They’re called feathered friends for a reason, says Elly West. This month our gardening columnist is urging us to do our bit to help birds’ survival this winter by making sure our gardens can act as wildlife corridors
Being outside in a garden is a joy for many reasons, and being at one with nature is top of my list. It’s a privilege to do our bit to host the abundant wildlife that relies on our gardens for food and shelter. While some forms of wildlife are more welcome than others – slimy molluscs are, and always will be, the enemy – most of us enjoy the sight or sound of birds in the garden. They’re called feathered friends for a reason. They often eat said slimy molluscs, for starters, but they also add another dimension to our enjoyment of the great outdoors.
It’s satisfying and exciting when new or unusual species visit the bird feeder, and there’s something very gratifying and heartwarming about the sight of a trusting robin that hops as close as it dares to our feet, cocking its head in its search for live titbits unearthed as we turn the soil over with a spade. Bird song on a summer’s day can quickly transport us away from the stresses of modern living if we practise mindfulness and allow ourselves to stop and listen.
Gardens are increasingly important for wildlife, especially in urban areas where they can act as corridors for nature to travel along. And as winter sets in, it’s even more important to do our bit in helping birds’ survival by supplementing their forageable food with seeds, nuts and other specially prepared bird feeds.
There’s a multi-billion dollar global industry dedicated to feeding garden birds, and the British Trust for Ornithology says that the composition of bird communities can potentially be transformed by long-term garden bird feeding. A paper released earlier this year states; “The popular pastime of feeding the birds is significantly shaping garden bird communities in Britain. The populations of several species of garden birds have grown in number, and the diversity of species visiting feeders has also increased.”
Their results show that while in the 1970s bird feeders were dominated by house sparrows and starlings, their numbers have been in rapid decline over the last 30 years. Today other species are more commonly visiting feeders, such as goldfinches and woodpigeons.
So it seems that our actions can make a difference. Blue tits need to eat up to 40 per cent of their body weight each day and in the winter months, when natural food is scarce, it’s even more important to put out food that can help their survival. The most obvious way to encourage birds into the garden is with bird feeders, and there are plenty on the market to choose from. Whether you go for a hopper, ground feeder, seed feeder, a squirrel-proof wire contraption, or old-fashioned bird table, make sure it’s positioned away from the house in a spot where birds can spot danger easily, to reduce opportunities for predators such as cats and sparrowhawks.
…Balls made from suet or fat are great in winter as they are high in calories, and are likely to attract blue tits, long-tailed tits and great spotted woodpeckers…
Be patient; it can take days if not weeks for word (tweet) to get around and for birds to start visiting your feeder, but once they know it’s there they are sure to return if you make sure it’s always well-stocked. Buy quality bird food from reputable sources, and avoid giving bread as it isn’t nutritious. Also, avoid sugary foods. Greenfinches and sparrows love high-energy sunflower seeds, while goldfinches, robins and siskins are attracted to smaller niger seeds. If you give peanuts, make sure they’re in a feeder with a small wire mesh, as birds can choke if they are able to access larger chunks. Chaffinches, woodpeckers and nuthatches are especially keen on peanuts. Clean feeders regularly to help prevent the spread of disease, and remove anything that has gone mouldy.
Balls made from suet or fat are great in winter as they are high in calories, and are likely to attract blue tits, long-tailed tits and great spotted woodpeckers among others. Dried mealworms may not look very appetising but birds love them, and they make a nutritious and tasty treat packed with protein for sparrows, robins, tits and blackbirds. Water is very important as well, all year round, especially for seed-eating birds that have dry meals, so make sure the birdbath is regularly filled with fresh, clean water and hasn’t frozen over in the colder months. Even better, include a wildlife pond in your garden with gently sloping edges where birds can bathe and drink.
As well as putting food out for birds, we can help them by growing shrubs and trees for cover, and even for nesting in, as well as those that provide food. The ones with plump, juicy fruits and berries, or seeds rich in oil and fat are best for your bird populations. Rowan, ivy, pyracantha, holly, hawthorn, honeysuckle and cotoneaster all provide rich sources of food that birds will love. Grow sunflowers and teasels for the seed heads; also coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea).
If your garden becomes a reliable source of food and shelter, then birds will become regular visitors, and you can enjoy the knowledge that you’re helping wildlife, encouraging a natural pest and predator balance, and maybe enjoying some beautiful music into the bargain.
The Big Garden Birdwatch If you want to help the RSPB with its Big Garden Birdwatch, now in its 40th year, it takes place at the end of January, so keep an eye on the website, rspb.org.uk, for exact dates and more information. More than half a million people took part in the last event, providing vital information to help monitor bird populations and creating a snapshot of different species’ numbers across the UK. All you have to do is sit at your window and record the birds you see in the space of one hour.
Plant of the month: Honeysuckle This twining evergreen climber is a classic for cottage garden schemes and can quickly cloak a fence or wall, providing scent and colour through summer. The flowers attract lots of insects, which in turn attract birds then, in autumn, the berries provide a feast for species including thrushes, warblers and bullfinches. It’s a good choice where space is tight, as it grows vertically, and can also be left to scramble through a hedge. Once well-established, honeysuckle also makes a good nesting sight. Plants like well-drained, moist soils in full or partial sun and can be cut back in late spring or early winter to keep the size in check.