Wednesday 22 November 2017

Beginner's guide to helping birds survive the winter

Protect and enjoy the range of birdlife in your garden over winter, says BirdWatch Ireland's Niall Hatch

Niall Hatch

Winter is a tough time for Ireland's wild birds. Each year, as the weather grows colder, BirdWatch Ireland is inundated with calls and emails from concerned householders wondering what they can do to help their feathered garden visitors to survive.

The key to helping is to remember that birds' lives revolve around one thing: food.

The imperative to secure a reliable food supply is the reason, for example, that most of our obligate insect-eating bird species -- such as swallows and cuckoos -- are forced to migrate to Africa at the end of their breeding season, as well as why vast numbers of geese, ducks and wading birds flock to Irish wetlands each winter from their now-frozen Arctic breeding grounds.

The risk of starvation is also the driver that prompts many of our smaller omnivorous and seed- eating birds to seek out the refuge of our gardens when cold weather hits.

Feeding the birds that visit our gardens, parks and schools has become an extremely popular pastime in Ireland in recent years, and surveys show that it is increasing year on year.

It can quite literally mean the difference between life and death for many birds, and, as an added bonus, allows us to see some of Ireland's most beautiful creatures right outside our own windows.

For many, it marks the beginning of a lifelong fascination with wildlife.

So, where to start? Stale bread, of course, is the traditional garden bird staple. In small quantities and supplied in conjunction with other foods it does no real harm, but it is not the best option, being rather low in essential nutrients.

If you do feed bread, it is best to go for wholemeal or wholegrain rather than white, broken into small pieces and moistened with a little water to make it easier to swallow.

Far better, however, is stale fruit cake, which is much higher in fat and sugar: bad for us humans if we overindulge, but a very useful source of quick-release energy for birds that need every calorie they can get in order to stay warm.

Peanuts are one of the most popular and successful garden bird foods of all, and are virtually guaranteed to attract a wide range of colourful garden visitors, including blue tits, great tits and adorable long-tailed tits.

It is important never to put loose peanuts out on a bird table or on the ground, as they represent a real choking hazard for small birds: instead, always put them in a wire mesh peanut feeder, designed to permit birds only to take one small bite at a time.

Please also take care never to use peanuts that are damp or show any traces of mould. Although harmless to humans, this mould is exceptionally poisonous to birds. Likewise, salt is toxic to most birds, so always avoid salted peanuts.

One serious downside to peanuts is their ever-increasing cost; feeding peanuts can be an expensive proposition these days.

Luckily, variety is the key when it comes to feeding garden birds, and there are plenty of cheaper options available too.

Of these, seeds are the most important of all, being particularly beneficial to members of the finch and sparrow families. If you were to choose just one type, you should go for sunflower seeds.

Best provided via cylindrical plastic hanging feeders, it is the food of choice for chaffinches and greenfinches, as well as the declining house sparrow.

Two different varieties are available -- those with black shells and those with black-and-white-striped shells. Most birds, for whatever reason, tend to prefer the former.

Sunflower seeds were once the preserve of strong-billed birds that could crush the seed husks, but you can now also buy pre-shelled sunflower seeds, often sold under the name 'sunflower hearts'.

These are perfect for birds with smaller, weaker bills, such as robins and coal tits, and are also the only food that tends to attract the shy bullfinch -- always a very welcome garden visitor.

Other types of seed are available too, and there is now a large range of different wild bird seed mixes on the market. Some of these are far superior to others.

Beware of mixes that contain lots of cheap 'filler', such as wheat, barley and dried peas, which most small birds find hard to digest.

If you see birds flinging much of the seed out of the feeder on to the ground in pursuit of the more desirable sunflower seed or millet, it is a good sign that your chosen mix is not up to the job.

When it comes to commercially produced bird food, you tend to get what you pay for, and many of the cheaper mixes represent false economy.

One additional type of seed I would certainly recommend is nyjer, a fairly recent arrival on to the market which has revolutionised garden bird feeding.

It is a very small, fine black seed that works best when fed using a specially designed feeder with narrow feeding ports and a tray on the base, and it is a perfect mimic for the wild weed seeds favoured by many of our smaller finches.

Acrobatic siskins and redpolls adore it, and it is practically guaranteed to attract good numbers of goldfinches -- surely one of the most beautiful Irish bird species of all.

Often overlooked, fruit will attract several species of bird which may not otherwise visit your garden. Apples and pears cut in half and placed on the ground will attract blackbirds and song thrushes; if they happen to be a bit bruised and soft, so much the better.

In particularly hard weather, these fruits can also mean salvation for redwings and fieldfares -- migratory thrushes that tend not to recognise other garden bird foods as being edible.

Spearing cut apples on to the ends of branches will also attract blackcaps, a species which has now come to depend heavily on garden foods for winter survival.

Smaller fruit such as grapes will also be taken, and a coconut sawn in half and hung upside down from the branch of a tree or the corner of a bird table is welcomed by members of the tit family in particular.

Kitchen leftovers can make great bird food too, and are best left on top of a bird table or other raised platform.

In particular, don't waste any solid fat -- it is a perfect source of energy for garden birds. Lumps of suet may be hung out, and meat trimmings, bacon rinds and table scraps will also be eaten.

The commercial 'fat balls', which can now be bought in many shops, often prove popular. If they come inside a plastic mesh bag, however, be sure to remove it to prevent the feet of small birds becoming trapped.

You can also make your own version by pouring melted fat (suet is best) over bread or cake scraps to make 'bird cake'. This can be made even more nutritious if some seeds, nuts, oatmeal, grated cheese or dried fruits are added; some commercial versions even include dried insects.

You should use half a pound of fat per pound of dry ingredients, and coconut shells or yogurt cartons make ideal moulds.

Just as important as food, especially when temperatures drop below freezing, is a regular supply of ice-free water.

Birds need to drink and to bathe every day, and when ponds and puddles freeze over they can easily perish.

All manner of commercial bird baths are available, but upturned dustbin lids work just as well, especially if tilted to provide a 'deep end' and a 'shallow end'.

Change the water every few days to ensure it remains clean, and in low temperatures topping up with a kettle of boiling water each morning should be enough to keep ice at bay for an hour or so at least.

If you would like to do even more to help garden birds, you might like to take part in BirdWatch Ireland's Garden Bird Survey this winter.

It is a simple, fun way to get to know your garden birds, and the data collected provides conservationists with a detailed picture of the health of garden bird populations across Ireland.

A word of warning, though: it can become highly addictive.

Full details are available at, where you can also buy a range of bird food and feeding equipment, as well as support BirdWatch Ireland's vital conservation work by joining as a member.

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