Expert tips on birdfeeding from Clay's Garden Centre

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As the days grow longer, the temperature rises, and the ground becomes softer, many people think birds can forage for food more easily and that they no longer rely on our help at this time of year. However, supplementary feeding not only significantly increases their chances of survival, it can help them come into good breeding condition and also provide you with an opportunity to marvel at their fascinating behaviour and wonderful colours. Experts from Clay's Garden Centre, Washington explain how you can turn your garden into a real treat for our feathered friends.

More than half the adult population in this country regularly feed birds in their garden and the activity is becoming ever more popular. However, it is vital that you do not restrict feeding your feathered friends to the fair-weather months.

"During springtime, people assume natural sources of food, including berries, seeds, insects, spiders and worms are less scarce, and that birds no longer need our help," said David Clay, Director of Clay's Garden Centre, Washington. "But it is important that you don’t stop replenishing them as summer draws close and conditions become less harsh."

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By following a few simple guidelines you can help our birds come into good breeding condition in the spring. So here are some top tips to keep them flocking to your garden.

David Clay, Director, Clay's Garden Centre, WashingtonDavid Clay, Director, Clay's Garden Centre, Washington
David Clay, Director, Clay's Garden Centre, Washington

"Firstly, you must ensure that you are feeding them safely and responsibly," said David Clay. "Putting out bread can do more harm than good as it doesn’t provide any of the vital ingredients that they need and you shouldn’t give them anything with added salt as they are practically unable to metabolise it and it can prove fatal in high quantities. Never put out uncooked rice, as it could swell up in a bird’s stomach with disastrous results.

"Although many household scraps, such as cake crumbs, pastry, cooked rice, cheese, bacon rind and tinned pet foods, can be gobbled up in seconds by greedy starlings, they may also attract vermin to the area, so may be best avoided.

"There are many good quality, affordable bird seed mixes available that are suitable for both bird tables and hanging feeders. You should select the ones that contain flaked maize, sunflower seeds and peanut granules, whilst avoiding poor quality mixes that are bulked up with split peas, dried rice, beans and lentils."

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It is also recommended that you choose foods that are rich in fat and provide a much-needed energy boost. These include unsalted peanuts and fat-balls.

Both of these food sources are ideal but must be provided correctly. Peanuts should be stored in a proper wire mesh feeder to avoid the risk of smaller birds choking on whole nuts and fat-balls should always be removed from the nylon nets that they are often sold in as they may trap or cause injury to birds’ feet and legs.

The range of food you put out will also influence the types of birds you attract.

"Tits and greenfinches are partial to peanuts and sunflower hearts, whilst Nyjer seed (more commonly known as thistle seed) is favoured by goldfinches, siskins and redpolls," said David. "A standard seed mix will appeal to house sparrows, dunnocks and reed buntings, whilst starlings have a real penchant for fat-balls. The less squeamish may also use mealworms to attract blackbirds."

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An ideal way to provide a variety of foods is by hanging them from a multi-bracketed feeder stand which will also make a striking focal point in your garden. In fact, how and where you locate feeding stations can significantly impact upon your success in attracting more birds.

"Tables and feeders should be positioned near dense shrubs to encourage shy birds to use them, but well away from predators such as cats. Trees and climber-covered walls provide excellent locations for nest boxes, which will encourage birds not to venture elsewhere," David advised.

It is also important to check and replenish feeders regularly.

"Ensure feed is available first thing in the morning as this will help them replace energy lost through the night, and again at mid-afternoon to help them to build up some reserves as night falls."

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It is also essential that any mouldy or stale food is removed and disposed of promptly. Always clear away any uneaten food from tables at the end of each day.

"Birds are like us – they don’t like old, mouldy food" added David. "Stale food provides a breeding ground for salmonella bacteria which can lead to food poisoning and even cause death."

You should also maintain good standards of hygiene with regard to bird tables and feeding receptacles.

"Washing feeders, tables and feeding stations in a mild solution of about 5% disinfectant, followed by rinsing them with clean water will stop diseases and the threat to bird mortality that they represent. You should do this outside, using separate utensils and always wash your hands afterwards."

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In addition to supplying food for birds it is essential to ensure that you also provide a plentiful supply of clean water for drinking and bathing. Birds have to wash and preen their feathers to keep them in good condition. Some type of shallow, rust-proof dish is ideal.

However, you should never put out milk for birds to drink as they are not able to digest it.

"The image of a bird seen perching on the rim of a milk bottle, pecking at the foil top to get to the cream beneath is a common one," acknowledged David. "But, they are unable to digest lactose and drinking milk can give them stomach upsets and diarrhoea.

"Water containers should be rinsed out daily and allowed to dry before fresh water is added. Fill it up afresh each morning and empty it at night. Bird baths should be washed in the same way as tables and feeders to prevent a build up of droppings."

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Feeding birds is an activity that should be maintained all year round. Once you have started they will quickly come to rely on the food you put out.

"However, the small amount of time that you invest will be rewarded by them sharing their lives with you and it is an ideal way to get children enthused about wildlife and environmental issues," David concluded.