Tasty treats to boost bird numbers

The house sparrow. Photo: PA Photo/Ray Kennedy/RSPB-images.com.

The house sparrow. Photo: PA Photo/Ray Kennedy/RSPB-images.com.

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Have you noticed that your bird feeders are still full? This may be because the mild winter has provided plenty of natural food for birds, who may be a bit later than usual in arriving in your garden in search of tasty morsels.

However, there’s no time like the present to tempt in a greater variety of species, especially as we are approaching the annual Big Garden Birdwatch, in which the public is invited to count the birds in their garden or local park for an hour over the weekend and record the results online at rspb.org.uk/birdwatch.

Thousands of children across the UK are also currently taking part in the world’s biggest schools wildlife survey, the RSPB’s Big Schools’ Birdwatch, which helps to track numbers of birds in school grounds. The survey runs until February 12.

Last year’s survey revealed a continuing decline in starlings and song thrushes, which have dropped by an alarming 80 and 79% respectively since the Birdwatch began in 1979. Both species are on the UK ‘red list’, as is the house sparrow, meaning they are of the highest conservation concern.

But refreshingly, sightings of every bird that featured in 2015’s top 20 increased on the numbers recorded in 2014, apart from the three finches; chaffinch, goldfinch and greenfinch.

So, what are we likely to see? Well, that depends on what we put in our feeders and the types of feeders we use.

Try hanging plastic feeders filled with sunflower hearts to attract finches, tits, sparrows, starlings, song thrush and robins, mesh feeders with peanuts for tits and hanging mesh feeders containing fat balls for tits and sparrows.

Niger seeds are a magnet for goldfinch and siskin, while fat balls are enjoyed by blackbirds, tits, collared dove, house sparrows and song thrushes. Ground feeders or bird tables with an oat/fruit/fatty nibbles mix are ideal for robins and blackbirds. If you don’t have a suitable feeder, just put food out on an old wooden chopping board, the RSPB suggests.

Never put out any food in nylon mesh bags, which may trap birds’ feet. Birds with a barbed tongue, such as woodpeckers, can become trapped by their beaks.

A bird’s body clock works on daylight hours, so in the winter months you may see a feeding frenzy at first light. If you watch your garden birds regularly you’ll notice that they’ll come down to feed again in the late afternoon, before they go and find somewhere to roost overnight.

During cold weather birds can lose up to 40% of their weight overnight just trying to keep warm.

Food that’s high in energy is vital for birds in winter - peanuts, fat or suet-based foods, seed mixes that contain sunflower seeds or hearts, mealworms and fruit will all go down well. You can also make your own fat balls and cake mix using lard and suet.

Place lard and suet at room temperature in a mixing bowl, add uncooked porridge oats, mild grated cheese, peanuts, sultanas, raisins and bird seed. Mix it all together and roll into balls or use shallow dishes to create bird cake. Put them in the fridge to set, and when they are solid place them outside.

It is fine to feed all year-round - just adjust the amount you put out. In summer, when many birds leave to breed in the countryside, they’ll need less food. And there’s a lot more food available naturally in autumn and even early winter, as flowers set seed and berries ripen. Fatty foods can go off in summer, so remove any which are past their best.

Water is just as important for the birds, so make sure you keep a birdbath or two topped up to encourage them further.

Big Garden Birdwatch takes place on January 30-31. For more information go to rspb.org.uk/birdwatch