The short days and long, cold nights of winter mean that our wild birds will be spending more and more time looking for food with a high energy content. They need to find food that is so rich in calories that the surplus can be stored as fat during the day and then burnt off during the night to keep warm. By Christmas the nights will be around 16 hours long, leaving just 8 hours for the birds to replace the energy used. There’s usually lots of competition at the feeders so the smaller birds such as Blue Tits and Goldfinches often have to wait until the larger birds have had their fill, further reducing the time available to feed.
For females and smaller males the enforced fast is even longer as more dominant birds of their own species will monopolise the feeding areas during the crucial first and last hours of day light. If at all possible try to minimise disturbance at the feeders around sunrise and sunset so that the birds can feed up. This may include keeping pets indoors.
There are several ways that we can help them at this challenging time of year. Providing energy-rich foods such as sunflower hearts or our High-Energy No Mess seed mix is a big help to a wide range of species, and the lack of husks doesn’t just mean less mess in the garden, it also means that species like Blackbirds and Robins have access to an excellent source of energy that would otherwise be denied to them. Even for seed-opening specialists like the tits and finches, the absence of a husk to remove both reduces handling time and increases feeding time, and ultimately allows more birds to benefit from each feeder. At this time of year they may spend 85 per cent of the available daylight feeding, so every minute counts.
Peanuts are a traditional food but can be of variable quality depending on where you buy them, are prone to a naturally occurring poison called aflatoxin, and are still sometimes sold in red net bags which can cause birds to get their feet or tongues trapped, suffering horrible injuries. This is rare but entirely avoidable. Our peanuts are purchased from human food stocks to ensure that there are nil detectable signs of aflatoxin and would be best put out in one of our peanut feeders.
When the weather gets cold the best approach is to give the birds exactly what they need: fat. Our peanut cakes are based on a mix of high quality tallow and peanut flour providing over 600 calories in every 100 grams, making each mouthful a vital energy boost.
Peanut cake squares weigh 300 grams and fit into a range of inexpensive feeders or can be provided loose on a bird table or the ground. Peanut cake tubes are larger at 500 grams and 1 kilo and can be hung from the integral stalk, fed loose like the squares, or used with one of our specialist peanut cake feeders. Squares and tubes can also be rubbed into the bark of trees to provide a “feeding stripe” of fat crumbs which are too small for larger birds to bother with but ideal for the smaller species like Long-tailed Tits, Treecreepers and Goldcrests which seldom dare to “mix it” with Great Tits and Starlings at the feeders.
If Starlings and Magpies tend to consume everything that is put out there is a solution in the form of the Fat Ball & Suet Feeder Guardian, a caged feeder which protects fat balls, peanut cake squares and peanut cake tubes from larger birds. Easy to refill even on a frosty morning, the feeder can be hung, pole mounted or used free standing and holds up to ten fat balls or one individual peanut cake square or tube.
Spare some food for the Starlings if you can though as they are on the Red List of birds of conservation concern, having declined massively in recent years. They are also charmingly gregarious, talented mimics and, when the wintery sunlight catches the iridescence of their feathers, surprisingly handsome. If you are going to use the Guardian feeder to secure some food for the smaller birds it’s worth considering putting out a few peanut cakes specifically produced and economically priced for the Starlings’ larger appetite.
A reliable supply of water is a good way to help birds and other wildlife and can attract species that won’t take supplementary food. Bird baths need to be sited at least two metres from cover that may hide a lurking cat, and the container needs to have sloping sides so that the birds don’t get out of their depth. During freezing conditions the birds may rely on your supply of water for drinking and bathing. A diet of dried seeds or peanuts doesn’t contain much water and a daily bath is essential to maximise the insulation provided by the bird’s feathers. Bird baths become particularly important during sustained cold snaps when the only liquid water available is in roadside puddles that have been contaminated with salt, which is lethal to most bird species.
Winter is also a good time to put up a nest box or two. That may sound like a strange suggestion but by doing so now the birds will get to accept the boxes in good time to incorporate them into their territories, the boxes make excellent winter roost sites and, most importantly, it avoids putting the job off until it’s too late!