If you are after a source of colour and amusement in your garden, then you should think about placing a comfortable seat, or even an arbour, somewhere well camouflaged and then set out to attract wild birds. Sitting in the open air watching an array of blues greens and olives punctuated with flashes of yellow from your darting visitors can be quite thrilling. Contrast these with the bright red of the popular robin and this will give you a hint of the kaleidoscope of colour, especially in the winter months when most of your plants are dormant and just plain dull.

Of course the numbers and varieties of birds that visit your garden depend upon where you live. But most importantly, you need to make your garden hospitable. Birds, similar to ourselves, enjoy a varied and plentiful menu, warm and cosy dwellings and a sense of security. The ideal, bird-friendly garden would include several large mature trees.

This too is where you could put a tree seat. It could include a pond or stream, thick evergreen shrubs or climbers and berry baring shrubs. It should also not be too exposed to the wind, have a number of different birdbaths and bird tables, a compost heap and nesting boxes. Finally the garden should be cat free.

There has been plenty of reporting on the waning of wild birds. With the massive decline of habitat in the countryside, birds retreat to where food is still available – namely hedgerows, nature reserves and gardens. Quite simply, the very least that we should do is ensure that the birds in our garden are well fed, especially during the colder months.

However before we consider how to go about feeding birds it is essential to appreciate that once you start feeding birds you must carry on. In effect, by supplementing their diets, you are attracting a larger proportion of birds to your garden. If you suddenly stop feeding (for instance if you go away on holiday for a couple of weeks) it would be fatal to the birds as there would simply not be enough wild food available to support them.

January is the month during which garden birds benefit the most from a helping human hand – it is also the month when you can wrap up,warm and sit quietly on a roomy bench with a flask of coffee. Not only is supplementing birds’ feeding indispensable to their survival it also means you get a chance to watch them at close quarters – mainly because hunger makes them bolder. Natural food supplies from windfallen apples and berries will have been consumed. Insects are in hibernation and normally the ground is frozen solid.

A fair proportion of our native birds migrate south in the winter so as to carry on eating their main food-source of insects. However the birds that remain then have to compete for food with visitors from the Arctic north who will also be taking refuge in your garden. These include thrushes and blackbirds that have migrated from countries such as Scandinavia.

Birds need feeding regularly – ideally every day. Put food out early in the morning with a second feed in early afternoon. Fresh water is also important – even if you have a pond.

Try to vary the food you put out. This is more likely to attract different varieties of birds. Apples, cut in half and put on a table or on the ground are ideal for blackbirds, thrushes and robins. Scatter grated cheese or well crumbled bread (ideally slightly moistened if it is very dry) at the edge of shrubs to attract shy species such as dunnocks. With regard to seeds, black sunflower seeds are favourites but there are also a number of different seed mixtures which include maize, hempseed, oats and other varieties.

Pile up dead leaves under trees. Not only does this provide a haven for insects but it also encourages birds such as thrushes, blackbirds and great tits, as well as making a hibernation home for hedgehogs or frogs. Just be careful when you tidy up your garden thereafter so as not to disturb any sleeping creatures inside the piles.

Trees and shrubs are essential for birds. They provide safe havens from predators as well as from inclement weather. During the warmer months they offer nesting sites. Evergreens such as fir, pines, junipers and hollies are ideal winter trees attracting birds. Even ornamental and native grasses are important as they provide cover for ground nesting birds as well as a place to hide in during bad weather.

Of course trees and shrubs are also a vital source of food for birds. Use a variety of species with different flowering or fruiting periods so as to provide food throughout the year. Select bushes that retain their fruit throughout the winter, such as hollies, firethorn and sumacs as well as trees that produce acorns, cones and nuts. Birds are particularly attracted to red berries. Try planting Amelanchier lamarckii, Arbutus unedo, Berberis, Cotoneaster, Eleagnus, Hippophae, Mahonia, Malus, Pyrachantha, Sambucus, Skimmia, Sorbus and Vibernum – just to name a few.

Different species of birds have different feeding habits. Members of the tit family enjoy eating from hanging containers. Put these high up away – out of temptations way for cats. Ideally place these near to roses or other shrubs that attract greenfly or caterpillars – the birds will eat these too, eliminating pest problems.

Bird tables are attractive to most types of birds. A roof is ideal as it keeps the rain off. However, do be careful in the design you choose as you must be sure that cats can not climb up them. Most birds like eating on the ground – so if you do not have domestic pets then sprinkle small amounts of food on your grass. Ensure that it is all gone by night-time otherwise you will then be visited by rodents. Bird feeders and nest boxes should not be put together. Birds will not nest near food as they will be too distracted by the goodies.

You should put food in several different sites in your garden and move the feeding sites regularly. This prevents contamination from bird droppings.

Bird tables should be located in a quiet position and in the open so that birds have a good all-round view to keep an eye out for predators. If possible the location should also be reasonably sheltered. It may take a few days for birds to start visiting your bird-table. They will approach it with caution initially as they need to be sure that the food is good and the location safe.

Robin washing in water bath

Robin washing in water bath

Fresh water is essential for birds, use shallow containers so they can drink and bathe without danger of drowning. Ensure that the water is changed daily. If your bird bath is on the ground, or if you have a pond, ensure that its sides are sloping. Other animals such as hedgehogs will use it and they must be able to get out again.

When should you stop feeding birds? Well, there is a conflict of opinion on this. Some consider that you should gradually stop once winter is over and more natural foods are available. Other people believe that stopping increases stress levels for birds who are under pressure to build their nests and defend their territories. Perhaps the most sensible would be to switch to other foods.

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Ailene Littleton

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