Helping garden birds through winter

Posted: Friday 8 November 2013
by Kate Bradbury

I spent far too much time on Tuesday staring out of the window at a robin in my mum’s front garden, which was darting back and forth from the bushes to the hydrangea, under which there was a large pile of rowan berries.

I spent far too much time on Tuesday staring out of the window at a robin in my mum’s front garden, which was darting back and forth from the bushes to the hydrangea, under which there was a large pile of rowan berries.

I’ve never thought birds eat with much finesse, but the way this poor robin tried to gulp down the rowan berries put me in mind of a pie-eating contest. The berries were bigger than its eyes and kept falling out of its beak – yet it persisted for hours. I don’t know how much it managed to eat over the course of the day, but it can’t have been a lot. I felt like going out with a fork and a plate, and leaving it a little dish of mashed berries for breakfast.

The behaviour of garden birds has changed dramatically over the last few weeks.  Suddenly there are roving gangs of tits probing walls and crevices for insects. The feeders in my garden are provoking interest again, and it won’t be long before I can go to the little patch of scrub off the Hackney Road in Bethnal Green, looking for goldcrests.

I’m glad there is so much fruit for birds to eat this autumn. The rowans near me are still dripping with berries (this time last year they had already been stripped bare), and the hawthorns and roses are equally loaded. Berries are a rich source of antioxidants and can help migrating birds deal with the physical stresses of their journey, as well as help resident birds gain weight ahead of winter.

But, despite the good crop of berries this year, we shouldn’t be complacent. Birds need fat in winter to give them the energy to keep warm at night – without it they won’t survive. My feeders at home are freshly cleaned and filled with fat balls, sunflower seeds, suet treats and peanuts. The bird bath is clean and full of water, so birds can clean their feathers, which will also help them keep warm. My garden is stocked and ready to help birds through winter. Is yours?

Thanks to Margaret Holland and The Wildlife Trusts for kind permission to use this lovely image of a robin with hawthorn berry. View their Wildlife Gardening pages here.

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oldchippy 08/11/2013 at 16:41

Hi Kate I was watching a Jay taking berries off a bush down the garden this morning,it landed on my Robinia Frisia then jumped in to the Pyracantha but the branches were to weak to hold it's weight and then it tried to hover and take the berries then gave up and went some where else. Oldchippy.

Roy Hill 10/11/2013 at 17:49

Since oldchippy mentions jays I thought I'd just say that I've plenty of jay activity around my garden. I think this on account of the mature oak that sits at the boundary. It produces plenty of acorns. Mini-oaks often spring up in places well away from the tree. This probably on account of them 'stashing' the nuts. Wonderful birds.

Our renovated drystone retaining wall has plenty of bird activity. Tits and wrens work the crevices for tasty morsels. There's still a buzzard that mews and soars when the thermals permit. There's the occasional 'craaack' of a raven. The resident robins are defining their winter territories who gets the 'prime' hawthorn tree is anyone's guess.

The field next door to our garden has gone wet-marshy after the recent rainfalls. It now has resident mallards and gulls enjoying the standing water. I don't think Jack (the resident horse) goes a great bundle on the current waterpark 'theme' of his field, though. I expect (fingers crossed) the return of redwings and fieldfares as the winter proceeds. The local swallows and martins have long since departed. That field gave them a good feed of insects during the summer months.

Then there are the mammals. The rabbits are not so active above ground at the moment. Returning from work the other night I caught sight of a vole in the headlights of the car as I drove down the track. It was busy trying to find whatever it could. Despite the local woodland/trees grey squirrels are mostly noted by their absence. I've seen one in the past eight months, and that was fleetingly.

One the gardening note I planted some snakes-head fritillary bulbs in the rough grass at the top of the garden. I think most of them have been excavated and eaten by rodents. I found most of the holes where they were planted has been re-opened/dug out. Ho hum. Perhaps a few have survived and they will 'breed'.

Talking of birds and berries, the species which strips rowan berries most efficiently is the waxwing. A small flock (just a few birds, really) will totally strip a rowan tree over a few successive days. They are not fussy about the berry colours either - red, yellow, pink, white, whatever. They just like sorbus species (or that's my experiences of encountering them). Perhaps a little bird told Kate's robin that waxwings are on the way?

Megga 18/11/2013 at 16:35

Hi Kate I was watching a female Black Bird this week standing on the edge of my bird bath for several minutes, thinking about taking the plunge, the water must have been near to freezing, eventually hoped onto the submerged rocks and dipped her head first I guess to get a feel of the temperature then went for it complete submersed. A delight to watch.

Zoomer44 18/11/2013 at 22:04

I saw my first blackbird in the garden this morning. For some unknown reason, long forgotten now I stopped feeding them in the summer but started again a few weeks ago and am ever so pleased to see they are slowly returning.