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Jan/Feb 2012

To see a sample of the current issue of Ireland's best-selling gardening magazine, click the image below.


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Feeding garden birds

Dick Warner outlines the most recent thinking on feeding garden birds.

There used to be a belief that you should stop feeding garden birds at the beginning of their breeding season. Modern research has severely dented this theory and suggests you should keep on feeding to help them with the stresses of nesting and rearing their young. Either way there is no question that the second half of the winter is a key season for garden birds when the availability of extra food can mean the difference between life and death. 

In January and February, the weather is normally at its coldest which means that birds need more calories to maintain their body temperature. But two cruel facts make this difficult. One is that all Irish garden birds are day-time feeders and daylight hours are in short supply at this time of year. The other is that many of the seeds and berries that can tide birds through the winter have been used up - the hedgerow larder is beginning to look very empty.

A more selfish reason for filling up feeders at this time of year is that you'll get a better showing of birds with more interesting species. The siskin is a very attractive yellow finch that spends most of its time in the canopy of birch or conifer trees. I've only ever seen them on the feeders in my garden in January and February. The same goes for redpolls. Should you use hanging feeders or a bird table? Feeders containing pea nuts, seeds, fat balls or niger seed are great. Niger seed, which has many alternative names, is a thin black seed that requires a special type of feeder but it is excellent for attracting gold finches and siskins.

But not all birds can master the art of using feeders. Some robins learn to do it, but not all of them, starlings sometimes learn the trick but blackbirds and thrushes never do. So if you want to support all your garden birds through this difficult season, you should really use three methods -a suitable bird table, feeders which can be suspended from the bird table and some food scattered on the ground. Dunnocks insist on feeding on the ground and blackbirds and chaffinches prefer it.

Scattering food on the ground can sometimes cause problems, perhaps attracting rats or mice. If this happens, you may have to stop doing it until you've solved the problem. Dogs and cats can be useful allies when it comes to repelling vermin - unfortunately they tend to repel the birds as well. Another problem that can occur is the food being continually robbed by large birds such as rooks, jackdaws, magpies or feral pigeons. The best answer to this is to surround your feeding station with netting, wire or plastic, with a mesh size that allows only smaller birds through.

It's also important that you keep your feeding station clean. There have been some serious disease outbreaks among small birds recently and preliminary research findings from Britain suggest insanitary garden feeders are a factor contributing to the spread of infection. Another drawback to hanging feeders is that it's more difficult to use kitchen scraps in them, though I do use a feeder designed for fat balls and fill it with lumps of stale brown bread. One big plus to using kitchen scraps is that the cost of shop-bought feeds can really mount up during these hungry months.

But the exercise is really worthwhile. Research shows that feeding reduces winter mortality among garden birds by a significant amount and increases the potential breeding population in the spring. More birds in your garden means a healthier garden because of the role they play in controlling pests, such as slugs, snails and caterpillars. In addition there's the pleasure you'll get from watching a blue tit on the peanut feeder outside the window, or listening to a blackbird singing when the days start to lengthen. Think: you may have helped it to survive the winter!

 

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