“Feed the birds, tuppence a bag.” So sang Julie Andrews in “Mary Poppins”. It sounds cheap, but maybe it was only a little bag. And I wonder what was in it?
In the next verse she tells us: “breadcrumbs!” Oh dear, not very nutritious. And what species of birds would be getting fed? Well, the bird lady’s pitch was in central London near St Paul’s, so probably mainly pigeons (hardly wild even back in Edwardian times) and no doubt lots of cheerful cockney house sparrows, which were pretty numerous in the streets of London back at that time, thanks-ironically – to the traffic!
There were a few “chitty chitty bang bangs” chugging along, but the main form of transport was horse-drawn or horseback. This meant that there was plenty of straw and dung lying around, just the sort of thing house sparrows thrive on, which means of course that people didn’t really need to buy birdseed at all. Why pay tuppence when you can scrape it up off the cobbles? I can’t imagine the poor old bird lady did all that well.
Things have changed a bit since then! City streets are now largely devoid of singing vendors, and house sparrows, and of course the horses that fortuitously fed the birds. Nowadays, we have to do it. Fortunately – in our thousands – we do, and it is not just in London, and it is definitely not just breadcrumbs. There are sunflower and niger seeds, berries and sultanas, energy giving fatballs, mealworms – dead or alive – prime peanuts and carefully prepared mixes that rival the finest healthiest muesli.
Admittedly, bird food these days is likely to cost a bit more than tuppence a bag. Like all foods, drink -and just about anything – there are cheap varieties, and there are superior products that cost a bit more. What you are paying for is quality and consistency. These are recipes that have been expertly developed to suit different species, and of course different seasons.
Welcome to winter, when Mary Poppins – as always - knows what’s good for us all. Altogether now: ” Feed the birds, * * * * * a bag.” You fill in the blank!”
Bill Oddie’s Top 10 winter bird feeding tips and insights
1. Look out for Great Spotted Woodpeckers. They’re looking for a regular supply of high-energy foods, like Premium Peanuts and nutritious suet.
2. I have often heard people say “I don’t get any birds in my garden”. It is never true. I ask them “do you get pigeons?” Do you get starlings? What about Blue Tits, or House Sparrows? And what about flying over? Do you see swifts in summer? Gulls in winter? Before they realize it, they have a list of at least a dozen species. Don’t worry what’s around, have faith and put some bird food out for the birds.
3. So, why not keep a garden list? You can count birds seen in the garden, and birds seen from the garden, flying over. And you can even count birds you only hear, like a Tawny Owl hooting, or a flock of geese honking, flying over in the dark.
4. Different foods attract different species, and different birds prefer different ways of feeding. Some favour clinging to a suspended bird feeder, others prefer perching on a bird table. There are feeders to suit all styles, but you don’t have to buy one since quite a few birds prefer to hop along on the ground and feed, like Blackbirds and Dunnocks. Just scatter the seed and they will find it. A good ground-feeding bird food like Huskfree Advance is enough to get you started. But don’t be afraid to experiment, Haith’s make some lovely softfoods which are crumbly and moist. Some of them contain insects, berries, fruits and honey. What more could a bird want?
5. Look out for the winter thrushes. It is October that the ‘winter thrushes’ arrive. Fieldfares & Redwings. They come both from the North West (Scandinavia & Russia). On some October nights you can hear them flying over in thousands. The Redwings give a high-pitched squeaking call that people may assume are bats (in fact bats are inaudible to our ears), whilst the fieldfares ‘ chack & wheeze’ as they fly over. Once settled in whichever part of Britain they intend to spend the winter, they will probably feed in flocks, gorging themselves on hawthorn berries, and searching the damp fields for worms. However, now and then, especially if there’s a cold snap, they will visit gardens and orchards, particularly if you leave wind fallen apples and pears around, or put out ‘fruity’ food, such as Mealworm Crumble or Golden Chorus.
6. The greatest variety of species, are on bird feeders now! This winter may not be harsh (or maybe it will be!) but it will still be the time that bird feeding seems to come to some sort of climax. It is the time when the greatest variety of species, visit the feeders. The time when something really unusual may turn up on a bird table. And the time when the birds become just that little bit tamer and more confiding. The way to attract them is through good quality, safe, fresh and nutritional bird foods packed for of high energy seeds.
7. Availability and consistency is the key! They need us, and I’d venture to say that we need them. So please keep on feeding those birds throughout winter (and all-year-round if you can!).
8. Provide fresh water daily! And watch out for it freezing over when temperatures plummet.
9. Feed on three levels. Simply sprinkle a little seed on the ground and bird table to attract ground feeding birds. Use Haith’s Huskfree Advance for bird feeder (it leaves zero waste) and choose Mealworm Crumble for bird tables and ground feeding.
10. Keep it simple! Never has there been quite such a massive selection of seeds and feeders on the market. If you are just starting bird feeding – and especially if your budget is limited – then you may be feeling a little overwhelmed. My advice is to keep it simple, but try to afford the best. I would recommend a good basic seed mix like Premium Wild Bird Food for bird feeders and Mealworm Crumble for bird tables and for sprinkling on the ground to attract ground feeding birds.