Feeding garden birds and the Irish Garden Bird Survey

The number and variety of birds in the garden is now on the increase, as our Irish resident breeding birds are joined by those from places farther afield, like Russia, Scandinavia, the Baltics, Germany and the Netherlands.  For example, you may have noticed a lot more Blackbirds recently. That’s in part due to the hundreds of thousands of ‘blow-ins’ that come here every year from all over northern Europe, often at night. There are no travel restrictions for this lot!

However, during the colder days and nights of the winter months, natural food sources such as fruit, nuts, seeds and invertebrates are scarcer. Also the days are shorter, so there is less time for small birds to feed and build up enough energy to stay warm. Putting out food in your garden for the birds is a great way to help them survive from now through to about March.

But what food is best?  There is a wide choice of food available, but peanuts, sunflower seeds and hearts are recommended as they have a high protein and energy content and are eaten by a range of different birds. During cold snaps this can be supplemented with higher energy foods such as fat or suet balls. You can also cut up apples and pears to put on the lawn, a shed roof, or in a tree. Most importantly, don’t forget to put out fresh water and make sure that it doesn’t freeze over.

Birds try to avoid the open spaces where there is the threat of predators like Sparrowhawks.  In the countryside, hedgerows act as an avian highway that small birds can travel along, as they provide both protection and food. The garden is no different, so feeders are best placed within a few paces of a tree, hedge or bush. That way, the birds have both shelter and a place to escape to. If you can find a spot that can be viewed from the house, then so much the better.

As more birds find your feeders you may find that some of them are more dominant than others and also that size doesn’t always matter. For instance, if you are lucky enough to attract Siskins into your garden (peanuts are best), you’ll find that they punch well above their weight! A solution to reduce avian bullying is to dot your feeders around the garden.

Good feeder hygiene is very important. With more birds using your feeders there will be an increased risk of the transfer of infection, bacteria and parasites. Trichomoniasis is a parasite that infects finches and has had a devastating impact on our Greenfinch population in particular in recent years. This can be avoided by scrubbing your feeders every couple of weeks using a mild five per cent bleach solution and letting them dry completely before use.  Don’t forget to wash your own hands afterwards!

Now that you have done your bit to help the birds, sit back, relax and enjoy watching them; they will reward you with their behaviour and antics. Observe how different species feed.  Watch how Greenfinches and House Sparrows tend to dominate and stay on the feeders, while smaller birds, like Coal Tits, dart in, grab a morsel, and immediately fly off to feed away from the feeder.

While you are watching them, why not get involved in some citizen science? The Irish Garden Bird Survey is BirdWatch Ireland’s most popular citizen science survey, with over a thousand gardens taking part each year. Over more than thirty years it has given a unique insight into changes in garden bird populations; during a time when the countryside has changed and gardens have become an increasingly important habitat for many bird species.  The survey runs from Monday, November 30 to Sunday, February 28. Taking part is fun, easy and an ideal way to get to know your garden birds better. The whole family can get involved and it also makes an ideal school project. You just need to record the highest number of each bird species that visits your garden every week and submit your findings to BirdWatch Ireland.  All the information for taking part in the Irish Garden Bird Survey can be found at birdwatchireland.ie. Download a survey form and get started.

The West Cork Branch would love to hear about the birds in your garden, or difficulties with bird identification. You can post pictures, stories and questions on our Facebook Page (search for @BirdWatchIrelandWestCork on Facebook or Messenger) or on Twitter @BWIWestCork. 

Covid has had a severe impact on all our lives, as well as on charities like BirdWatch Ireland.  You can help by giving a BirdWatch Ireland Membership as a Christmas gift or buying your feeders and high quality bird food from the BirdWatch Ireland shop birdwatchireland.ie/shop.

For more information about the Branch contact Nicholas Mitchell at secretary@birdwatchirelandwestcork.ie or join our mailing list by sending an email to mailinglist@birdwatchirelandwestcork.ie.

WCP Staff

WCP Staff Writer

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