Winter feeding for wild birds

After a thankfully warmish summer, it won't be long before the cold sets in once again, and it is at this time of year that our feathered friends need a little extra help.

Winter feeding for birds

Pic: Corbis

Feeding the birds throughout the winter will not only keep them fit and well through the harsh freezing weather, but will encourage them to visit your garden - and you'll be surprised just how addictive watching these beautiful creatures feeding right outside your window can be.

What should I feed?
Different food will attract different types of birds. Small seeds like millet will see house sparrows, finches, dunnocks and collared doves alighting in your garden, while tits and greenfinches prefer peanuts and sunflower seeds.

Black sunflower seeds, or sunflower hearts, are an excellent year-round foods for many small birds and contain a high oil content to keep them fit and well, while nyjer seeds are particularly popular with goldfinches and siskins. Peanuts, which are rich in the fact birds need to keep warm during the winter months, are a hit with everything from tits and nuthatches to great spotted woodpeckers, but don't put out salted or dry roasted varieties.

Fat balls are also great for keeping your garden birds happy, but if you buy them in the pet shop, be sure to remove the nylon mesh in which they are sold, as these can trap or injure the birds. It is also possible to make your own 'cake', by pouring melted suet or lard onto seeds, nuts, dried fruit or oatmeal and allowing to set. It can be set into a coconut shell, or turned out of its mould and placed on a bird table when solid. Never use cooking fat from roasting tins or dishes, as once mixed with meat juices and the like, the consistency can smear and destroy the birds' natural waterproofing.

For a treat that will attract a whole host of insect-eating birds, try adding mealworms to your feeding place, and watch the robins, blue tits and even wagtails take their turn at the table. Waxworms, though expensive, may even encourage the shy wren or treecreeper to visit.

When buying insect foods, however, make sure that they are fresh, and remove any dead or discoloured ones, as these can be poisonous to the birds.

How to feed
Pet shops are well stocked with bird feeders of all types at this time of year. Bird tables are suitable for most species and foods, but should be regularly cleaned, with any food remaining at the end of the day removed.

Purpose-made feeders are also a great idea, as they can simply be hung from trees and bushes. Nut feeds, preferably with a mesh of around 6mm, allow the birds to eat nuts without taking large pieces that could harm them or their chicks, while transparent seed feeders, with a hole at the bottom, are perfect for seed mixes and sunflower seeds.

Homemade fat balls can be set into half coconuts and hung, while even filling holes or cracks in a fence post or suspended log with fatty foods will attract agile birds like tits, woodpeckers, nuthatches and treecreepers.

Of course, some birds, like blackbirds and thrushes, prefer to dine on the ground. Feeding trays can be used for these species, or food can be simply scattered on the ground. It is best to use an area that is out in the open, so that any predatory moggies can be spotted early, while it's important to keep an eye on how much is being taken each day, as leftovers can attract vermin. Use different areas of the garden too, so that there is less competition come feeding time.

Lastly, try to feed at a regular time, in the morning and in the evening, as the birds will come to know when there is a treat in the offing and will be more likely to visit on a regular basis.

Take care
Feeding the birds in the autumn and winter provides them with enough nutrition to get them through any hard times, but it's important to be aware of any potential problems it can cause. The RSPB advises monitoring the food supply. Should it be several days before the food is cleared, reduce the amount you are offering, in order to keep mouldy food and the possibility of vermin to a minimum.

Bird tables should also be regularly cleared and cleaned to prevent the droppings or mouldy food providing a home for parasites and bacteria, and most importantly of all, always provide clean, fresh water for bathing and drinking.

Do you feed the birds throughout the winter? Which species have you managed to attract? Leave your comments below...