Plenty of hungry beaks to feed

Winter weather is bad news for our feathered friends. Birdwatcher ANTONY CLAY says there are plenty of ways to help.

ONE of the unusual traits of the British — and there are many, let’s face it — is that we love animals.

Dogs, cats, horses — we love their companionship.

But we also adore seeing the birds in our gardens and parks and at this time of year many will try and help them get through what are gruelling months for them.

Many birds head south to warmer climes but there are some which actually travel to the UK because it’s warmer — believe it or not — than their normal homes in Scandinavia and even Iceland and Greenland.

People are often seen in their local park feeding the swans, geese and ducks with bread, grain and even special food available from some pet shops and supermarkets.

It’s a great way to get close to nature and for many youngsters it is their first chance to enjoy the wild world and gain an appreciation of wildlife.

But we can also help birds in our own gardens. If we don’t have gardens, birds can be supported in other open spaces and can even be attracted to balconies of blocks of flats.

Schools can help by setting up bird feeding stations in their grounds.

The birds are hungry and if you provide food they will come, though it may take some time while they get used to the new food source. You just have to keep putting food out.

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.

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.

In fact, ask most birdwatchers and they will tell you that watching garden birds is probably what got them into birding in the first place.

So, what do you do to feed birds in the garden? It doesn’t have to be very technical. You could just throw out some bread or scraps left over from your meal. For example, meat fat and mashed potato goes down well. Apple cores or other fruit remains are popular too.

Or you could buy a proper bird feeder from a supermarket, pet shop, garden centre or the RSPB Old Moor nature reserve in Wath.

Tie it to a tree branch or a suitable stand and fill it with peanuts, seeds or mealworms. Of course you could have a few feeders scattered around the garden each containing something different. This way different feeders may prove attractive to different species.

You can even buy feeders which attach to windows using sucker devices which can bring the birds up very close indeed.

Feeders can be metal or hard plastic, but try and avoid the stringy plastic varieties containing peanuts. If these are all you can get, open the feeder and lay the nuts on the ground or bird table as birds can get caught up in the plastic mesh of the bags.

Many people have a bird table on which to place food, and you may be able to attach feeders to that by hanging them from a nail.

Birds don’t expect high fashion or exquisitely-made garden furniture. A cheap and cheerful bird table, even a hand-made one, will prove just as popular as something costing a small fortune.

What you need to do, however, is keep the feeders and bird table clean, especially at the moment as bird flu is devastating wild bird populations.

Tables need to be wiped down with disinfectant and then washed with water. Feeders need to be disinfected and then washed with water regularly. But make sure the disinfectant is cleaned away before reusing them so the birds aren’t harmed.

Bird food can be bought from many outlets these days and can take the form of mealworms, peanuts (not the salted kind), 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.

Kitchen scraps can also be good. Leftover meat from the Sunday meal, especially the fat cut up, and mashed potato are good. Broken biscuits and crumbs are another option, as is bread though this should be wetted beforehand to avoid it swelling up inside the birds.

If you do throw out scraps then make sure any uneaten ones are cleaned up to prevent rats being interested. Unless you like rats, ofcourse.

Also, it is important not to put out meal scraps which contain salt as salt is really bad for gardens birds.

As well as putting food on bird tables and in feeders, also remember that some birds won’t use either and prefer to stay at ground level. So always sprinkle a few mealworms and seeds on the ground, well away from bushes where cats can lurk awaiting their own culinary treat.

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 feeding garden birds has had a significant effect on wild bird populations with more individuals surviving over the winter, 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.

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.

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, collared doves, 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. There are identification hints online, such as on the RSPB website.

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 admittedly.

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.

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.