There are few things more rewarding than watching garden birds chow down upon tasty morsels that you’ve laid out for them. Keeping our feathered brethren well fed during the winter months when food is scarce is especially important, so here are a few handy tips to keep them chirpy…
Let it dangle
One of the easiest ways to feed birds is by stuffing some seed into a feeder and letting it dangle freely from a tree or fence. Take a trip down to your local garden centre and you’ll be confronted with a vast array of feeders to choose from, ranging from cheap and cheerful mesh receptacles to wallet-busting seed palaces. Birds aren’t that picky, so cheap is fine – just make sure your chosen feeder has no loose parts or wide mesh that could inadvertently ensnare one of your feathered visitors.
The positioning of your feeder is important though. If you can, dangle it from a tree, or site it on a fence, close to a hedge where birds can hop in if they feel frightened and flighty. Just be aware that a hedge can also act as an ambush base for cats, so give Tiddles a stern talking to before placing out your feeder. If you’ve gone for a posh, free-standing bird table, place it out in the open so birds can see they are safe whilst chowing down on the tasty morsels you have prepared.
What seed to feed?
For a catch-all option that will satisfy a variety of bird species, choose a ready mixed bag of seeds. It’s always best to go for established brand names, and maybe paying a bit more for better quality seeds if you can. You will often find that the cheaper, bumper bags of seed mix contain large amounts of wheat and barley to bulk up the weight. This can be a false economy – birds will often dig out the chaff with their beaks in order to reach the tastier grain, and you’ll end up having to fill your feeders twice as fast. You also run the risk of attracting rodents, who will gather in your garden to hoover up the waste.
If you want to be specific, you can attract different bird species depending on what food you offer…
* Black nyjer seeds come from the Guizotia flower Guizotia abyssinica – a stumpy, annual herb that originates from the Ethiopian Highlands. These high protein seeds are a particular favourite of goldfinches, nuthatches and great spotted woodpeckers. Serve them scattered on a feeding dish, or you can purchase specialist bird feeders that come equipped with small dispenser holes to stop the tiny seeds gushing out when you fill them up.
* Sunflower seeds and sunflower hearts (kernels) are highly prized scran for many species. Blue tits, coal tits, great tits and greenfinches will all flock to your feeder to get their greedy beaks on these high energy treats. Sunflower hearts will also attract bullfinches, but be warned – these handsome chaps can be a nuisance if you have apple trees. Bullfinches will make a beeline for apple blossom, and will merrily peck away at your beloved buds. Keep those feeders topped up to distract them from spoiling next year’s cider supply.
* Crack open a tub of dried mealworms (but prepare your nostrils for their unholy stench) to attract robins, starlings and blackbirds. If you plan to put them out during nesting times, soak them for a few minutes so that the worms are easier for young birds to digest.
* Fat balls are great energy providers giving a ready supply of nourishment over the winter months. You can acquire shop bought ones, but it’s easy enough to make your own. Grab a handful of lard or suet, combine with a mixture of seeds and mould it into a ball. Polyunsaturated margarines or vegetable oils should be avoided as the greasy consistency can gum up beaks and cause fatty smears on feathers.
* Don’t forget to dish out water! Pecking on seeds and nuts is thirsty work, so leave out a fresh supply for birds to sup. To prevent it freezing over in winter, float a table tennis ball in your birds’ supply. Providing it doesn’t get too windy, it will glide around on the water’s surface and prevent ice from forming.
Tips for a bird-friendly allotment
Being the caring, sharing types (and after a particularly stressful incident involving a blackbird and some loose gooseberry mesh) we tend to use very little netting to protect our crops from avian attacks. After all, birds are our pals. Not only do they help pollinate our plants, they also help keep some of the more destructive insect pests in check. As we see it (and just as long as they leave some for us) birds deserve a bit of home-grown tucker.
Most allotment owners will be only too aware of a pigeon’s penchant for brassicas, but there are plenty of other plants that will encourage birds if you allow.
* Blackcurrant berries (Ribes nigrum) are a particular favourite of the blackbird, so leave a few aside when harvesting for your cassis and share the love.
* The seeds of the globe artichoke (Cynara scolymus) will provide an oil-rich feast for a variety of species.
* Try to resist tugging up teasel (dipsacus fullonum) as their spiky seed heads are a beloved snack of goldfinches and tits.
* Likewise, sunflowers (helianthus) which will attract the attention of sparrows and finches.
Finally, good news for lazy gardeners. Leaving patches of nettles will attract insects and become a wriggling banqueting suite for insect-loving birds, whilst a rambling, overgrown ivy presents the ideal nesting spot for robins. What else has attracted birds to your garden? Let us know in the comments.