Winter is coming and our birds need us. Up here, on the rural Cumbrian coast where I live, the fruits, berries and seeds may be plentiful in the hedgerows and trees in October, but come November when the gales, driving rain and cold arrive, I can have as many as 100 birds looking for food in my garden.
I never cut plants down until late spring, when the teasels, thistles, cerinthe, lythrums etc. have been stripped of their seed. They also help break the terrific winds we get here, and provide cover. Cover is important in a garden frequented by sparrowhawks and without it, the birds are just sitting ducks, and never more so than on feeders in open situations.
Having fortified my garden boundaries against cats as best I can, I’ve set up my feeding station under the cherry tree next to the hedgerow which gives them protection from their greater enemy, the sparrowhawk. Even if I can’t see it, I know this powerful predator is near when there’s a sudden whoosh as all the birds dive into the hedgerow & evergreen shrubs for cover and the garden is so silent you could hear a pin drop.
With so many wild bird seed companies around, and so many birds dependent on me, I have experimented with different seed mixes and suets from all the main players. I know lots of people make their own fat balls, and this definitely the cheaper option, but as a vegetarian, I would find this distressing.
What I’ve learned is to go for quality – invest in robust feeders that will last, and don’t be tempted by that 50 for a tenner bag of fat balls well known garden centres offer – no bird in my garden or my neighbour’s would touch them. Seeds and suet are vital to help birds survive the winter and resist disease. In early spring when the breeding season begins, protein rich mealworms are lifesavers. The emergence of insects, grubs and caterpillars depend entirely on the weather, and when the birds are laying their eggs and struggling to feed their chicks, knowing they have a steady and secure supply of seed for themselves makes all the difference. Clean water is also essential, and I’m lucky to have a small pond the birds use for drinking and bathing. It rarely freezes over, but when it does I fill up the bird bath every day.
Every garden is different, birds have different tastes, and experienced bird feeders will have worked out formulas that work best for their birds. For the novice though, confused by the bewildering array of bird food for sale, these are just a few tried and tested tips to get you started. Remember too, that no matter how hard the wind is blowing or how much it’s raining, or snowing, the birds will be on your feeders so keep them topped up all the time.