Many wild birds rely on our gardens for their survival. Adrian Thomas provides the definitive guide to bird feeding
Here in Britain we have a long and honourable history of feeding the birds in our gardens, but never have there been so many different feeding devices to choose from or alternative foods to try. In fact, it can all be a bit bewildering. Yet providing supplementary food can increase birds’ chances of surviving the winter, and there’s also evidence that they then go on to breed in larger numbers. And don’t discount the joy you get as a result – seeing wild birds respond to your kindness makes you feel good, too.
Once upon a time the recommendation was to feed just in winter, but now it’s not only acceptable but indeed encouraged to feed all year. In particular, remember that birds need help the most in cold weather, when they must feed during every moment of daylight just to take in enough calories to survive. However, it is also critical in the ‘hungry gap’ in spring when there are few insects and no seeds remaining.
Helping garden birds has become even more pressing because so many are having such a tough time in the wider countryside. Gardens were once viewed as a second-rate habitat, but we now know that, for many birds, they have become the winter retreat of choice. While there may be dangers to face – cats, windows, cars, people – the hunger in their bellies drives them here and it is worth the risk. One only has to look at the results of the annual RSPB big Garden Birdwatch when around eight million birds get counted to realise that gardens are incredibly rich in wildlife.
Deciding on the menu
When you’re dithering between putting out a ‘softbill seed blend with added vitamins’ or ‘high energy buggy nibbles with berry extract’ it can seem like you need a gastronomic degree in bird nutrition.
The bottom line is, birds need proteins, fats and carbohydrates, just as we do, but just as important is they want food that is easy to ‘handle’, what you might call ‘easy food’. They don’t want to have to labour over extracting seeds from tough shells; they want things they can just pop in their mouths and swallow. For instance, some birds just don’t have beaks striong enough to crack open the hard casing of a wheat seed.
There are five main points to bear in mind.
1. You will benefit more species if you feed a mix of foods: seeds, fat-based foods, fruit and protein-rich mealworms.
2. The chances are that the cheaper a seedmix is, the more it has been bulked out with cereal grains such as wheat that are only good for pigeons. So, avoid mixes with what look like lots of pale brown grains of rice, each with a furrow along one side.
3. Birdseed is far more likely to be eaten if it is ‘de-husked’ (with the shells removed) or ‘kibbled’ (broken up into little pieces), or when fatty foods are in small pieces (often called nibbles).
4. Sunflower hearts are now probably the food of choice for many birds, delivering 600 calories of energy for each 100g of food, and leaving no messy husks on the ground.
5. Decide whether you want to put the food in hanging feeders or whether it is to go on a flat, open surface such as a birdtable or the ground, and then choose food that is clearly labelled as such.
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