Gardening is for the birds? Here’s what to grow for your feathered friends
It's never been more vital to support garden birds. Here's how to feed them.
Particularly in the winter landscape, the delightful movement of birds is a great asset to any garden, large or small. Birdsong too is charming, though it is more a feature of the spring breeding season. But who has not been stopped in their tracks in the dimming winter twilight by the piercing alarm call of a blackbird, disturbed as it settled on its sheltered night-time roost.
The care of garden birds has become an import aspect of gardening for many garden owners, and it is important for birds, too. Supplementary feeding not only has been credited with helping to maintain wild bird populations, but may even have a role in reintroducing species; the woodpecker is reported to have arrived and bred in Wicklow, for instance.
Like humans, birds' basic needs are food and shelter. Supplementary bird foods are easily bought and fed to birds, but natural foods are even more important in the volume of available food and the variety of feeding species. Fruit and berries, slugs, snail, earthworms, leather-jackets and other insects and grubs, and any kind of seeds, even weed seeds, are food for bird species, such as thrushes, wrens and dunnocks, that never come to a bird table, being ground-feeders.
Trees and shrubs provide shelter and nesting sites, while evergreen bushes, and ivy are hugely important in winter.
Planting for bird food and shelter is a longer-term project, but supplementary feeds can be of immediate value as birds face into winter nights with only fluffed-up feathers for protection.
A succession of frosty nights can be lethal, but so too can a drenching of rain in downpours such as have occurred in the past week or two. Reflecting the increased interest in feeding birds, a much bigger range of feeders and feeding materials is available and the casual throwing out of a few crusts now seems antiquated.
Foods for wild birds are based on nuts and seeds and, in some cases, added fats. These are intended for seed-feeding species, which are mostly the birds wanted to visit. The seed and nut-feeders, such as blue tits, finches and siskins, are more acrobatic in flight and in taking food from nut-feeders. Some garden birds are not as agile and must feed from a flat bird table, or even just from the ground.
Most people who feed birds are not too concerned about having a wide range of birds in the garden and they mainly want the active species that are fun to watch, especially if the feeders are placed near a window.
Bird feeders can create problems. Big birds such as crows and magpies can rule the roost, especially in a rural garden, quickly gobbling up food from a bird table, and chasing other birds away. It is difficult to deter these big birds, short of covering a bird table with mesh that allows access for smaller species.
Squirrels are increasingly becoming a problem on nut feeders, which they simply break open, and on bird tables. This is a significant problem in other countries and some manufacturers now offer squirrel-proof feeders. Bird food laced with chilli powder can deter squirrels, the chilli apparently not bothering the birds.
Bird feeding stations can become a focus for predators. There has been a big increase in raptor birds around the country and hawks often swoop through a garden in rural areas intent on ambushing feeding birds.
In towns, cats stalk bird tables. When setting up bird tables and feeders, make sure there is a big, bushy tree or shrub close by for a quick escape. Bird tables and bird feeders should be washed down and disinfected from time to time as bird diseases can be spread inadvertently.
Apart from their colour, movement and song, garden birds help to control pests such as caterpillars, which are avidly eaten by blue-tits, and slugs and snails which are important food for blackbirds and thrushes, both superlative songbirds.
It will soon be time to deck the halls with holly, hang the mistletoe and dress the tree. But this year why not seek a little floral inspiration with a masterclass from interior stylist Niamh MacGowan who opens her Blainroe home in Co Wicklow on November 30 and December 7 for lunch, a glass of fizz and tips and ideas for nature-inspired decorations. Tickets, €85, including lunch, booking essential, niamhmacgowan.com