Monday, 4 November 2019

November: time to start feeding the birds

There was a poem I did once at school, it had a line about “No moon... no morn... no noon...”  and it ended "der dum, der dum, der dum, November."

Clearly I've forgotten most of it, including who wrote it  (errr, Thomas Hood: thank heavens for the internet!) but I'm pretty sure it doesn't have a line about “no worms, no seeds... no bugs on which to feed...” but that's probably what the birds are thinking.

As the days (and nights!) get colder, life gets harder for our feathered friends, and you might well be thinking that it's time to start feeding them. If you haven't put out bird-food in the past, maybe this year is the time to start: the news is full of stories about how wildlife is suffering in our modern, tarmac-and-concrete world, how the loss of green space is adversely affecting their lifestyles, etc, so if you've never fed the birds before, now is a good time to start.  And there are a couple of things about bird psychology which are helpful to know, if you've never done it before.

First and foremost, they want to feel safe. For birds, this means scouting out the area before landing - and that means having high perches, which are a safe distance away from the feeder. Trees are perfect, either in your garden or in that of your neighbour.

Secondly, once one comes, they all come. No-one likes to be first... so if you can lure just one bird into your garden, he will soon be followed by others.

Thirdly, birds are not very bright. It often takes them a long time to realise that you are putting food out for them.

Fourthly, different birds eat different food, and in different ways.

Fifthly (if there is such a word) birds are creatures of habit. They have “rounds”, and will circulate from one favoured feeding area to another. You'd think that, having found a bird feeder full of yummy food, they would stuff themselves until they could barely fly, but actually, it doesn't work that way: they like to have a variety of places to feed, and they like to eat a little at each place.

So, how does this relate to the real world, and our real gardens?

Firstly, feeling safe: look at your garden and check for high level scouting positions.  Do you have trees? They are best, but posts will do, and that includes the washing line. Birds love fences with trellis on top of them, which are also quite good for discouraging cats from jumping into your garden -  or, at least, it makes them scramble through the trellis, which gives the birds a bit of warning.

Secondly, luring in the first bird: try putting out a little bread, for a few days.  It's the worst thing to feed birds (where would they find processed food in nature?), but it is very visible, and it certainly attracts the “wrong” ones such as pigeons, and they, in turn, will signal to other birds that this is a feeding area. At first you might only get a few odd birds coming to your feeders, but in a while, the numbers will increase, so be patient.

Thirdly, getting their attention: when you proudly hang out your first bird feeders, don't fill them. Leave them out there, empty for a couple of days. I know, I know, it seems daft, but read on. Then put a small amount of food in them, and be prepared to replace it if it's not eaten in a week. As I said, it takes them a while to notice the new feed station, and there's nothing more depressing than buying six different types of seed, nut, suet and fat ball feeders, then finding them untouched and mouldy after a month. Also - and this is only my opinion - I think that birds are repelled by the chemical smells of a new feeder, so letting them “air” for a couple of weeks gives them time to lose that factory smell.

Fourthly, decide which type of bird you want to attract: if you want finches, you will need a tall narrow seed-feeder, for example, and they like it hung high up. Dunnocks won't fly up to a bird feeder at all, and only eat from ground level. Tits of all types are agile and enjoy hanging off a fat ball or a half-coconut, but robins prefer something they can grip with their feet, such as a wire cage with loose fat balls inside it.

And fifthly (still not sure if that's a real word), once you start - keep on going. Regularity is what the birds want more than anything else, and once you have trained them to come to your feeders, you will need to keep up the good work. In my garden, I always refill my feeders first thing, then I sit and eat my breakfast while looking out at the garden. "My" birds have learned to come early, to beat the pigeons, so I get the benefit of watching them while stuffing in the porridge, and they get first peck, instead of just getting the leftovers.

Finally, a quick word about hygiene - yes, I know every article on this subject says it, but it really is best to keep feeders clean, with fresh food in them. To make this easy, I have two sets of hanging feeders so that every other week or so, I can bring in the empty one for a scrub, putting out the other one instead. This gives the feeders time to be properly cleaned and dried, while maintaining the “service” in my garden.
And yes, I have the joy of a constant stream of feathered visitors!

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  1. Great article and very timely. My suggestion for making it longer:

    Sixthly (Sic) Put up a bird bath or other source of water. It is such a treat to see the birds drinking or bathing in shallow water.

    On finches I would say that sunflower seeds are irresistible to them and nigella seeds which are ignored by other bird varieties.

  2. Hi Mal,

    Perfect! Why didn't I think of that? *scratches head* *sweeps up debris, dead beetles etc* Water is so much a part of my garden that I take it for granted, oops!


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