Feed the birds

I’m sure it won’t have escaped your notice that the UK is experiencing a very mild autumn this year. In fact, the first half of October was at least 3 degrees above normal, and we’ve had the mildest November since records began over 300 years ago.

Here in the south we are used to milder weather; but even so, our woodland area at The Green House has apple blossom, daffodil shoots and primroses appearing at the end of November when we should be expecting frost and bare twigs. Most of our leaves haven’t dropped yet either. Although this is unusual, we should expect mild autumns every so often as part of the natural scheme of things – the last exceptional one was 2006, which was also a record-breaker.

Another thing you may have noticed is the lack of birds in the garden. Around this time last year, I had blue tits, coal tits and plenty of blackbirds feeding from the bird table, but this year…nothing. It’s actually pretty normal for birds to disappear from gardens for a while, as wild birds will tend to go out and about to forage and fatten up for the winter ahead. They probably have a little longer to do so this year. When the wild food dries up, they will return to gardens to enjoy whatever we have put out for them. Food shortages for birds can happen at any time, so keep an eye out for increasing visits to your bird table, which may mean they are starting to look for more human-supplied food.

What do birds need?
In times of hardship, birds need high-calorie, fatty food.

  • Unlike humans, they need plenty of saturated fat: lard, suet, but no margarine or polyunsaturated oils, and definitely no used cooking fat as this can stick to their beaks and feathers. I stick with beef suet, which is clean and easy to put out.
  • Whole nuts are for winter feeds only – at other times of the year use nut flakes. I use peanut, hazel and brazil nuts. (Chopped nuts you can buy from the supermarket in packets are ideal as they will be fresh and free from aflatoxin).
  • Grated mild cheddar cheese is another favourite, as are raw porridge oats, although never give cooked porridge as this can harden around their beaks.
  • You can also try cooked rice, flaked maize, cake crumbs, dried fruit and seeds, such as millet and sunflower (especially black sunflower seeds). Fresh water should always be available.
  • Lastly, clear any dirty, mouldy or old food from your table regularly, as this can cause illness in some birds.

Birds of all kinds are particularly susceptible to environmental changes, and cold or unseasonable weather can badly affect them. Robins in particular will suffer very quickly from weight loss when food is scarce, but many garden birds suffer from starvation during the winter months, so a bird table could literally be a life-saver.

Woodland watch
The mild autumn has meant there are more insects around than you would normally expect at this time of year. Birds that would normally be supplementing the decreasing numbers of insects in their diet with fruits and seeds, have found there are both to choose from. There has been a lot of commotion in our woodland recently, mainly, I suspect, because the wild food I mentioned earlier is in abundance.

Flocks of starlings, one of the UK’s most common birds, but sadly declining rapidly in some other European countries, have been noisily feeding on the bright red holly berries at the edge of the woodland. They sometimes make so much noise you would think they were being attacked! Blue tits have also been flitting about – they love hawthorn berries – and sometimes a jay, who is probably after our acorns. We’ve also been enjoying regular visits from thrushes, who seem to love the vast numbers of sloes we have on our blackthorn trees, along with a few solitary robins.

(Pictures by Alison Bettenson from fulfilment)

Geoff Geoff

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