Most of us love feeding garden birds, but it can be expensive. With a bit of thought, you can minimise the cost to your pocket – and the planet.
As winter approaches, more people start feeding their garden birds and purchases of seeds increase dramatically. About two-thirds of British households feed birds at some time in the year – in 2003, we bought more than 60,000 tonnes of nuts and seeds to feed our garden visitors, and there is good evidence that this benefits bird populations.
Much of the food we supply is imported from abroad, however, so the food miles are high, and producing all this seed requires a great deal of land that could be used for human food consumption. Nyjer seeds, for instance, are cultivated in Ethiopia, India, Myanmar (Burma) and Nepal, countries not exactly famed for their food surpluses.
So it is important to ensure that feeding birds is part of the overall management of your garden, and that you provide natural food to reduce their dependency on artificial sources. Don’t waste seeds either: try to maximise the benefit to birds, and your own enjoyment, while minimising the environmental costs.
HOW TO MINIMISE THE ENVIRONMENTAL COSTS:
- Experiment with different types of seeds and seed mixes. If you are using a mix of which some isn’t taken and goes to waste, change the mix (or the supplier). Putting out large amounts of seed that is not eaten is expensive, financially as well as environmentally.
- Losing seeds to squirrels and rats is environmentally damaging and increases the numbers of both in your garden. If you have a problem with these mammals, experiment with baffles, cages and other devices to keep them away. Change tactics periodically to keep them at bay.
- Ensure you are not making it easier for predators to catch your birds. Inevitably, local sparrowhawks will be regular visitors to feeding stations, and they’re great to watch, but you do not want to lose too many birds to them. So place your feeders away from fences and similar features that might allow the hawks to approach unobserved, and keep moving them around.
- Place baffles below seed tables to stop cats leaping onto them, or put a plastic sleeve on the pole. Experiment with electronic deterrents if cats or foxes focus their activities on your garden. If you ground feed, keep the seeds away from bushes.
- It is best to provide high-quality food from reputable suppliers. If putting out household scraps, avoid anything salty, which will cause severe dehydration in small birds. Also avoid desiccated coconut (it swells in birds) and whole peanuts in spring (they can choke fledglings).
SEVEN SPECIES TO ATTRACT (AND ONE TO AVOID) YEAR ROUND:
Bramblings are more common in harsh winters and, like chaffinches, will glean seeds that have fallen from your feeders onto the ground.
Grey squirrels are very persistent in their attempts to steal food – defeat their efforts and you will both save money and keep them under control.
Long-tailed tits are becoming an increasingly common garden bird (they’re now in the top 10 species). They love to feed on fat balls.
Marsh tits are most likely to be seen in gardens adjoining woodland in southern England and Wales. Their numbers can increase in hard winters.
Starlings love water baths, and making one available is very important in hard weather when other water sources may be frozen over.
Pied wagtails often visit gardens in winter, attracted by spilt seeds on lawns. By contrast, grey wagtails prefer to forage on paths and patios.
- Hand-feeding garden birds such as robins is quite simple. Some individuals can become tame and will demand food whenever they see you.
STEVE’S TOP TIPS:
- Rely on wild foods as much as possible. An obvious strategy is to plant berry-producing bushes and trees, but you can also grow docks, teasels and thistles. Leave their seedheads through the winter. Choose plants that enhance insect diversity: insects are a key food for tits and sparrows in spring.
- There are other ways to increase the natural food supply: by mulching your flowerbeds with dead leaves in winter, you’ll keep worms and other invertebrates near the surface, even in frosty weather, providing valuable foraging for blackbirds and song thrushes.
- Use old fruit from local shops and markets to feed thrushes through the winter. Mistle thrushes monopolise food sources, so spread the fruit out to give smaller species of bird a chance.
- With large numbers of birds in one area, good hygiene is imperative, both for the birds and yourself. Salmonella is widespread in wild birds, so sterilise your feeders regularly. Wooden bird tables are difficult to keep clean and best avoided.
- The Trichomonas parasite infects finches and usually peaks in late summer and autumn. Affected birds may drool, have difficulty swallowing, regurgitate food and show laboured breathing. It is spread in damp conditions, so remove water baths if you suspect birds are infected.
- Don’t put out too much seed at a time. Old seed can go mouldy, increasing the risks of disease, so aim to top up your feeders regularly.