What to watch
I’m a stay-at-home ‘twitcher’ - liking nothing better than settling down in a comfy seat, with a good view of the garden, to take a mental note of the comings and goings of a wide range of birds. From autumn to spring, I can track the seasons as migrants pass through.
During the autumn, blackcaps and other birds flood in from Europe to beat the deep freeze, while insect eaters, such as martins and swallows, are flying south to seek out warmer climes. Even in the UK, blackbirds from the Eastern counties go west, while others come into replace them from the near continent.
Watch out for some surprises, too, because global warming has meant that more exotic European species of birds are visiting. Like all pilgrims, they’re on the look-out for a safe place to stop over where they can get a hearty breakfast and a drop to drink. Your garden can be the perfect oasis.
"Global warming has meant that more exotic European species of birds are visiting"
Ways to encourage birds to stay
- - Berried plants – berberis, cotoneaster, mahonia, privet and pyracantha
- - Seeding plants – golden rod, Michaelmas daisy, snapdragon, teasel and wallflower
- - Native plants – hawthorn, ivy, holly, spindle and guelder rose
- - Extra food –dried fruits, flaked oats, grated cheese, suet, meat scraps, peanuts and sunflower seeds
- - Fresh water – topped up daily for bathing and drinking
- - Natural shelter – hedges, ivies, shrubs, trees, evergreens and other dense cover
- - Bird boxes – for winter roosting and nesting
Pruning will help breathe new life into your roses. After a few years of blooming, a rose stem becomes exhausted, so that flowering diminishes. This loss of vigour encourages a bud lower down the stem to break and grow and replace the exhausted stem. Pruning merely helps speed up this natural process, while keeping the rose healthy and looking good.
What to plant
Growing the right plants in your garden will go a long way to making it seem attractive to garden birds. Concentrate on flowers, seeds and berries. Choose late-flowering plants that are loved by insects - a meal-ticket for insect-eaters, so that they can get their fill before migrating south.
Add in a scattering of plants for seed-eaters, such as greenfinches and goldfinches, as well as berrying plants that provide food for a wide range of resident and visiting birds, allowing them to pile on fat reserves in readiness for winter. If you are cunning, you can get the same plants to do more than one job.
Native shrubs and trees are best. In a small garden, you could incorporate native hawthorn or hazel in a hedge – leaving trimming to late winter once the berries have been eaten, but before nesting gets underway. Choose a variety of berrying shrubs to provide food for the longest period – berberis, cotoneaster, pyracantha and viburnum are among the most popular. See ‘Berried treasure’ for more ideas.
What to feed
From mid-autumn, natural foods become increasingly scarce, so it is worth putting out food to encourage regular visitors. A bird table that’s well-stocked with a variety of foods will attract the widest range of birds. For example, tits are attracted by suet and bacon rind; wrens, and robins like grated cheese; blackbirds, redwings and fieldfares will peck at over-ripe fruit; while greenfinches and nuthatches are partial to peanuts. You can get a good selection of packaged wild bird food, containing a range of seeds and nuts, but there also suet balls and dried mealworms to suit all tastes.
To be successful, the bird table should be positioned in full view of your comfy chair, but with sufficient high cover nearby to allow birds to visit with confidence. Grey squirrels can be thwarted by choosing a squirrel-proof bird feeder or adding a baffle to the ‘leg’ of a bird table - a neighbour of mine uses a large inverted biscuit tin which seems to do the trick. But for a really close-up view, a see-through window feeder, that’s cunningly held to the outside of the window-pane by suction pads, is hard to beat. Don’t forget to scatter some food on the lawn (well away from the shrubbery where the neighbourhood moggie might lay in wait) to feed birds, such as blackbirds and thrushes, that prefer to keep their feet on the ground. Once you’ve started feeding, it is very important to continue throughout the winter months since the residents will come to rely on your generosity.Shop bird food
What else can you do
Bird boxes Putting up bird boxes at this time of year is a good idea, because mating pairs will soon be prospecting for suitable nesting sites. Small resident birds, such as wrens and tits, often use an empty box to roost in when the weather is particularly cold.
Winter digging Turning over vacant soil will expose grubs and worms for robins and blackbirds to feast upon. Or you could take the top layer off your compost heap during a cold snap, to reveal a ready-meal instead.
Fresh water All birds need a fresh supply of water to drink and bathe in, which can be very difficult to find in sub-zero conditions. A bird bath is ideal, or you could improvise by filling a large plant pot saucer and placing it on the lawn or the patio. Make sure you top it up daily with fresh water, though.Shop bird baths