Birds can really go hungry during the winter when food and water supplies are scarce. The RSPB and the British Trust for Ornithology both suggest feeding them all year round, but if we’re talking survival, some times are more important than others.
Most of our native garden birds will benefit from tucking into a nutty, seedy lard-cake. There are plenty of recipes to choose from, all of which use natural ingredients. Salt is very bad for birds, so whatever you do, don’t use the roasted salted variet
What to feed
Mesh feeders - Fill with whole peanuts (but never during the breeding season when whole nuts can choke baby birds). Go for wire mesh rather than nylon as birds can get tangled and trapped in these.
Coconut feeder -Drain a coconut and break it in half and leave the flesh, then hang it from a tree or bracket. Once it’s empty you can fill the shell with fat mixture.
Live food - Raising chicks is a tough business. Parents need a lot of protein to keep going. You can buy mealworms from suppliers, and these are especially important during spring and early summer.
Seed mixes - A mix is great to target a variety of species, but single seeds or mixes without oatmeal and wheat make better food for specific species.
Natural food - Plant the right trees and shrubs in your garden and birds will have supplies throughout the year. Holly and ivy are great for winter berries and woodpigeons, thrushes and blackcaps love them. Stop robins going hungry over the winter by planting some spindle – their berries are a vital source of energy.
Tip - Keep your feeders clean. Salmonella can kill your garden guests. Use boiling water or buy specialised cleaning products that don’t harm wildlife, but avoid regular detergents.
Feeding squirrels and other small mammals
Bird food can attract all sorts of mammals; foxes, squirrels, rats and mice. If you’re lucky enough to have red squirrels visiting, encourage them with pinecone seeds, berries and fruit. They’ll eat insects and eggs too.
A ‘tree hopper’ is a feeder designed for red squirrels. Hang it in a good-sized tree a couple of metres above the ground to help keep them safe from cats. Feeding red squirrels is controversial – not all protection or conservation groups advocate it. So make sure you only ever supplement their natural diet. If you have both red and grey squirrels in your area it’s not a good idea to encourage them to mix. Grey squirrels can carry the parapox virus which is fatal to reds.
Squirrels love unsalted peanuts (but don’t put out whole ones during the breeding season as baby birds can choke on whole peanuts), walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts and apples. Carrots prevent calcium deficiency, which can be a major problem for young red squirrels. Keep any feeding areas clean. Use boiling water or a specialist cleaning product. break Feed Mammals Why feed mammals? While it’s not advisable to make wild animals reliant on an unnatural food-source, when the weather’s really grim, it's a good idea to help their stores through the worst of the cold months. To help mammals in your garden without upsetting your local food webs, you can also encourage their natural food sources.
The humble hedgehog is a joy to watch. It has recently been added to the endangered list in the UK, so there’s even more reason to give it a helping hand. Hedgehogs are the gardener’s friend as they can't get enough of slugs and snails. Using chemicals to kill slugs and snails can be harmful for the wildlife which eat them, so employ a hedgehog instead.
If the weather’s bad, a bit of dry dog food usually goes down well. Or you can invest in some specialist hedgehog food from wildlife suppliers. Dusk is the best time as mammals feed at night. Leave out a shallow and stable dish of water near the food.
Tip - It’s a myth – don’t feed hedgehogs bread and milk! It upsets their stomachs and can give them diarrhoea.
Feeding badgers and foxes
Badgers and foxes thrive on worms, slugs and snails.
Urban foxes love leftovers: 50% of their diet comes from handouts. They're fond of all sorts of kitchen scraps, including fruit (berries especially), vegetables and fresh meat. They’ll try most things, so don’t be surprised if you find them sampling the birds’ food.
You’re very lucky if your garden is visited by badgers. They love unsalted peanuts or you can get special badger mix. Throw some out whenever the ground is dry and hard making it difficult to dig. If you have a vegetable patch, be warned: badgers love root-veg! Leave out some cooked potato or fruit to divert them. Be warned that badgers do sometimes see hedgehogs as a tasty meal.