Backyard Bistro

On 27 October it's Feed the Birds Day. Although the RSPB advises feeding garden birds all year round, with summer nights now behind us and the clocks going back, it's a good time to prepare gardens for the cold months ahead. The winter can ...

You may have noticed numbers of house sparrows, starlings and song thrushes have all declined in recent years, but you can help them by turning your garden into a bird restaurant.

Many people have lots of natural food on offer in their gardens - trees such as birch, rowans, holly and yew are all winners with birds, while bushes and shrubs like pyracantha, cotoneaster, berberis and hawthorn also provide good eating. Climbers such as honeysuckle and ivy are also extremely valuable. They provide shelter, fruits and attract insects, which in turn are fed on by birds. Ivy provides cover for over-wintering insects and spiders, a valuable resource for wrens, amongst others. It also fruits in late winter when no other fruits are available.

The RSPB's Peter Exley, who lives on the edge of Dartmoor, says plants are important as bird feeders. "The birds that visit my garden enjoy feeding not just on the peanuts and sunflower hearts I put out for them, but also on grapes, which I purposely leave on the vine, and various other berry-bearing shrubs that I grow."

It's also worth remembering that super-tidy, well-manicured gardens aren't good for birds - the perfect excuse to save yourself some work. Seed-eating finches will benefit from a little careful neglect in dead-heading some plants, while creating piles of leaves and fallen twigs in secluded corners will help ground-feeders like dunnocks and low foragers like wrens.

Try leaving some long grass to stand over winter as this provides sheltered habitat for many insects and, therefore, food for the birds. You could also put off tidying up your borders till the spring, rather than doing it in autumn; this makes sure there are fallen leaves and dead plant stems for insects to hibernate in and somewhere for birds to forage amongst for food.

Peter adds, "Birds definitely seem to appreciate my mature and at times 'under-kempt' garden, so I feel quite virtuous about sometimes neglecting the gardening."

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But if space is at a premium and plant food is lacking, you can still encourage birds to visit you. Although you must be careful to offer the right kind of food, there are plenty of tasty snacks you can put out for the birds - kitchen scraps like cheese, crumbs of all sorts, fat and stale cake will all go down well.

You can also buy ready-made bird food mixture, which provides many of the vitamins and minerals birds need. Peanuts and sunflower seeds are also firm favourites. If you are using peanuts, be sure to buy them from a reputable dealer who will guarantee freedom from aflatoxins - a natural toxin which can kill birds. The RSPB produces its own range of birdcare products, which are guaranteed to be aflatoxin-free. Also, avoid feeding peanuts from plastic mesh bags, as these may trap birds or damage their feathers, claws or beaks.

"What people do for the birds in their gardens doesn't just help individual birds but has the potential to help species as a whole," says Peter.

"We're launching a project called Homes for Wildlife this year to enable people to take conservation action in their gardens to help birds which are in decline."

Peter explains that as well as having feeders in his garden and plants the birds can get food from, he is also careful to 'manage' his garden in a way that will encourage wildlife.

"It can be as simple as making sure that you cut your hedges at the right time of year - I do mine in January, not in the spring when birds might be nesting in them - to making sure there's shelter near feeders so that birds can hide from predators."

To take part in Homes for Wildlife, people need to register with the RSPB and they will then receive tailored information to help the birds in their garden. The conservation charity is also asking people to monitor the birds, to see if its advice is paying off.

"House sparrows, starlings, blackbirds and song thrushes are the main species we hope to help through Homes for Wildlife, but if like me you're lucky enough to be visited by long tailed tits, nuthatches and goldcrests, by 'managing' your garden with conservation in mind you can help them, too."

If you don't have a garden, but want to do your bit for the birds at home why not try a window feeder. They come in all shapes and sizes and can easily be fitted to any window as they have suckers to hold them in place. But if your feeder is in a garden, try positioning it close to some thick cover to give small birds more protection from sparrowhawks (but be wary too of lurking cats). Put bird tables no less than two metres from a bush, into which birds can fly if disturbed and where they can queue to check it's safe to visit the table. Experiment a bit to find the best position.

It's also very important to keep feeding places clean. Clear up uneaten scraps and the inevitable litter of husks and other bits and pieces every week. A quick scrub-down of the surface of the bird table is recommended, too. Move tables and hanging feeders regularly to minimise the risk of disease. Rats are easily attracted to bird feeding stations, and apart from being unwelcome guests, can carry strains of salmonellosis lethal to birds.

And don't forget birds also need a drink. Make sure there's always a fresh supply of water in the garden. If you have a pond, keep at least part of it ice-free during severe weather, and the same goes for bird baths. Don't ever add anything like anti-freeze to the water though - it will kill birds far more quickly than the coldest weather.

For more information visit the new RSPB shop and visitor centre at Darts Farm near Topsham, click on, or contact the RSPB on (01392 432691.

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