Winter is upon us. The ground is frosty, the trees are bare and some of us have even had snow.
Spare a thought for the birds this winter. There is a lot we can do as designers to include habitat and food sources for birds, but they often need supplementary feeding in winter time as well. The RSPB recommends you feed the birds responsibly and safely, which you can do by following their guidelines at www.rspb.org.uk
If using a bird food mixture, go for a better quality one which includes flaked maize, sunflower seeds and peanut granules. Small seeds such as millet attract house sparrows, dunnocks, finches, reed buntings and collared doves. Flaked maize attracts blackbirds. Tits and greenfinches eat peanuts and sunflower seeds, but mixtures that contain chunks or whole nuts are suitable for winter feeding only. Pinhead oatmeal is excellent for many birds, but wheat and barley grains are only suitable for pigeons, doves and pheasants which can deter smaller species.
It is best to avoid mixtures that contain split peas, beans, dried rice or lentils as these can only be eaten dry by the larger species. Any mixture containing green or pink lumps should be avoided, as these contain dog biscuit which can only be eaten when soaked.
Black sunflower seeds are an excellent food source, having a higher oil content than the striped ones. Nyjer seeds are suitable for goldfinches and siskins.
Peanuts are popular with tits, greenfinches, house sparrows, great spotted woodpeckers and siskins. Crushed or grated, they attract robins and dunnocks. Dry roasted or salted peanuts should never be used and peanuts should always be purchased from a reputable dealer, such as the RSPB, as they can be high in a natural toxin which can kill birds.
Fat balls and fat based food bars (for birds,) are an excellent winter food, but don’t use fat from cooking as this can contain meat juices which can provide a breeding ground for bacteria and smear birds’ feathers. Lard and beef suet are fine on their own; they offer high energy content required to keep birds warm during the winter, whilst polyunsaturated margarines and vegetable oils are unsuitable and if they smear birds’ feathers can destroy their insulating and waterproofing qualities.
Mealworms are eaten by insect-eating birds such as robins and bluetits, but it is important to feed them fresh, and discard any dead or discoloured ones, which can cause salmonella poisoning.
Dog or cat food can be used to feed birds, especially blackbirds, but can attract larger birds such as magpies and gulls as well as neighbouring cats. Dog biscuits are suitable only if they are soaked in water.
Never give birds milk as they cannot digest it; it can cause serious stomach upsets and even deaths. They can, however, digest fermented milk products such as cheese.
Always give fresh coconut not desiccated coconut which may swell inside a bird and cause death. Rinse off the residue of the sweet coconut water to avoid black mildew.
Cooked rice is suitable for many birds, but uncooked rice only for pigeons, doves and pheasants. Never give cooked porridge oats as this is glutinous and can harden around a birds beak, but uncooked oats is suitable. Breakfast cereals are acceptable in small quantities with drinking water nearby.
Mouldy and stale food should be avoided as, although many moulds are harmless, some can cause food poisoning including salmonella. If food goes mouldy on your bird table you are probably putting out too much at a time. Always remove stale and mouldy food promptly.
Food scattered on the ground can attract rats which carry diseases which affect humans.
For more information about feeding birds in your garden, visit the RSPB website www.rspb.org.uk