Cold comfort for garden birds


With snow and freezing temperatures across the UK this week, the RSPB is appealing for people to spare a thought for the birds who need our help to survive the cold snap. Finding food and ensuring they eat enough of it to build and maintain adequate fat supplies to store on the body and 'burn' for energy is the greatest test for wild birds in winter. And the food and water we provide can be the difference between life and death in many cases. The reminder comes as many parts of the country are already experiencing several inches of snow and the Met Office forecasts cold and snowy weather to arrive elsewhere in the next couple of days.

Nuthatch, Leitholm, Borders (Photo: Ron McCombe)

When temperatures fall below freezing, our birds struggle to find the food they need to survive the winter in healthy condition, vital for breeding in spring. Natural food is covered in snow and ice and impossible to get to. Water birds may be forced to leave iced-over lakes and rivers. The ground becomes too hard for birds like thrushes and Lapwings to probe, and natural food like berries, acorns and seeds is buried.

During cold snaps like this current one, birds are more likely to come into our gardens to seek sanctuary. People can help improve birds' chances of survival through these cold periods by providing food like meal worms, fatballs, crushed peanuts, dried fruit and seeds and grain. They could also put out leftovers like grated cheese, porridge oats, soft fruit, unsalted bacon, cooked rice and pasta and the insides of cooked potatoes. Water is also vital for both drinking and bathing and bird baths can be kept from freezing over using small floating items like twigs or ping pong balls.

Gemma Rogers, RSPB spokesperson, says: "As winter arrives with a vengeance again this week, our garden birds will be in for a nasty shock. Insects become harder to find and seeds and berries can be locked away by snow and frost. Freezing weather is a potential death sentence for many birds but by feeding the birds in your garden, people can help them survive the worst of the winter weather. Just a little water, food and shelter can turn your garden into a vital haven for birds in the freezing winter months."

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The RSPB is asking people to follow a wild bird winter survival plan that will help wildlife during the harshest weather.

  1. Put out feed regularly, especially in severe weather. Set up a bird table and use high-calorie seed mixes. This can also be used to put out kitchen scraps such as animal fats, grated cheese and porridge oats.
  2. Put out hanging feeders for black sunflower seeds, sunflower hearts, sunflower-rich mixes or unsalted peanuts.
  3. Ensure a supply of fresh water every day. If it is very cold use tepid water but do not use any antifreeze products.
  4. Put out fruit, such as apples and pears, for Blackbirds, Song Thrushes and other members of the thrush family.
  5. Food bars or fat hung up or rubbed into the bark of trees is a great help for Treecreepers, Goldcrests and many other species.
  6. Put up nest boxes to provide roost sites for the smaller birds. They will then be used for breeding later in the year.

Fieldfare, Wisley, Surrey (Photo: Ian McKechnie)

Leftovers from Christmas or New Year meals can also provide a welcome boost for wildlife — cake crumbs, pastry and cheese are all readily eaten by wild birds. People may also notice a change in the behaviour of birds given the extreme conditions. You may witness a flurry of activity first thing in the morning — as birds replenish energy lost overnight — and last thing in the afternoon — to prepare for the long night ahead.

During a hard winter birds have to feed at an accelerated rate, but must also take adequate time out to rest and conserve energy. Many birds become more sociable to improve their chances of survival during cold weather. Flocking together in winter improves the chances of locating food and huddling together during the critical night-time period helps conserve body heat.

The ability to fly is also a key to survival and can lead to sudden and dramatic changes in the birdlife of an area. Flying to milder regions in search of areas less affected by the weather or where food is still readily available is a vital tactic.

As the weather worsens across the UK, the RSPB has received this picture of a Song Thrush nesting extremely early on a set of traffic lights in Leeds. This picture was taken just before the bad snow set in. It might not seem an obvious choice but perhaps the warmth from the lights makes it a sensible one! (Photo: Fran Andrews)

The RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch — the world's biggest bird survey — will take place on Saturday 30th and Sunday 31st January 2010. Visit www.rspb.org.uk/birdwatch.

Written by: RSPB