In the autumn I talked about using compost and organic matter to improve the quality and growing potential of your soil. One beneficial side effect of this process is to radically increase the number and diversity of soil-dwelling organisms like worms, beetles and other insects. These creatures are a vital source of food for wild birds over the winter when berries and seeds are in short supply. Gardens are now recognised as an extremely important habitat in the UK, as other more traditional habitats and food sources come under pressure from pesticides.
Figures were released recently from Germany showing that insect populations in nature reserves have declined by 75% in 30 years. No wonder birds are having a hard time. Most gardeners love to see wild birds visiting their garden - you can help by supplementing the natural food in your garden with commercial seed and nut mixes. Here's a summary of what to choose, and a couple of ideas for making your own.
Small seeds, such as millet, attract mostly house sparrows, dunnocks, finches, reed buntings and collared doves, while flaked maize is taken readily by blackbirds. Tits and greenfinches favour peanuts and sunflower seeds. Mixes that contain chunks or whole nuts are suitable for winter feeding only. Pinhead oatmeal is excellent for many birds. If you don't want to encourage pigeons, doves and pheasants avoid wheat and barley grains which are often included in seed mixtures. These larger ground-feeding birds can deter the smaller species. Avoid seed mixtures that have split peas, beans, dried rice or lentils as again only the large species can eat them dry. These are added to some cheaper seed mixes to bulk them up. Any mixture containing green or pink lumps should also be avoided as these are dog biscuit, which can only be eaten when soaked.
These are an excellent year-round food. The oil content is higher in black than striped ones, and so they are better. Sunflower hearts are highly favoured and make no mess. Peanuts. These are rich in fat and are popular with tits, greenfinches, house sparrows, nuthatches, great spotted woodpeckers and siskins. Crushed or grated nuts attract robins, dunnocks and even wrens.
Nuthatches and coal tits may hoard peanuts. Salted or dry roasted peanuts should not be used. Peanuts can be high in a natural toxin, which can kill birds, so buy from a reputable dealer, such as the RSPB shop, to guarantee freedom from aflatoxin.
Fat balls and other fat-based food bars are excellent winter food. If they are sold in nylon mesh bags, always remove the bag before putting the ball out - the mesh can trap and injure birds.
Fat from cooking is bad for birds. The problem with cooked fat from roasting tins and dishes is that the meat juices have blended with the fat and when allowed to set, this consistency makes it prone to smearing, not good for birds' feathers. It is a breeding ground for bacteria, so potentially bad for birds' health. Salt levels depend on what meat is used and if any salt is added during cooking. Lard and beef suet on their own are fine as they re-solidify after warming and as they are pure fat, it is not as suitable for bacteria to breed on.
Polyunsaturated margarines or vegetable oils are unsuitable for birds. Unlike humans, birds need high levels of saturated fat, such as raw suet and lard. They need the high energy content to keep warm in the worst of the winter weather, since their body reserves are quickly used up, particularly on cold winter nights. The soft fats can easily be smeared onto the feathers, destroying the waterproofing and insulating qualities.
Live foods and other insect foods. Mealworms are relished by robins and blue tits, and may attract other insect-eating birds such as pied wagtails. Mealworms are a natural food and can be used to feed birds throughout the year. It is very important that any live mealworms fed to birds are fresh. Any dead or discoloured ones must not be used as they can cause problems such as salmonella poisoning.
Never give milk to any bird. A bird's gut is not designed to digest milk and it can result in serious stomach upsets, or even death. Birds can, however, digest fermented dairy products such as cheese. Give fresh coconut only, in the shell. Rinse out any sweet coconut water from the middle of the coconut before hanging it out to prevent the build-up of black mildew. Desiccated coconut must not be used as it may swell inside a bird and cause death.
Many moulds are harmless, but some can cause respiratory infections in birds, and so it is best to be cautious and avoid mouldy food entirely.
If food turns mouldy or stale on your bird table, you are probably placing out too large a quantity for the birds to eat in one day. Always remove any stale or mouldy food promptly. It provides a breeding ground for salmonella bacteria, which can cause food poisoning. At least one type of salmonella causes death among such species as greenfinches and house sparrows.
Bird tables should be cleaned regularly or feeding positions changed to avoid build up of mess and bacteria.
Thanks to the RSPB for this information. The website rspb.org.uk contains lots of ideas for helping wild birds including how to breed your own live mealworms!
Make your own bird cake by pouring melted fat (suet or lard) onto a mixture of ingredients such as seeds, dried fruit, oatmeal, and cheese. Use about one-third fat to two-thirds mixture. Stir well in a bowl and allow it to set in a container of your choice. An empty coconut shell, or plastic cup makes an ideal bird cake 'feeder'.
Rice and cereals make great bird food too and are easy to prepare. Cooked rice (without salt added) is beneficial and readily accepted by all species during severe winter weather. Avoid uncooked rice. Porridge oats must never be cooked, since this makes them glutinous and could harden around a bird's beak. Uncooked porridge oats are readily taken by a number of bird species.