Feed the Birds

Colin and Susy Varndell offer some helpful tips on how to ensure <br/><br/>Somerset's visiting and resident birds thrive this winter. Words and photos by Colin and Suzy Varndell

As winter bites, the natural foods for wild birds in the Somerset countryside diminishes. Throughout autumn, thrushes have been gorging on the hedgerow fruits, which by now have mostly gone. Tits and robins were eagerly feeding on lethargic insects until the first hard frosts. Now, garden birds are frantically feeding for most of the day wherever they can find food. This is because not only is natural food scarce, but winter nights are long and cold and it takes huge amounts of energy just to survive. A bird the size of a blue tit, for example, may need to consume the equivalent of its own body weight in food to get through a cold, frosty night. By offering food to wild birds in our gardens we can help them through this difficult time of year and in turn we can observe them, and their antics can be a great delight.

Many species have fled from their breeding grounds in the north and east to take advantage of the relatively mild conditions here. Also, the numbers of some of our most common resident birds are dramatically increased by individuals of the same species from Russia, Scandinavia and the Continent. If you are planning to feed the birds this winter, position the bird feeders in a spot where you can see all the activity, and enjoy the fascinating gymnastics displays, quarrels and feeding habits of many different species. The feeding station needs to be near cover, where birds can hide and perch before feeding. Nearby cover also assists the birds when they need to escape from predators such as cats or sparrowhawks.

A bird the size of a blue tit, for example, may need to consume the equivalent of its own body weight in food to get through a cold, frosty night

Some foods will attract a wide range of birds whilst others may be specific to just a few. Basically, if the feast you provide for the birds is varied, you will attract a wide range of species. The most popular food appears to be sunflower hearts, which are readily consumed by many species. Natural shelled peanuts, which are full of fat, are a good source of energy for the birds. Currants and sultanas are popular with the songbirds like the blackbird and thrushes. They also enjoy other fruit like apples and pears, which redwings and fieldfares will relish as well. Goldfinches and siskins are simply addicted to nijer seed and mixed seed is enjoyed by greenfinches and house sparrows. Suet drizzled on logs or presented as fat balls is a particular favourite with great spotted woodpeckers, and starlings will even have a go at this delicacy. The precision feeders such as robins and wrens will feast on mealworms. Leftovers can be offered as long as no salt is included. Birds generally love fat, so any meat trimmings could be placed on a bird table. If bones from a weekend joint are hung up they will entertain tits for several days.

It is vital to keep feeding devices clean to prevent a build-up of bacteria. Also, move the entire feeding station once a month throughout the winter.However unpalatable it may be for us, a sparrowhawk taking small birds from a feeding station is a natural occurrence and an essential link in the food chain. Sparrowhawks prey upon woodland (ie garden) birds, and almost always take the older, weaker or diseased individuals, thus fine-tuning the well-being of their prey species.

Birds need to bathe and preen every day in order to keep in tiptop condition for the rigours of surviving cold weather

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It is highly likely that if you feed the birds you will attract other forms of wildlife also. Squirrels can be quite entertaining but they also tend to deter the avian visitors from feeding. Rats may also become regular visitors to bird tables even if you are careful to only supply the needs of your birds for one day at a time and you clear up each evening. They are quite happy to munch along during the day on any missed morsels.When winter begins to fade into spring, don’t stop feeding the birds as this is also a critical time before insect life gets going, and besides, for seed-eaters spring is the leanest time of the year.Providing a bird bath is as essential as the food. Birds need to bathe and preen every day to keep in tiptop condition for the rigours of surviving cold weather. They also need to drink, so it is important that the water supply is kept free of ice, regularly cleaned and topped up with fresh, clean water. Feeding the birds is actually quite a commitment and not to be undertaken lightly, because once they rely on your kindness their survival will depend on you, especially in those really harsh conditions.At feeding stations in gardens throughout Somerset, woodland birds have learned to exploit the artificial food supplies offered by us in winter. Some have adapted quickly, namely those naturally acrobatic or inquisitive birds like the tits, nuthatches and great spotted woodpeckers. The green woodpecker is essentially a ground-feeding bird, capable of finding food in the form of ant eggs and grubs throughout the year. But when the ground is frozen solid this flamboyant woodpecker will peck at wood or fallen fruit. Green woodpeckers do visit some garden feeding stations already, but it is hoped that they too will become common bird table visitors in the future.

Words and photos by Colin and Suzy Varndell

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