Up to half of garden birds die of cold and hunger in winter. Here’s how to help them survive.
Although Europe isn’t facing the biting cold snaps of last Christmas, us humans aren’t the only ones who feel it when the temperatures drop.
Robins and other native birds are under increasing danger due to unpredictable weather patterns. Though hardy, they are not invincible.
During a cold winter, up to half of garden birds can be lost to cold and hunger. In the UK, the Red List of endangered bird species has more than doubled in the last 25 years. Robins – the country’s national bird – are particularly vulnerable as they stay loyal to their gardens whatever the weather.
A robin can use up to 10 per cent of its body weight to keep warm on a single winter night. Unless it can replenish its reserves every day, a cold spell can prove fatal. With hedgerows declining, there is a lack of natural food, and without supplementary bird feeding in gardens, many robins die of cold and starvation.
Unusual weather patterns have swept Europe, with record heatwaves in the summer to an unseasonably warm autumn and winter. This causes confusion and throws the natural cycles of certain species out of sync.
So how can we help birds survive the volatile weather?
Wildlife experts are encouraging the public to turn their gardens into safe havens for birds this winter. Among them is Sean McMenemy, director of garden product supplier Ark Wildlife. Here are his tips on how to support our feathery friends during the colder months.
How to prepare your garden for birds this winter
Putting out food, water and shelter for birds visiting your garden can make a big difference to survival rates.
According to Sean, the best foods for robins are mealworms and calci worms, fatty foods like suet pellets, meaty kitchen scraps, mild cheese, cake and biscuit crumbs, dried fruit and crushed peanuts.
Robins prefer to forage and feed off the ground. Place a small tray close to a shrub, tree or perch, and you may soon find them gaining enough confidence to feed from your hand.
Some other species prefer hanging feeders, so make sure you have a variety of food sources in your garden with a range of different seeds.
Ensuring your garden isn’t too pristine or tidy can also help. Wild undergrowth encourages the proliferation of insects and helps robins to find food. Dead leaves, log piles and twigs also help insects to thrive.
Alongside food, you should place plenty of water sources in the garden. Bird tables make a big difference to the survival rate of robins in urban and suburban areas. Be sure to replenish them regularly to avoid the water freezing.
How to help birds stay warm in your backyard
Birds cluster together during icy spells to share their warmth. They often use nest boxes as winter shelters.
Garden nest boxes should be placed at least two metres from dense vegetation to reduce the risk of surprise attacks from cats.
Certain plants also provide a good habitat for birds. Holly’s dense foliage and sharp prickles provide a protective shelter for winter birds such as finches, dunnocks, goldcrests, robins and thrushes, according to Surrey Wildlife Trust. The berries also provide an essential food source for many birds.
Similarly, ivy provides berries for birds like blackbirds, thrushes, blackcaps and starlings and redwings – so hold off on winter pruning until all the fruit is gone.