Whilst a mid-winter walk can bring a range of natural delights, especially on very cold mornings when a crisp frost can bring the landscape to life in a quite magical way, heading out into the cold isn’t for everyone.
Another great way to connect with nature when the temperatures plummet is putting out food to attract birds to your garden. It is estimated that UK nature lovers put out enough food each winter to feed a staggering 196 million birds – equivalent to half the birds here at this time of year.
Amongst the most frequent beneficiaries are tits, including blue tits, great tits the long-tailed tit and the less showy coal tit. All these species are a delight to watch and a visit by any is sure to brighten the day of any wildlife watcher. Coal tits like to visit feeders and then dash off to hide food such as sunflower seeds to eat later – helping them make the most of food supplies in times of plenty. If you spot a coal tit doing this it is also worth looking out to see if a blue tit, is far behind. The bolder blue tits sometimes cheekily spy on their cousins so that they can raid their not-so-secret stashes themselves.
The wider the variety of feed you put out, the greater the range of birds you are likely to attract and you can increase the diversity further by providing food on the ground, on bird tables and from hanging feeders to suit species’ varying feeding styles.
As well as putting out food year round, if you want to give our feathered friends a real boost, you should also consider providing for their other needs including shelter. Planting a native tree or two is a good idea and you should consider putting up some nesting boxes. We used to encourage people to install these late winter but many birds are nesting earlier and earlier so it is best to get them up as early as possible. During the coldest months, many species will also use nesting boxes to shelter from the cold – with smaller species often snuggling up together to keep warm. The wren, one of our smallest UK birds, is well known for this sensible and sociable habit – with as many as 63 being recorded in a single box!
Sad sign of the times
Whilst feeding the birds can be a real boost for birds visiting our gardens, we are not currently able to recommend that people feed birds that gather at lakes and ponds. Species such as swans, geese and ducks have been baring the brunt of a prolonged outbreak of Avian Flu which has caused commercial poultry and egg producers to house the birds indoors – and caused distressing scenes up and down the UK as wild birds have become infected.
With wetland birds particularly at risk we have asked visitors to refrain from feeding birds at our Attenborough Nature Reserve south of Nottingham – where bird feeding has been a favourite pastime for generations of families. Over the summer, we lost around 500 birds to this virulent disease and we are still asking visitors not to feed – both to prevent birds from gathering closely in numbers and limit contact between people and potentially infected birds.
Whilst the risk of transmission between birds and humans is low, it is always best to err on the side of caution and we would extend this advice to other wetland sites. If you are feeding birds at home, make sure you keep up your hygiene regime – regularly disinfecting bird tables, birdbaths and feeders – and of course – washing your hands carefully after handling bird feeders etc.
For information about the work of Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust including nature reserves, campaigns, events and advice on taking action for nature, visit www.nottinghamshirewildlife.org.
Images main and inset: Coal Tit, Mike Vickers; Idle Valley, Lee Scott