How to encourage and care for wild birds in the winter
Winter is a tough time for wild birds. They don't hibernate like most animals and have to fend for themselves over the hard, cold months of the winter. There is little natural food around - the ground is frozen, insects are scarce and any autumn berries and seeds essential to garden birds are eventually eaten or destroyed by the weather. The days are also shorter meaning there is less time for them to look for food and the temperatures are so cold that wild birds have to expend extra energy fluffing up their feathers just to stay warm.
Winter care for garden birds is vital, and one of the most important things we can do when feeding birds in winter is to provide as wide a variety of food as possible - quite simply, the wider the range, the more species will visit. Different birds like different foods and putting out as many types as we can will attract a host of different species to our gardens. Robins love meal worms, tits and nuthatches adore peanuts, while the favorite food of siskins and gold finches are the distinctive, black nyger seeds that require their own specific seed feeder. Fat balls and cakes are perfect for feeding birds in winter, full of the fat and high calories warm blooded wild birds need to get them through the cold weather. If they come in mesh bags take these off first, as birds can get tangled in them, or make your own, by adding a range of seeds, nuts and cheese to suet or lard.
When buying food for feeding birds in winter, always make sure the food is of a high quality. If you're feeding birds in winter, they need high-energy food to sustain them through the cold days and freezing nights and cheaper foods are often bulked out with nutrient poor grains like barley or large pulses like lentils and beans, which only the very large birds can eat.
Another top tip when feeding birds in winter is that they also have different ways of eating - not all birds feed the same way. Blackbirds and wrens for example, are ground feeders who prefer to eat straight from the lawn or border, whereas wild birds such as tits and finches favor hanging feeders. So, when considering wild bird care, try and include a range of feeders in your garden, such as a bird table, some hanging feeders in trees or on a pole pushed in to the lawn or border and remember to scatter some food on the lawn too - unless you have cats.
Always place feeders and food where garden birds can see them but ensure it is somewhere they will feel safe - putting food no more than 2m from plants and vegetation will allow them to hop to cover easily if they need to. And wild bird care isn't just about food. Fresh water is essential too. Garden birds need water for drinking but also for cleaning, particularly in winter when cleaner feathers will fluff up better, so keep bird baths topped up and frost free or put out trays or bowls if you don't have them.
But, the most important rule of wild bird care is to keep the food coming. Birds remember where their food comes from and will come back looking for it once they know your garden is somewhere with food - don't make them expend valuable energy on a wasted journey to your garden. And this doesn't just apply to winter bird care - birds will come to rely on your garden for food all year round so continue putting food out if you can.
Finally, spare a thought for birds when planting. Although winter care for garden birds is important, remember to provide lots of cover and structure for them to use throughout the year, with plants like ivy and consider berry bearing plants and those with seed heads, like teasel or Echinacea - all will go a long way in helping them keep going through the long, cold days of winter.