the feeders from every possible branch in the garden, or even stick feeders to your window.

The feeders can be metal or plastic, be designed to favour species like the tits but keep away the greedy starlings, and even be made to deter the local squirrels (should you want to).

Feeding the birds can be a lot of work but, no matter how much you want to fork out and how extravagant you feel you can be, the most important thing is to feed them in one way or another. In bad weather, many birds will perish through lack of food, particularly the smaller species like wrens, tits, goldcrests and finches, so getting a food source easily becomes absolutely vital to them. They will even come to rely on it which means that you have to continue feeding once you have started.

There have been scientific studies showing that the British habit of feeding garden birds has had a significant effect on wild bird populations with more individuals surviving over the winter to breed in the spring and summer, boosting populations at a time when many species, even well-known ones, are seeing their numbers in trouble.

Given that man has taken so much away from the natural environments of our birds, feeding them could be seen as a small price to pay and a great way to boost nature.

I have found in recent years that ‘my’ birds at home have become slightly more picky. The occasional blue tit samples the peanuts but the nuts now mainly seem to be consumed by, of all things, the local collared doves.

The raiding parties of starlings ignore the peanuts completely but just love fat and, in particular, mealworms. They can polish off a whole feeder of mealworms in minutes, literally, though how they find the time to eat in-between bickering with each other baffles me.

Feeding the birds is to some extent quite experimental. They will like certain foods and not others and if something seems perennially unpopular then don’t bother buying it again. Birds in different areas may like different things. Perhaps my local birds’ lack of enthusiasm for the humble peanut is because they aren’t used to them where I live. Having said that, I would suggest that peanuts are one of the more popular bird foods elsewhere.

You have to remember that there are some species which don’t like to feed at bird tables at all so putting some food on the ground is also important. Dunnocks, perhaps better known as hedge sparrows, are one example of this kind of bird. Ofcourse, if the worst weather happens, even these ground feeders will feed at a bird table if they are desperate enough.

An elaborate bird table

If you have not put food out before it might take a while for the birds to discover your offerings so don’t be put off if nothing turns up to feed immediately, or even for a few days. Once they know it is there, however, the birds should be regular visitors if you keep putting food out.

You should see bird table regulars like blue and great tits, house sparrows, robins, starlings, blackbirds and even wood pigeons, but you might also get surprise visits by birds you don’t expect like nuthatches, siskins, jays or willow and marsh tits.

Buy a bird identification guide if you don’t have one. There are plenty on sale, some better than others.

Ofcourse a big influx of small birds might also attract the attention of a bird of prey like a sparrowhawk but that’s nature, and it would be a splendid sight to see one. Not quite so hot for the small bird on the receiving end of its talons though.

Putting water out in a suitable container is as important as placing food. Birds need to drink and they need to bathe to keep their feathers in tip-top condition, particularly during winter when they need to keep warm.

Another very important thing to remember is hygiene. Birds, like people, can pick up infections and in recent years many small birds have suffered from a number of ailments which may come from sharing dirty feeders.

Every now and again thoroughly disinfect and clean all feeders and bird tables, even replacing them every few months if you can afford it. Don’t leave food hanging around for a long time, particularly on the ground as it could attract rats and other pests.

You can have a lot of fun feeding the birds in your garden, and the birds will certainly appreciate it in their own way. We are a nation of animal lovers and showing our appreciation of wild creatures is a great thing to do through designing our gardens for wildlife, supporting groups caring for the environment and, at its most basic and pleasing, just watching the birds feed on the food you have given them. It’s a simple but worthy delight.

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