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Feed the Birds
Michaela Strachan

From advice on feeders and tables to her own bird food recipe, Michaela Strachan is brimming with brilliant solutions for keeping our feathered friends happy through the winter

‘Feed the birds
Tuppence a bag
Tuppence, tuppence, tuppence a bag.’

Well I haven’t started with a song for ages! Any guesses where that comes from? Anyway it is the perfect time of year to ‘Feed the Birds’, although these days it may well cost more than tuppence! It’s something I touched on in last month’s article, but as it’s so important for encouraging wildlife into your gardens, I thought it was worthy of an article all to itself!

It is actually now thought that we can feed our feathery garden friends all year round, but at this time of the year it is particularly important. Just as we need to put the woollies on, they need to put the fat on to keep warm. Actually, quite a lot of us seem to do that too over the winter months!! October to April is also a time when natural food is in short supply, especially these days when a lot of people have tidier gardens, (not us wildlife gardeners, of course) and with changes in farming methods.

Variety is the spice of life, and when it comes to bird feeders life is very spicy. Choosing one that’s suitable to your garden is mainly down to personal choice and common sense. Many feeders these days have been made squirrel proof. Personally I wouldn’t be without my friendly garden squirrel, he’s a very welcome visitor and although he has wrecked a few of my feeders over the years, seems to quite happily share with the other birds and provides me with much visual entertainment.

You could go for the good old bird table. They attract a huge variety of birds and you can in turn supply a variety of foods. There are a few important things to consider though. Don’t have a table that’s too small as it may start squabbles!! Check that the table has drainage holes, otherwise food can become horribly soggy. A good bird table should last 10 years or so as long as you avoid wood that rots quickly, like silver birch logs. Some of the thinner plastic ones can go brittle and crack too, so basically don’t go for a cheap cheerful one, instead go for a bit of long-lasting quality. Make sure you put your table in an open site away from easy access by predators, especially cats. If you do have a lot of feline visitors in your garden you should also think about the pole. Smooth, straight poles are obviously harder for cats to climb. Better still, go for a metal pole. The last thing you want to do is encourage the birds into your garden just to provide an easy take away for the local kitty! If you live in an area where sparrowhawks are present obviously be careful not to have your table in too open a space. Again, it really is a matter of common sense.

Many bird tables have a nesting roof. Pretty as they are, they are not really recommended, as in spring if it does get used, the nesting tenants can get very territorial. A roof is not a bad idea though as it keeps the food from getting too wet. It also deters the larger birds, which, depending on how you view it, can be a good thing. It’s also important to clean your table to prevent growth of bacteria like salmonella and to avoid diseases being passed on from one bird to another.

On to the hanging feeders. There is a spicy variety to choose from. Personally I prefer the ones you hang with a hook. In my experience the ones you stick onto your window with suckers seem to always fall off. Although it has, when behaving itself attracted a lot of the smaller birds such as tits, and it does mean you can watch them at very close quarters.

Some birds prefer feeding on the ground. Along with my feeders I always put a few bits on a tray on the lawn. This will attract blackbirds, thrushes, dunnocks and inevitably the good old pigeon! Although on many occasions I have seen one or two fat pigeons trying to balance on a hanging feeder as well. Always a comical sight!

My general advice is to put a variety of feeding stations out with a variety of foods.

“Tits like Coconuts” (ho, ho, ho! Sounds like a good title for a new gardening programme!) But they do. So if you want to give your tits a treat put out half a fresh coconut and they’ll love it.
Finches love sunflower seeds. Obviously if you put them into a hanging feeder don’t use a wire mesh peanut feeder as they’ll all fall out. Sounds obvious I know, but you’d be surprised.
Woodpeckers and nuthatches appreciate a nice bit of fat like suet or cheese spread on the bark of a tree.
All birds like a good birdseed mix, soaked brown bread (always best to soak it), porridge oats, currants, apples and unsalted peanuts. I often do a mix of all these things and put them in a tray on the lawn. Be careful if your garden is visited by other creatures like rats though. Fat cakes are another tasty treat.

Getting birds to recognize your feeders may take time. Be patient. It took a few weeks to encourage our birds, but now we get a huge variety and they really do provide us with many hours of pleasure. Another obvious thing to remember is that if you want to watch your birds feeding, make sure you choose a site that you can easily see to put your feeders up!! Also, very importantly, make sure the birds have access to water too.

And finally.... a recipe.
1. Take a beer can or similar. Drink the contents! Cut off the top of the can. Do not cut yourself!
2. Insert into the can a wire coat hanger with a twist in the bottom.
3. Make the mixture e.g. porridge oats blended to a powder, fat such as dripping, seeds, nuts, fruit (do not include anything with salt: it is bad for birds).
4. Pour the mixture into the can. Wait for it to set and then dip the can into hot water and pull the cake out.
5. Hang it in your garden, make a cup of tea, and enjoy a few hours of bird watching!

Stay gardening wild!

PS The song was from Mary Poppins!

See also Michaela’s previous article on:
Hibernating Animals

Photographs: Blackbird on bird table Mark Hamblin, Oxford Scientific Films; Greenfinch and Blue Tit eating peanuts Colin Milkins, Oxford Scientific Films


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