Winter Food to Fuel Urban Garden Birds
Winter is upon us and Christmas is around the corner. Normally both facts would induce a bit of a headrush, what with the promise of the occasional day of winter birding under crisp blue skies and the associated jollities of the festive season. Of course, this year’s celebrations will be severely curtailed due to the unfortunate circumstances that have befallen us all. The various lockdowns and tightening of restrictions around the nation have forced us to spend more time at home. One positive is that we have more time to make sure that the birds that share our urban spaces are looked after. Even better are the therapeutical benefits of watching the grateful birds that will hopefully descend on your feed stations wherever you may live.
The key during the winter is to provide high energy food especially as the days draw in and the nights get colder. This is a crucial time for birds and your help could literally be a matter of life or death. Generally speaking, smaller birds store less fat than large birds, usually just enough to see them through one night, and have a higher metabolic rate. On a really cold night a bird can lose up to 5% of its body fat and many need to consume as much as 30% of its body weight in food every day just to survive. So, come the dawn, they need to feed immediately to make up for the shortfall. In the case of the Blue Tit, individuals have to spend up to 85% of the daylight hours looking for food. Larger birds can afford to start later because they have the ability to store more fat. However, all these patterns can be thrown into flux by adverse weather, and particularly low overnight temperatures, the presence of predators and the conditions at roosting sites. It is the cold that is the killer – if a bird cannot find enough food to replenish its lost energy store then it will be facing the final curtain.
So, you have to make sure to keep your feeding stations replenished on a regular basis as the food will be chowed down at a much faster rate. Stock up on superfoods like nyjer seed which is oil rich and ideal for many garden bird visitors and not just Goldfinches. You could even sprinkle some on a ground feeding table much to the delectation of your local Dunnocks. Seed and grain mixes like the Green+ Table Seed Mix are a must. Avoid purchasing seed mixes containing lots of cereal as they are pigeon magnets and as much as we may love pigeons, we are not setting out to have our feeding stations hogged by them. Fat balls are another favourite, particularly amongst the tit tribe, also don’t forget to supply some protein-filled dried or better still, live mealworms for the ground feeders like the perky Robin. Finally, remember to keep topping up the water supply for drinking and bathing. The Orta Drinker Water Dish is a particular favourite of mine.
Small birds have a couple of adaptations that help them to combat the cold in our northern latitudes. Their main defence is the insulation provided by their feathers: by fluffing up their plumage they trap a layer of air that helps to prevent heat loss. This is the equivalent of us donning a puffer jacket to keep warm. Smaller species also have an undercoat of downy feathers that becomes denser during the winter months. I was fascinated to learn that the weight of a House Sparrow’s plumage increases by 70% following the autumn moult, setting it up to keep warm during the winter. So, think again the next time you see a fat Robin sitting on a branch in the snow as it may not be as well fed as it appears.
Please let me know about the goings on at your urban bird feeding station; whether it be in your garden, on your window feeding station in your apartment building or communal garden. Take care of yourself and your birds.
23 November 2020
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