Winter is always perilous for birds, but this year more than most. All gardeners have been affected by the peculiar weather, and so have feathery garden visitors.
“At this time of birds depend heavily on berry and nut crops,” explains Richard James, a Wildlife Advisor for the RSPB. “Plants such as hawthorn, brambles, pyracantha. Crops have been disappointing. They’re late, or lower, than usual. Sweet chestnuts have been struggling, and sloes have been hard to find too.
“It’s not 100 per cent clear what the causes are, but it seems that the berry situation was caused by the unusually wet spring. The acorn crop has been affected by gall wasps, which lay their eggs in the acorn. It is a problem in Britain, but even worse in Europe, which means that we’ve had more jays than usual in British gardens.”
Because birds’ natural food sources are in such short supply, it is even more important that gardeners help them to get through the winter. “The key is foods which are high in fat and energy, such as sunflower hearts, peanuts and fat balls,” Richard explains. These are all readily available from garden shops, but household scraps can be just as effective.
“Mild cheese is very good, and so are porridge oats and pastry. Or you can make your own fat cakes out of lard and suet. You should also keep some unfrozen water so that birds can keep their wings clean – try putting a ping-pong ball or tennis ball in the water to stop it freezing over. But never add salt or sugar.”
Of course birds are not the only creatures looking for food in the garden, and for predators they can themselves be a tasty target.
“If you have cats, try putting a bell on their collar to warn birds that they’re approaching. Make sure it’s easily detachable, however, in case it snags on something.” If you don’t have cats but your neighbours do, then a prickly bush – a hawthorn or a bramble, for example – can provide birds with shelter which cats are less likely to enter.
These bushes also provide berries, so are the one of the best long-term options for a bird-friendly garden.
As any gardener knows, however, the theoretical happy gathering of chirping songbirds and colourful tits can be harder to achieve in practice. Feeders can be unsightly at the best of times, even before the birds cover them in muck, seed and excrement. Squirrels can be a problem too, as writer Mary Keen knows all too well. “Our record is not brilliant,” she explains. “We have changed from bird tables – which were generally coloured orange, twee and in needed cleaning – to poles which come from the RSPB. One outside the kitchen is in principle lovely. Or at least it was until a squirrel monopolised it. Some recommended greasing the pole, but squirrels can climb it. Others said add cayenne pepper, but then someone else said that it upsets the birds.”
Magpies are another issue. “We hate them, because they rob nests and eat fledglings. Bread on tables is also a no-no if you have dogs.” Maybe we left our feeders out too long. But when finches, nuthatches, tits and sometimes a spotted woodpecker come, it provides hours of pleasure.”