Creating the right environment for your garden birds

Looking after the domestic and migratory birds in your garden is a fascinating and pleasing pastime, but it can also play a significant impact in the preservation of endangered bird species, writes Kya deLongchamps.

With the spread of housing developments in suburbs and country towns, and the stripping back of hedging and traditional field margins, the environments of our songbirds are under increasing pressure to provide.

Regularly feeding wild birds in your garden is a fascinating, enjoyable and impactful way making a real contribution to our native and migratory population.

Eric Dempsey, author, photographer and founder of Birds Ireland, outlines the guiding principles for patronising the local ornithology.

“It’s crucial to provide a wide variety of foods and to set these out in a safe environment. Try to make a commitment for the entire winter, and best practice (if you can) is to feed birds year round.”

To make a start, take one predestined spot in the garden, that scruffy area that gets the least domestic traffic.

Let the grass grow shaggy, even weedy. As you prune, chuck in cuttings from trees and shrubs, allowing them to degrade naturally. Insects, slugs and snails now have the cover to thrive. A paving slab or two provides a ‘smashing’ place for blackbirds and thrushes to breach shells.

Deep evergreen hedging? Ideal shelter from harsh wind and rain. To do even more — lift the mower blades for that last cut of the winter, leaving the grass throughout the lawn just that little bit longer — a succulent, nutrient rich sward of worms, grubs, and other organic goodies.

A bird feeding station doesn’t even require a garden — just a free-draining stage where birds won’t be vulnerable to attack from stalking predators.

Place it where you have a view with naked eyes and binoculars. Raising the table to shoulder height, makes it easier to stock and keep clean and an open position allows ground feeders to see approaching dogs, cats, foxes and rats.

Think about dining levels. The roof and platform in a traditional housey style provide extra places to hang as well as scatter food.

There are dozens of commercial solutions in timber, plastic and even Plexiglass from as little as €5 or €6. Some relatively fragile hanger feeders are superb for excluding larger birds and ambitious squirrels.

If you’re a bit handy, BirdwatchIreland offer a simple plan for a rustic hanging feeder using just scraps of plywood, hooks and light metal chain, birdwatchireland.ie.

Birds need water to keep their feathers clean and in good condition to insulate their fragile bodies, re-applying oil from preen glands. Any shallow dish-shaped container with sloping sides and a textured surface can offer a birdy spa day. An unwanted outdoor dustbin lid makes an excellent slosh spot.

A shallow fall to the edge of the pond will invite birds and other animals to drink without the danger of sliding in.

Supplementary wild bird food takes into account the dietary needs of native and migratory birds.

There’s no escaping the fact that good, bird feeds are relatively expensive. Ensure you’re getting appropriate, health-giving products.

Eric Dempsey advises: “Niger seed, sunflower seeds or hearts, wild bird seeds (good quality) and suet balls are all superfoods.

Quality is really important — the cheaper the food generally, the lesser the quality. Peanuts are a great food item, but never salted (obviously).

"A good rule with peanuts is to ask yourself: would I eat these? If the answer is no, then don’t put them out.

Foods should have no mould, dust or wrinkled nuts. When you open the seal, does it smell fresh and dry? A high degree of cereal is typical in a cheap mixed feed. Go for a general wild bird seed mix and some split apples on the ground to start. Preloaded nut and ‘nibble’ feeders command a premium.

Buying in bulk and storing in airtight containers in a dry environment can cut cost — but don’t let open bags sit for long.

You might know that processed white bread can harm a bird (and stale is impenetrable) but dozens of species of small birds can die from cheaply made fat balls or dodgy DIY suet recipes bound with sawdust and other contaminants. Crumbled wholemeal bread moistened and fresh — acceptable.

For a shifting diversity of birds and even the chance of exciting migrants (Redwings, warblers and fieldfares), widen the choice and position of foodstuffs. Tits and finches of every kind lose their tiny marbles for Niger seed. Some birds prefer to dangle from branch-like feeders or forage on the ground from material dropped from the table.

If you have gorgeous, leopard stripped tree-creepers in the garden try smearing some fat feed into cracks in living tree bark.

Energy-rich, scrumptious treats like mealy worms will bring a host of species to your garden. Fancy bracing your nerves and farming worms? Instructions here: bto.org/volunteer-surveys/gbw/gardens-wildlife/garden-birds/feeding/mealworms

A string of apples, shot with the odd walnut set out on trees a good distance from the house is irresistible to the shyest jay.

I can now sit on a small fold-out stool in a leaf-blind (any army surplus store — €10) and watch the twitchy and elusive lovelies shrieking and paragliding their way through the season.

To get in really close to cheekier birds — suspend hanging boxes, trays and spheres from hooks close to downstairs windows, or adhere feeders with one-way viewing panels to window glass.

Eric adds: “If you’re feeding for the first time — consider the position. Place feeders away from the house and slowly move them closer as the birds get used to you and the garden. Keep cats in at night, and keep them in first thing in the morning as birds are keen to feed after a long night. Finally, keep them in before dark when birds feed before roosting.”

Some feed spoilage is inevitable and I’ve found my birds to be a bit entitled when the going is good, the weather fine and a choice on offer.

“Keep your feeding stations clean to avoid disease,” Eric advises.

Try to remove any food left at the bottom of feeders regularly as it can get sodden and dirty in winter.

Littered over the grass, the area can quickly become a regular motorway stop for vermin too. Rats and mice are ingenious, athletic thieves, dropping down from overhanging trees and shinning up timber birdhouse supports. Some varieties of birds feeding station are better defended than others.

If you’re getting ‘leapers’, slender metal pole supports set in the ground and greased with olive oil are MissionImpossible, even for a rat.

The Pocket Guide to the Common Birds of Ireland by Eric Dempsey and Michael O’Clery is as a useful bird book for garden birds and fantastic for the car. €12.99, Easons.

Helping hedgehogs

You can see hedgehogs up to January when the ground temperature will drop enough for them to truly hibernate. They don’t disappear in October.

To top up their natural diet – dog and cat food are fine. Avoid fish flavours which can be too rich for their stomachs. Don’t ‘rescue’ young hoglets of 500g or more.

Try leaving out food and a shallow dish of water to help them through early winter.

If you must bring in a hedgehog, aim to get its weight up and then release it as soon as possible.

Don’t use pellet slug pellets and ensure there’s a ramp in your pond for all small furries to escape. Be wary of strimming or burning piles of leaves without first checking for hedgehogs.

Hedgehogs do much better roaming large areas. See if you and your neighbours can ‘share’ the hog with a hole in the fence at ground level.

You can make your own hedgehog house with a deep plastic storage box with a door cut to one short side.

Turn the entrance to the south to catch a little warmth and ensure the ground is not boggy.

Put some dry straw inside the box and cover with fallen leaves. Leave the rest to your hog.

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