How you can help garden birds in cold weather

The current cold spell across the country is making life hard for our garden birds.  As temperatures drop, so the birds need to eat as much high energy food as possible to try to keep warm.  Unfortunately, it is still too early for there to be many insects around, and most of the berries on garden trees and bushes have already been eaten.  In situations like this, very often birds must make do with searching the ground for whatever seeds and scraps they can find; heavy snowfall, of course, will prevent them from doing even that.

BirdWatch Ireland members have already noticed that the cold weather has brought large numbers of certain more uncommon bird species, such as Siskins and Redpolls, into their gardens in search of food and shelter.  These join the more frequently-observed garden species, such as Blue Tits, Dunnocks, Chaffinches and Robins, and compete with them for food.  This winter has also seen a particularly large influx of winter visitors from Scandinavia and elsewhere in northern Europe.  This means that this year the pressure on the remaining food resources is even greater than usual.

In an effort to ensure that as many of our feathered garden visitors as possible survive the current weather conditions, BirdWatch Ireland would like to encourage people to put out food for the birds that visit their gardens.  It is very easy to do and will make it far easier for the birds to keep warm.

The menu is easy.  Wild bird seed, peanuts and sunflower seed can found in local supermarkets and garden shops, as can the special wire or plastic feeders that they should be put in; these feeders can then be suspended from tree branches or a bird table.  Apples, whether cut in half and speared on branches or just left out whole on the lawn, are also a great source of food, particularly for Blackbirds and other members of the thrush family, as well as Blackcaps (small warblers that have only recently begun to spend the winter in Ireland).  Kitchen scraps, such as bacon rinds, cheese (particularly loved by Robins), suet, raisins, moistened bread, melon seeds, fruit, stale cake, cooked potato, oatmeal, fresh coconut and uncooked pastry, also make welcome meals.  Fat is an especially important source of energy for birds, so please don’t waste it!  Lumps of suet may be hung out on strings or in plastic mesh vegetable containers, and meat trimmings, bacon rinds and other scraps will also be eaten.  Melted fat may be poured over bread or cake scraps to make “bird cake”.

There are a couple of items which should never be fed to birds.  These include desiccated (dried) coconut, uncooked rice or dry bread, which may swell up in the bird’s stomach.

It is equally as important to ensure that your garden birds have a constant supply of fresh drinking water, something that can be very hard for them to find when ponds and puddles are frozen over.  As well as needing to drink it, they also need it for bathing, to ensure that their feathers are kept clean so that they will insulate them effectively against the cold weather.  A simple bird-bath can be made from an inverted dustbin lid sunk into the ground; remember to keep the surface ice free.

Once you begin to feed the birds they quickly become dependent on you, so please be sure to continue feeding right through to mid-spring.  For further information on what you can do to help the birds around your home, please have a look at our Garden Bird Factsheets page and Garden Bird FAQ.


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