Next Saturday and Sunday is the Big Garden Birdwatch. The good thing about this event is that even if you only have a balcony – or even just a local open space where you can watch birds – you can still take part. All you have to do is record the highest number of each bird species you see at the same time in one hour. They must have landed, though, those flying over don’t count.
If you’re keen, you don a thick coat, warm hat and woolly mittens, position your chair in a quiet spot in the garden or nearby park, and wait. If, like us, you live by the adage that ‘Any fool can be uncomfortable’, you make coffees and retire to the heated conservatory that looks out on our bird feeding stations. The results are then e-mailed to the RSPB.
Looking at adverts for bird feeds and accessories, you would think attracting birds to the garden is a complicated and costly business; indeed, if I bought specific feeds, feeders and other gadgets for every species likely to visit, it would cost me more each week than it does to keep four big dogs happy. However, over the years, I have found that you will be popular with most garden birds with a minimum of outlay.
First, you need a flat, elevated platform on which to put suitable kitchen scraps and a good quality mixed bird feed, which should cater for most avian tastes. A basic bird table or hanging shelf (to suspend from a tree) is ideal. I’ve had mine for years, repaired when necessary, and it still does good service. Another flat surface at ground level for those birds that prefer to feed low-down, like robins, is useful, though not essential, as you can scatter the feed on the path for ground feeding visitors. Of course, if cats are an issue it’s probably best not to do this – robins will happily feed from the bird table. No self-respecting cat would dream of setting foot in a garden that is a playground for three greyhounds and a three-legged lurcher, though, so we’re not troubled in that way.
Then, some fat ball holders – the best fat balls are those without plastic nets; these nets can be a hazard to some birds and will litter your garden and your neighbours’ once they’ve been emptied. A couple of peanut feeders and some peanuts (they don’t have to be fit for human consumption) and, if you’re really keen, a sunflower seed holder and sunflower seeds will widen the range of species that might appear. These can also be hung in tree branches, but if you don’t have a tree, they can be hung on just about anything suitable with some S-hooks (available from DIY shops). I hang mine from two substantial iron obelisks which make excellent feeding stations.
I have several cordon apple and pear trees further down the garden and I never clear up the windfalls as the birds always do this for me. At this time of year, with all the windfalls long since consumed, I put any blemished fruit that may be lurking in the bottom of the fruit bowl in their place to keep the birds accustomed to feeding in this area.
At our mini-nature reserve three miles up the road, we have planted almost a quarter of a mile of native hedging, and with snow and ice around – as they have been this week, the remaining hips and berries will not last long. At home, our garden is too compact to consider wild shrubs and hedging plants, but the berrying species that we can accommodate – cotoneaster ‘Hybridus Pendulus’, holly, viburnum, mahonia, aucuba, prunus ‘Otto Luyken’, and a mature ivy that has grown into a large standard rose and has started to flower and produce fruits, satisfy at least some of the needs of fruit-eating bird species.
We do the Big Garden Birdwatch every year, and every year the numbers and types of birds that visit in that hour differ greatly. It will be interesting to see if, as we hear, numbers will be down significantly because of the poor summer. We shall see.