How to attract the birds

IMAGINE you are a blue tit; it's sunrise in mid winter and freezing cold. You now have until sunset to find and eat a third of your own body weight in food; that's a new item every ten seconds.

IMAGINE you are a blue tit; it's sunrise in mid winter and freezing cold.

You now have until sunset to find and eat a third of your own body weight in food; that's a new item every ten seconds. If you fail for more than just a couple of days, or if you can't find clean fresh water or a sheltered spot to sleep then you won't see spring.

Think then what a dream item a nearby, always topped-up, bird feeder is! How totally excellent a supply of sunflower seeds, an ivy-clothed wall and a freshly filled birdbath.

More and more people are feeding birds in their gardens, often just a few steps from their back door. Just ten years ago 17 species were known to use feeders in UK gardens, but today the figure is more like 80. This is a treat for everyone who enjoys watching birds from the comfort of their home and great news for birds for whom the energy from extra food can be the difference between survival and starvation.

We can do a valuable job by feeding birds all year round. Making gardens, yards or school areas better for hungry birds can be achieved by:

- providing regular extra food - from specialist suppliers, or suitable scraps and titbits from your kitchen. Include high energy choices such as sunflower hearts or bird-cake.

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- Growing plants that attract insects and provide seeds, berries or other bird food

- avoid using any sort of chemicals and

- leaving some areas of ground undisturbed.

The total numbers of many of our common birds have plummeted in recent years. Garden visitors such as sparrows and starlings may still be common in that we see them more often than other species, but there are less than half the number of just 27 years ago. And for some garden newcomers such as greater spotted woodpecker, visiting may be as much to do with loss of suitable habitat beyond the garden gate as having more varied menus. For more and more birds it appears gardens are becoming a vital resource rather than an optional extra.

If you are feeding daily try to put food out at the same time each day. If things go well then before long a robin will be ready and waiting for breakfast and a collared dove will be poised to swoop from a nearby perch. By being reliable you save birds valuable time and energy checking out empty feeders and tables.

Never put out mouldy foods or salted nuts.

Look after birds' health by washing all tables and feeders at least once a fortnight. Scrub them with mild disinfectant or bleach, then rinse well and leave to dry. Any water in birdbaths should be changed daily and the bath scrubbed and allowed to dry out every few days.

Only put out enough food on a bird table to last a day - this stops it getting mouldy or contaminated with droppings. Clear away any uneaten food after a couple of days, including any on the ground.

There's no getting round the fact that some birds visit our gardens looking for larger prey.

Herons take fish and frogs; ducks and even blackbirds will catch newts and tadpoles; a sparrowhawk could nip through and take its own meal form the bird table … you might feel a bit less comfortable with these birds finding food in your garden but they all have families to feed too.

Ideally there should be something for everyone!

While people are discouraged from eating too much fat - especially hard fats like lard - they provide valuable energy for birds.

Cakes with foods such as seeds, dried fruits, peanut pieces and even dried insects embedded in a fatty base are popular, whether on the bird table or hung in a special holder. It's cheaper and good fun to make your own.

Make a bird cake by softening some lard or dripping and then mix in seed, chopped nuts or pretty much any of the small food items on the list below. While it's still soft you can:

- Squidge it onto a fir cone to which you've already fixed a hanging string

- Slap it onto the bark of a tree

- Push it into a mould such as a yoghurt pot with a hanging string

- Pour it into an empty food can. Once the fat cools and sets, release the cake by carefully dunking the can in very hot water.

All these leftovers or kitchen cupboard staples are fine to put out for birds - as they are, or mixed into a cake. They start with the most energy-rich:

- Hard fats

- Cheese

- Chopped bacon rind

- Peanut butter (unsalted)

- Pastry

- Cake and biscuit crumbs

- Cooked marrow bones

- Dried fruit

- Fresh fruit such as apples

- Cooked potato or rice

- Bread

- Oats