FEEDING garden birds is becoming increasingly popular in Ireland.
This is good for the birds — it boosts their winter survival rate and their breeding success leading to increases in numbers that can be measured in many species.
It’s also good for people because it allows us to watch and enjoy the birds at relatively close range and can foster an interest in wildlife among both children and adults.
You don’t even need a garden as there are feeders specially designed for the windows or balconies of apartments.
This is a good time of year to start feeding birds because, from their point of view, the worst of the winter is still to come as stocks of wild seeds and berries diminish. But the increasing popularity of bird feeding has led to a proliferation of foods and feeders in the shops which can be a little bewildering.
Different foods need different feeders and there are two contradictory considerations you have to balance if you’re starting off. The first is that a variety of food will attract a greater variety and number of birds. On the other hand, once you start you shouldn’t stop, because the birds become dependent on the food, this can involve a bit of work in refilling the feeders and a significant expense in buying the stuff.
If you want to start with one food, peanuts are a good choice. They should always be fed from a mesh feeder so the birds have to peck bits off the nuts — whole ones can choke them or, later in the year, their chicks. Both mouldy peanuts and salted peanuts can also kill birds.
Fat balls are also excellent for providing winter calories. They require a special feeder, although they can also be bought with a plastic mesh covering that can be hung on a twig or a hook. You can save on the expense by making your own, melting left-over fat, mixing it with crumbs or seeds and letting it set in a suitable mould. A good mix is about two parts of dry ingredients to one part of fat.
Bird seed mixes are usually the cheapest foods on offer but many of them are poor value because they contain a lot of wheat and maize and most garden birds, with the exception of pigeons and doves, are unable to digest these. Pure sunflower seeds are good, with the black ones being more nutritious than the striped ones. Nyger seeds (there are several variations in the spelling due to hassles over copyright) are tiny black seeds which are particularly attractive to goldfinches, siskins and redpolls. Unfortunately there is a worldwide shortage of supply at present which means they are expensive and they also require a specially designed feeder.
Many bird species also appreciate fruit, either fresh or dried. Apples and pears should be cut open and are best fed on the ground for blackbirds and thrushes.
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