In the garden bird calendar, midwinter is high season. There are more individual birds of more species visiting gardens than at any other time of the year. But it’s no coincidence that gardens around the country can be teeming with birdlife right now: they are there for one reason, and that is the search for food.
In many parts of the country, January and February see the coldest temperatures of the year, with the greatest likelihood of ground frosts and snow. Even after a mild autumn, resident birds and winter visitors alike may be forced to travel widely searching for food to survive.
There are many dangers facing birds at this time of year. They struggle to keep warm in freezing conditions, and they should be conserving energy rather than expending it looking for their next meal. But in winter food is in short supply, with insects and grubs much harder to come by, and in a freeze-up ground-feeding birds like thrushes and Robins can find earthworms and other invertebrates impossible to dig up.
Some natural food sources remain accessible in spite of the weather, so if you have berry-bearing bushes like cotoneaster or trees like rowan and hawthorn, then you are already making an important difference to your garden birds. But the number of species able to exploit such food sources is limited, as are the berries themselves – you will soon find that a party of Blackbirds or a flock of winter thrushes can quickly strip a shrub of its berries – and there is only one way to be sure of helping: by making a constant supply of high-quality bird food available, whatever the weather.
How Can You Help Your Feathered Friends?
The best way to help birds at this time is to make an important New Year resolution – to ensure they always have a steady supply of food when they need it. If you haven’t already started your winter feeding programme there’s still time to make a real difference, and the sooner you can provide your avian visitors with the nourishment and shelter they deserve, the better.
For the ideal winter menu for your feeding station, first consider the range of species that typically visit your garden. For a good few of them, a high-energy seed mix like Ultiva® Gold will be the most important offering: this should be put out on the ground (predators permitting), onbird tables and especially in feeders, allowing species as diverse as Wood Pigeon,Dunnock, tits and finches to come and feed.You may want to augment this staple food with other feeder seeds like sunflower hearts(widely popular), niger (for Goldfinches) andpeanut granules (for other finches, especiallyGreenfinch).
Space and budget permitting, your feeding station can be expanded to provide offerings which will attract less numerous garden birds.Treat balls are often popular with Long-tailed Tits, while a well-secured basket with a suet treat, placed in a prominent location like a fencepost, acts like a beacon to passing Great Spotted Woodpeckers; you may well find they end up on your other feeders too!
For thrushes, a supply of old apples on the lawn will be popular once they have gone soft; chopping them in half or into quarters will speed up the process. These, combined withscattered seeds and a topped-up bird bath, are all highly visible indicators to birds of a rich feeding area, and will help draw many species in from far and wide.
Water is essential for drinking and bathing as they need to preen feathers to insulate from the cold so remember to keep your bird baths clean and ice-free.
You can also provide your garden birds with somewhere to sleep, too. Use roosting pockets or nest boxes lined with dried grass or nesting wool and you may find that species such as Wren and Dunnock will adopt them during the winter months.
New Year’s Resolution
Finally, during colder weather watch out for more unusual visitors, as birds often roam widely in cold conditions in search of food. More rural species like Fieldfare, Brambling and Reed Bunting will sometimes turn up in suburban gardens, and parties of smaller finches may include Siskin and Lesser Redpoll, especially near the end of the winter.
Even if the weather isn’t constantly harsh, make it your New Year’s resolution to feed the birds. The most helpful – and successful – wildlife gardens provide food throughout the season, not just for a day or two when temperatures drop. It may take birds some time to find your well-stocked feeders, but once they do, they will keep returning on a regular basis for more. They then know they can depend on your garden during the coldest spells, during which you will find it becomes an oasis for all kinds of hungry wildlife.For garden birds, the New Year means cold weather and a fight for survival. The stakes are high and the pressures great – can you help them win?