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High-energy foods and cold snaps go hand in hand

Tuesday, 14th January 2014

We asked Bill Oddie how important high-energy wild bird foods are for wild birds...
Bill Oddie"If the weather turns really cold, this is the time that birds really need your help. I am sure that everyone is well aware that frozen ground and low temperatures can prove fatal for garden birds. So, keep putting that food out. The lawn may look pretty covered by an unblemished blanket of snow, but scraping a few areas clear will allow birds to get at natural food as well. And if the freeze continues you may need to uncover a new patch every day. It is during these cold snaps that ‘high energy’ foods are really appreciated: special mixes, suet and fat balls. Niger seeds are particularly beloved of Siskins, a perky little finch whose yellow and black stripes add a cheery glow to the gloomiest of winter days.

Wild BirdAnd talking of avian colour in the garden……there are consolations to wintery weather. Let’s face it, when the trees are leafless and the flower beds are bare, the birds are easier to see and are often tamer. What’s more it is during the winter months that you are most likely to get the most colourful and unusual visitors. The fact is birds often look their best not long after Christmas. They may not intend to nest for a month or two, but many of them moult into their breeding plumage quite early in the year. On milder sunny days in January and February they are also likely to try out their voices. Even the species that have no intention of staying round your neighbourhood to raise their families may burst into song. Siskins generally prefer to nest in conifer forests and there’s not a lot of those in my part of town – but more than once I have heard them in my garden tinkling away like little canaries. Likewise the ‘winter thrushes’ – Redwings and Fieldfares – will return to Scandinavia or Iceland in spring, but they are by no means averse to practising their singing if the weather inspires them.

It is also during the winter months that ‘garden rarities’ tend to turn up. Some of them may not have ventured very far in their search for a more reliable food supply: Reed Buntings may find a bird table more productive than a local reed bed, and Great Spotted Woodpeckers often forsake the forest to pop in and hammer their way through peanut bags. Other species are genuine ‘foreign’ visitors. Some years there is an invasion of Waxwings from Scandinavia: arguably one of the world’s prettiest and most characterful birds. They are addicted to red berries, so if you have a cotoneaster keep a look out. Waxwings are often reported from supermarket car parks, which almost invariably are surrounded by red berry bushes!

On several occasions American garden birds have appeared on British bird tables or feeders. They probably got blown across the Atlantic by late autumn hurricanes, and remain unseen until their search for food leads them to suburbia. If you see a bird you really can’t find ‘in the book’, it may only turn out to have escaped from a cage or aviary, but it just might be a lost Yankee. Take a photo and/or call a local birdwatcher to come and have a look. Mind you, if it really is a rarity you need to decide whether or not you can put up with the crowds of ‘twitchers’ that will inevitably want to come and see it. If that is a daunting prospect, remember it is quite acceptable to charge a small ‘viewing fee’. Any money you – or the bird! – raise, you can pass on to a favourite charity, or use to pay for a new lawn if it gets churned up by hundreds of muddy boots! Believe me, it happens.”

Bill Oddie

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