The days are getting longer, the clocks have gone forward, and the daffodils are out - it must be Spring! This is the time of year that thousands upon thousands of summer migrant birds pour into the country to join our resident species to get on with the most important task in their whole lives, breeding.
With habitat loss and more unpredictable weather it is sometimes a struggle for birds to find enough food to breed successfully and to optimise their chick fledging percentage. Many adult birds that breed in the UK are seed eaters, but they still gather insect food to feed their young on, the high animal protein levels in such food enabling chicks to grow rapidly and fledge successfully. If the adults have to use a percentage of the food collected to keep their own energy levels up, then it means less food for their young and ultimately fewer young getting to fledging age.
This is where we come in, we can help! Every garden or even a barren backyard can be converted into a mini oasis for wildlife with very little effort, but the results will be huge. The feelgood factor will also have a positive effect on our wellbeing too, not a bad thing in the current climate!
Wildlife gardening starts easily, don’t tidy up too much (easy!), leave some weeds, which actually are food plants for lots of invertebrates in one way or another (easy!!) and maybe stack a few offcut branches up in the corner of your garden as refuge for all sorts of wildlife (easy!!!). So, so far it’s about just doing less work, always a win-win situation, next comes being a bit more proactive.
The best, and easiest, way to help birds is by garden feeding, something that millions of us already do. But if you don’t already do it then now is the time to start, and if you do then why not add a new feeder or two, and maybe a different food type? It is a well-known fact that the network of garden bird feeding creates a vital additional resource that if it went missing would be catastrophic for the UKs birds. Supplementary feeding at this time of the year will benefit both summer migrants and residents as all start the exhausting process of breeding. Many migrants will arrive on our shores with low body weights due to the extreme toll that flying thousands of miles takes on their tiny bodies. Before breeding can begin, they need to restore weight and put on body condition to get them through the rigours to come. Resident species may not have migrated but many fit in more broods of young by starting to breed a bit earlier, the toll on them will be even greater due to the extra work required rearing, for example, three clutches rather than two. By feeding all year round we can meet the needs of both our resident early breeders and the later migrant breeders and give a much higher chance of success for both.
So, what are your options? Well, really the world's your oyster as they say! A couple of simple feeders to start will be fine, maybe a mesh peanut feeder and a seed feeder with perches on the side for birds to access the seed through the holes in the side. Size is your choice, the longer the feeder the easier more birds will be able to access food without too much conflict, and the bigger the diameter the more food can be held reducing the need to top up frequently and this has the added bonus of making the feeder easier to clean. There are plenty to choose from, ranging from the cheap and cheerful, which have a lower build quality and shorter life expectancy, to more expensive ones which will be more robust and could last a lifetime if looked after correctly. The more expensive ones will probably have better thought out filling mechanisms too and ease of use is paramount, especially when nipping out on a frosty morning or in a heavy rain shower! The mention of cleaning needs extra detail as there are considerations at play here. Whilst feeding birds is great for their welfare, a dirty feeder can be harmful and even fatal for our feathered friends. The last thing anyone who cares enough to feed the birds would want is to harm them. Currently Avian Influenza is the headline problem and with the current strain it is unclear as to how exactly it is spread. Suffice to say it spreads easily and is deadly, leading to a lingering, painful death, so doing anything that may stop the spread is essential. Cleaning all your feeders regularly can’t do any harm and may do a lot of good. Reason number 2 to clean isn’t as widely publicised, but currently finches especially are being infected by a horrible disease called Fringilla papillomavirus, which is especially rife in Chaffinches and Bramblings. This causes growths which vary in size from small nodules to larger warts that engulf the whole leg. These develop over a long period and affected individuals may become lame or lose digits or legs. This disability will often lead to the bird dying. Swollen scaly legs can also be due to mites of the genus Knemidocoptes. The 'scales' are dry encrustations made up of material produced by the bird in response to the irritation caused by the mites, together with skin debris thrown up by the mites as they burrow into the tissues. As well as forming on the legs, the 'scales' may also form around the beak. A third problem is Trichomoniasis, a name given to a disease caused by the protozoan parasite Trichomonas gallinae. Affected birds show signs of general illness (lethargy, fluffed-up plumage) and may show difficulty in swallowing or laboured breathing. The disease may progress over several days or even weeks.
To minimise the risk of the above problems, follow sensible hygiene precautions as a routine measure when feeding garden birds and handling bird feeders and tables. Empty and air dry any bird baths on a daily basis. Clean and disinfect feeders and feeding sites regularly. Suitable disinfectants that can be used include a weak solution of domestic bleach. Carefully rinse all surfaces with clean water and air dry before using. Clean your feeders outside and maintain careful personal hygiene, including wearing gloves and making sure that brushes and buckets are not used for other purposes, as some diseases can affect human and domestic animal health.
As well as the standard feeders there are now a few additional options that should be considered too. These involve high fat content, which is so beneficial to birds, allowing them to put on extra weight for a short feeding period, very beneficial at this time of year. The most basic of these are Fat Balls and Fat Slabs. These are hung in feeder cages, or you can even get fat-filled coconut halves (not refillable so more wasteful really). The fat is high energy food and will attract a vast array of species and sometimes you feel that it’s hard to keep them topped up, but that’s good news, it’s what you feed the birds for! Next is bird-friendly peanut butter, with the best option being ‘Flutter Butter’. This is delivered from a hanging feeder and once they discover it the birds go nuts (!!!) for it. It comes in plain, buggy or fruity and as a help to the environment can be bought as refills, so reducing plastic, and cost. Talking about cost, it is worth buying reasonable sized bags of peanuts and seed (both mixed and sunflower hearts are recommended) to save money and to make sure you always have some in. Once the birds start using your feeding station they will rely on it, and you, so don’t run out! We are talking here about spring feeding but feeding all year round is helpful, you really don’t need to stop at certain times of the year as advocated in some quarters, just ‘Keep Feeding’!
As many of you know here at Focalpoint Optics we supply a range of foods, including peanuts, premium seed mix and sunflower hearts. We also keep in stock all varieties of Flutter Butter and fat balls and slabs. We now have a new range of feeders available. From Jacobi Jayne these have easier access for filling via a ring-pull system and are easy-clean to keep the birds safe. This new generation of feeders have to be the best to ever hit the market. We also have several different dispensers for Flutter Butter, from ones to hang on the bird table or a branch to wall or even window-mount ones so you can get up close and personal with your feathered friends. If you already feed it may be worth popping in to upgrade or add extra feeders and if you don’t feed the birds yet, then now is the time to start with feeders that will last a lifetime if cared for properly. Also, there is no time like the present to start, as feeding now will improve the productivity of our breeding birds and keep that dawn chorus alive and loud!!