When we moved to Horton Heath from Fair Oak in 2017, it was a year before I turned my attention to the garden. Our elderly neighbour informed me that there weren’t many birds around nowadays, but I decided to see if I could encourage the few we had seen. I put out feeders and sprinkled some food on a birdtable hung from a tree. I did this every morning, whatever the weather, in the dark before work if necessary. I hoped that we would see more birds and kept a record to see if my efforts would pay off. I was astounded by my success:
On week one, the list was uninspiring, blackbird, wood pigeon, collared dove and magpie. However, I persevered, and by week four I had added blue tit, coal tit, house sparrow, goldfinch and jackdaw. When my husband thought he’d seen a greenfinch in week five, I was dubious – I hadn’t seen a greenfinch in years and knew they were in serious decline. But the next day, the greenfinch brought a friend, then another and another. We learned to identify not only species, but males from females and adults from juveniles. In the spring and summer of 2019, I counted an amazing 14 sets of fledgelings in the garden. Our teenage children also got involved, alerting me if one of the greater spotted woodpeckers was around, or if an unidentified juvenile was on the feeders.
We are now visited daily by flocks of goldfinches and greenfinches, starlings and collared doves. I spot an average of ten different species each day, just by looking out of the window every now and then.
There’s new research that questions whether feeding garden birds could be contributing to the decline of some species, so I am now focusing on encouraging more invertebrates into my garden and growing plenty of things to supply natural food. There’s also the impact, on wild habitats, of growing bird food as a crop to consider. Providing fresh water and nesting places is also crucial to these garden visitors. The birds are around, and if you provide them with the things they need, you can encourage them to stay. I do still put out food as a supplement to their natural diet though and the hands-down favourite in my garden is sunflower hearts (shelled sunflower seeds), eaten enthusiastically by the finches. Great tits, blue tits, coal tits and long-tailed tits enjoy the fat blocks, as do the starlings. The woodpeckers prefer peanuts and several other species like mixed seed. I have tried niger seeds – supposed to be a favourite of goldfinches – but have never seen a single bird eating them! On the bird table I put chopped nuts, seeds and dried mealworms (not as disgusting as they sound!)
Prevent disease by emptying old food from feeders and scrubbing every couple of weeks. Top up the bird bath, especially if it freezes overnight. Keep feeding during nesting time. The adult birds will benefit from easy meals while they are expending so much energy foraging for their chicks, but give home-made fat balls a miss when the weather gets warm, as they can become too sticky.
Don’t put food out within reach of a cat. If you own a cat, it might be best to stop feeding birds in the spring because the fledgelings are particularly vulnerable. Some owners keep their cats in at night, which reduces their kill rate by an amazing 80 percent although the prey at night tend to be rodents rather than birds of course. Fitting your cat’s collar with a bell reduces the kill rate by 50 percent.
You may even spot something quite unusual but even common species will brighten your day and you don’t need a large garden – the birds aren’t bothered about fences – we all live in one big garden as far as they’re concerned.