Winter bird care

Help the garden birds through winter and you'll be supporting your number one weapon in the war on pests, says Jean Vernon.

waxwing
Berries provide a nice meal for a waxwing. Image: Martin Mulchinock
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Garden birds are a vital and vibrant dimension in our gardens. They add movement and the joyous sound of birdsong to the winter garden. They are also our most powerful weapon in the war on garden bugs, feasting on kilos of bugs and beasties throughout the year to feed themselves and their young. Our gardens provide precious nesting sites, vital natural food and safe spots for garden birds to roost and feed.

greenfinch
Greenfinch. Image: Martin Mulchinock

As winter approaches, like many wild creatures, our garden birds are busy feeding themselves up to survive the cold. They tend to moult before winter and can be apparently absent from the garden so it’s a vital time in their year and a good time to start feeding or up the ante when it comes to food. The garden is rich in autumn fruit, seeds, nuts and berries and also insects, but competition for every precious morsel is fierce. Migrant birds stop here to feed before they set off for distant shores, while others arrive for the winter.

Birds live for the moment, feeding on whatever they can find to maintain their precious bodyweight and survive from day to day. They don’t store food like some animals and they can’t put on too much weight or they can’t fly, so these delicate creatures live from day to day.

Five ways to help the birds

birde feeder
Goldfinch and siskin feeding at a bird feeder. Image: Martin Mulchinock

Bird feeders: If you do one thing to help the birds, set up a bird feeder. Hanging seed and nut feeders are great for the tits and finches and others that can hang and swing in the trees, but spare a thought for the ground feeders that gather the crumbs beneath the feeders, out in the open and in full view of predators. Set up a bird table or a ground feeding station somewhere safe from cats and other predators. Keep it clean and add nutrient rich food such as suet, dried fruit and soaked mealworms. For the feeders, choose the very best in bird food. Try Richard Jackson’s bird food mix and be simply amazed by the variety of bird species it attracts to your garden. You truly wont be disappointed.

Water supply: All wildlife needs a clean, fresh supply of water that stays free from ice and snow to drink and to bathe. This is especially important in the winter, when available sources can freeze over. Never be tempted to add antifreeze or chemicals to garden water features, this creates an extreme toxic hazard to all living things. Instead, float a tennis ball in the water and remove it daily to reveal an unfrozen gap in the ice. Remove the ice layer where possible on birdbaths and drinkers and replenish with lukewarm water twice a day if possible. Surprisingly, birds need to bathe every day, even in winter to keep their feathers waterproof and in good condition.

bird bath
Water for birds is essential over winter. Image: Martin Mulchinock

Nest boxes: Clean out your existing nest boxes now. Remove any old nesting material and use a special wildlife disinfectant to ensure they are ready for nesting season. Don’t be tempted to use strong smelling household chemicals. Seal up any cracks, repair any damage and check that the entrance hole is suitably protected with a metal guard plate to prevent rodent attack. Line the inside with some dry moss or autumn leaves and replace the box so that the entrance faces slightly down and away from prevailing winds. This will keep the inside as dry as possible. In a few months time, the birds, already familiar with the box may choose to raise a family inside. Add a new box or two to the garden now so that they become part of the fabric of the garden ready for spring.

Provide roosting sites: Some birds such as wrens huddle together en masse inside nest boxes to maintain their warmth, especially in winter. While a clean, dry nest box can provide a safe roosting site, a dedicated roost box is better as it tends to have special perches and spots for the birds to cling in comfort. You can convert an old nest box into a roosting box by adding a few perches and some bedding. Place them against a wall to gain some radiator heat, or snuggle them into clinging ivy to add a little extra camouflage and protection. Roosting pockets made from woven materials can be tucked into the stems and branches of climbing plants, secure them carefully so that they don’t fall with their precious contents inside and try and position them so that they stay as dry as possible.

Share the love of birds: Share your love of birds with a child, friend or elderly relative. Buy them a bird feeder and seed for a fantastic seasonal gift. Or make a bird care hamper that includes a book on birds, a nest box and some bird food and feeder. Anyone with a love of nature will simply love your gift and enjoy it for a very long time. Once hooked they will join the joyful bird caring club and help to feed and support their very own family of garden birds. Spread the hobby as far and wide as you possibly can, who knows, you could be nurturing the next Bill Oddie or Chris Packham.

Jean Vernon

About Jean Vernon

Jean Vernon is a slightly quirky, bee friendly, alternative gardener. She doesn’t follow the rules and likes to push the boundaries a bit just to see what happens. She has a fascination for odd plants, especially edibles and a keen interest in growing for pollinators especially bees. She’s rather obsessed with the little buzzers. Telegraph Gardening Correspondent, mostly testing and trialing products and Editor-In-Chief for Richard Jackson’s Garden.
@TheGreenJeanie
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