Feeding birds in winter

While most of us will be safe and warm inside this winter, the native wildlife endures a much tougher time during the colder months. Feeding the birds is a great way not only to marvel at Britain's many and varied garden birds, but will also ensure our feathered friends survive the winter.

what and how to feed the birds in winter

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When to feed
Though both the RSPB and the British Trust for Ornithology suggest feeding birds all year round, winter feeding is a priority as it will help to keep our garden visitors healthy through the tough times. At this time of year, it is recommended that food is put out twice daily, in the morning and early afternoon, and keeping the feeding times regular will mean the birds know when to visit your garden.

In spring and summer, the birds will require a less fatty diet, but high-protein foods such as sunflower seeds, mealworms and soaked sultanas and raisins will ensure that new feathered parents can feed both themselves and their young safely.

What feeder?
There are a variety of devices on the market designed to feed wild birds, and what you choose is entirely up to you. A simple bird table, with a raised rim to help keep food in place and a corner gap to allow rainwater to drain, will attract most species of bird.

If you are using a steel mesh nut feeder, it's best to opt for a 6mm mesh in order to prevent beak damage and stop large pieces from being removed, as these can choke baby birds. Seed feeders, which are transparent tubular containers with holes, are ideal for seeds and see mixes, and will attract a variety of finches and tits. However, do not be tempted to put food out in the mesh bags in which they are sold, as these can trap the bird's feet or beaks.

Alternatively, home-made devices such as half-coconuts filled with fat or bird cake can be hung from bird tables, trees or wall brackets, and fatty foods can even be squeezed into holes and cracks of fence posts or logs to attract tits, nuthatches, treecreepers and wrens.

Other birds prefer to feed on the ground, but do be sure to put out only what is being eaten as you may otherwise attract vermin.

What to feed
Many British birds will happily feed on foods that you may already have in the home. For instance, cooked rice (without salt) will be gobbled up in harsh weather, while uncooked porridge oats and mild grated cheese will also be taken. Even wet cat or dog food will be happily consumed, though it is best fed in summer when the worms have dug deep underground, although bear in mind that it can attract large birds like magpies, and the garden bird's worst enemy - the local moggies.

Fat from cooking meat should not be put out as it can smear onto the feathers and remove their natural weather-proofing, and magarines and vegetable oils should be avoided. Lard and raw beef suet, however, are ideal for giving the birds energy and keeping them warm on cold, frosty nights.

Given the right feeder, peanuts are fine as they are rich in fat and will attract everything from sparrows to woodpeckers, but salted or dry roasted should not be given so be sure to buy your supply from a reputable pet or bird feed shop.

Fruit is also an excellent source of energy for the birds if left out and halved. If you are lucky enough to have fruit trees or bushes in your garden, leave some of the windfalls to provide a natural source for the wild birds.

Alternatively, there are a wide variety of bird seed mixtures, nyjer seeds and black sunflower seeds, as well as ready-made fat balls, that will be snapped up and keep the birds healthy throughout the winter. Live foods, such as mealworms, ant pupae and waxworms will attract many species of bird, but do ensure that they are always fresh and remove any dead or discoloured ones to avoid the risk of salmonella poisoning.

Feeding tips
The RSPB advises that bird feeder hygiene is essential, particularly in warm weather. Leftover food can cause problems - on the ground, it can attract vermin, and on a bird table, mouldy food and droppings are havens where parasites and bacteria can breed. If contaminated droppings mix with food, birds can easily pick up an infection.

Therefore monitoring the food supply to ensure you aren't putting out too much is essential. If food remains for days, reduce the amount you are offering. Bird tables and hanging feeders should be cleared and cleaned with a 5 per cent disinfectant solution.

Access to clean water for both drinking and bathing is also important, and these too should be regularly cleaned.

With these simple tips, your garden can provide Britain's wild birds with essential food, particularly during the winter and spring. And providing them with natural and supplementary food sources will give you the opportunity to see these wonderful creatures on your own doorstep.