Winter can be a bleak time for wild birds, with freezing nights, less food and fewer daylight hours for foraging reducing their chances of survival. The birds’ natural feeding practices can be further hampered when ice and snow pack the ground, as they’re unable to peck for worms and grubs.
Luckily, the British are known as a nation of animal and bird lovers, and many people take active steps to help the wildlife survive until spring is here. You can transform your garden with a few simple steps to ensure it’s a haven for winter bird life.
© dieter76 / Adobe Stock
Feed the birds
Leaving out food is the best way of attracting birds to your garden, particularly during the winter. The best types of food are high in oil and fat, including peanuts, suet, sunflower seeds and peanut butter.
You must also provide a supply of fresh, clean drinking water. Make sure it hasn’t frozen over or become buried under snow. If you feel like splashing out, add a heated bird bath! You’d be amazed at the number of birds that will use it.
Keep the bath fresh and clean, as a dirty bird bath can spread disease. Make sure it’s always filled properly to avoid blowing the heater.
Provide your feathered friends with a warm, cosy roosting place for winter. Choose bird boxes, nesting boxes or other larger bird shelters to protect them from wet and cold weather.
Keep the shelters away from northern winds or open areas of heavy snowfall. Put them in more sheltered, protected areas and add a nesting material, such as hay. If you wish to provide more permanent shelters, plant evergreen shrubs or trees that will carry on growing in the future to provide all-year-round protection.
Keeping birds safe
In winter, it can be difficult to protect birds from predators such as cats or larger birds of prey, but you can shield them from the cold weather, or illnesses, to a certain extent. A sudden cold spell can freeze smaller birds, so providing good food and shelter can help.
Simple steps, such as cleaning your feeders and water containers, can help stop the spread of harmful bacteria. If you have cats, keep them indoors as much as possible, especially during peak feeding times in daylight hours.
You can start preparing your garden in the autumn so it’s ready for the birds long before they’re in desperate need. Make sure you have bird-friendly landscaping, including bushes in which they can shelter and fruit-bearing plants.
By planning ahead, it can be easy to make your garden a winter haven for wild birds, not only keeping them well-fed and healthy, but also providing a colourful scene that will brighten up your winter day as you watch them feed and bathe.
Species of bird
Some beautiful species of birds will arrive in your garden when you leave out food and water – not only Britain’s native birds but also those who have migrated from harsher winters overseas.
Birds will fly in from places such as continental Europe, Scandinavia and Russia, setting off in October to cross the North Sea and arriving on the eastern coast of the UK. They will then spread out all over the country.
The bird most people associate with winter is the red-breasted robin – a UK native breeding bird. Their numbers are boosted in winter by other robins flying in from Europe and they are particularly noticeable when their red breast shows up against the snow and ice outdoors.
They enjoy berries, seeds and all types of fruit such as apples, blueberries, raspberries, cherries and strawberries.
Another British favourite is the bullfinch. The male can be recognised by its pinkish-red breast and black cap, while the female is black, brown and blue with a cream chest. During the spring and summer, they live on the edge of woodlands, but as the weather grows colder, they will congregate in gardens, where they particularly enjoy seeds and insects. They will also eat the buds from fruit trees and have been recorded gorging on as many as 30 per minute!
The blue tit is a colourful and beautiful UK native bird, sporting a bright plumage of green, blue, yellow and white feathers. Although it’s about all year round, it will arrive in our garden more frequently in winter in its search for food. Blue tits like to eat seeds, suet pellets, peanuts in hanging feeders and suet balls.
While some birds such as the robin and blue tit are prevalent, others are rarer and you’ll be lucky to see them in your garden. According to the Woodland Trust, the rarer winter birds include the hawfinch, whose numbers have sadly declined in areas of Britain.
It is the largest finch in the UK and can grow to up to 18cm long. Light brown, with an orange-tinted head and a black circle around the eyes, spreading to its beak, it feeds mainly on seeds, although insects are also included in its summer diet. The hawfinch lives mainly in forests, orchards, or parks, but may venture into gardens in search of food.
The nightingale is another rarer winter garden visitor that tends to be seen more in the south of England than other areas. It’s slightly larger than the robin and is brown with a reddish tail. Its song is described as one of the most beautiful sounds ever heard in nature and there has even been a song written about it – A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.
It usually lives in the forests, but due to habitat loss and climate changes, its numbers are on the decline, although it can still be found in areas of Kent, Sussex, Suffolk and Essex. It’s estimated that numbers have fallen by a massive 90% over the past 50 years. Nightingales mainly forage on the ground for insects, but in winter, if you’re lucky, they may venture into your garden looking for food.
Welcome the winter birds into your garden by making it a wildlife haven with plenty of food, water and shelter and you’ll reap the rewards, attracting a diverse variety of colourful species from all over Europe.
When the temperatures drop, it’s wonderful to be able to watch the birds in your garden from the warmth of your home. While the views of a frosty winter landscape can be a beautiful sight, you don’t want to be part of it! It’s far better to be snug inside your home.
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