by Adrian Thomas
Among the bare boughs, empty beds and winter gloom, there’s one thing guaranteed to make the winter garden feel alive – garden birds. On good days, it can be as busy as Spaghetti Junction out there at your feeders, with all sorts of characters zooming to and fro. No wonder so many of us go to the time, effort and expense of pulling on our overcoats and wellies and heading out in all weathers to top up their supplies; that, and the human tendency towards kindness, of course.
There’s no doubting that the supplementary food we provide helps sustain many birds that would otherwise succumb under winter’s harsh rule. It’s not so much that our handouts stop them starving; what it does is keep the birds fit and strong and hence able to cope with the cold, ward off disease and evade predators. But there are some definite ‘do’s and don’t’s’ to ensure that we’re providing our birds with the best support possible, and not doing harm when we mean to do good.
Keep it clean
The one aspect that often gets overlooked is the level of hygiene we maintain in feeding areas. In our own kitchens or in our pets’ bowls, we wouldn’t leave food to go mouldy, and we wouldn’t forget to give everything a thorough clean on a regular basis, but this is what can happen around bird feeders.
Such laxness brings three undesirable results. First, any excess food left lying around can be a magnet for unintended guests such as rodents. I can cope with a few cute wood mice nibbling my peanuts, but I don’t want rats, and nor do my neighbours. The best way to ensure minimal spillage is to only buy quality feeders, as cheap versions can leak seed through badly designed feeding ports.
The second problem with unhygienic feeders is simply that birds will shun them. Our feathered friends don’t like festering food any more than you do, and I’ve even seen feeders in which the seed is so old and damp that it has actually sprouted.
More than anything, though, the tragedy of poor hygiene is that it can be a breeding ground for disease. Birds are just as prone to illness as we are. In particular, in the last few years we’ve seen a terrible epidemic of something called trichomonosis which has been catastrophic for greenfinches: their numbers have nosedived because of it. ‘Tricho’ (as it is often called) is a pathogen that blocks the poor birds’ throats. They sit, listless, on birdtables and birdbaths, trying but failing to swallow seeds or drink water, and in doing so spreading the disease.
The solutions are simple and just require a bit of effort and discipline.
· Every couple of weeks put on your ‘bird table marigolds’ (not the pair you use in the kitchen!) and wash your empty feeders and bird tables down with a dilute disinfectant (1 part disinfectant to 20 parts water), swilling them off down the drain.
· Manage how much food you put out so there’s never excess lying about.
· Use hanging feeders rather than feeding on flat surfaces; the latter are prone to becoming soiled.
· Use high quality foods that will get scoffed. Too many cheaper foods are full of chaff and substandard seeds that will be tossed aside by your discerning guests
It’s not just food that birds need in winter; they still need to wash it down with a drink, and the washing also extends to their plumage. It may seem odd to us to see birds bathing in ice-cold water when logic says they should be trying to stay warm, but they need to keep their feathers in tip top condition as much in winter as at any other time of year.
It means that keeping birdbaths free of ice is as important now as at other times of year. Just don’t turn to antifreeze or salt to achieve it. Instead, after a cold night take out a kettle of warm water, being careful not to crack your birdbath with the change of temperature.
There is one more thing to do in winter for your wildlife, and it is all about building for the future. A berry-bearing shrub or native hedge planted now won’t come into its own for five years or so, but leave that job until next year and it won’t be ready for six! As with so many things in the garden, those tasks which seem so big and daunting before you begin become surprisingly achievable once you get going! Your wildlife will thank you for it.