What’s wrong with these pictures? Unless you live on Pandora you don’t often get to see land floating through the sky! It’s been raining here in London almost non stop for the last couple of weeks, so on one of the few fine days last week I took my chance to go for a stroll in Finsbury Park. The huge expanses of grass that act as spontaneous football pitches in better weather were saturated in standing water and acted as natural reflecting pools. I took these photos of trees and sky reflected in the water and turned them upside down – as you can see from the image below.
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Something was different today as I opened the back door to check the bird feeders and fill up our makeshift bird table – all along the back fence sat a row of little birds. They were waiting! Almost overnight it seems they have taken to using the bird feeders, almost emptying the seed feeder in the space of 24 hours. Robins, wrens and blackbirds fidgeted impatiently, and whizzing through the air blue and coal tits cheeped and twittered. I’m sure I saw a song thrush too, but it was extremely shy and flew behind the fence when I appeared. Not so the robins, who could barely wait and had already stormed the table before I’d reached the fire escape.
Robins are highly territorial birds and they are extremely bad at sharing – the fact that these two were able to tolerate each others presence shows just how desperately hungry they were. Eventually the bird on the right muttered “get lost” (which to human ears sounds like an incredibly sweet and lovely song) and the bird on the left, losing it’s nerve, flew into a rose bush to wait it’s turn.
I’ve only recently begun to feed the birds and it’s suddenly feeling like quite a responsibility, having all these small lives dependant (to some extent at least) on me. But it’s also an honour, the thought that I can actually help. Seeing that little fidgeting group of birds waiting in the thickly falling snow brought home to me their plight, and how easy and simple it is to do something about it.
…And don’t forget your fellow humans
As I have just written about the responsibility of saving lives I feel it would be a crime if I signed off from this post without mentioning the terrible earthquake in Haiti. If you don’t feel moved to feed the birds, please do not forget your fellow humans in their hour of need. If just one person who reads this feels moved to donate, that could mean a human life saved.
To read more Nature Notes, why not visit Rambling Woods – in fact, why not write a Nature Notes post of your own?
When running in my local park just before the big snowfall I marvelled at how so many birds seemed to be in full and frantic song, as if it were summer almost. The unseasonal display was quite disconcerting. Are they singing so early to establish territory in harsh weather? Birdsong is more than a pretty sound, it’s a territorial display, and birds would not waste their breath unless something pretty important was at stake. In winter, food and water and a safe place to roost are all that matters.
According to the RSPB this exceptionally harsh winter may be “the single greatest wildlife killer of the new millennium”. Food is hard to find under a blanket of ice and snow, and the extremely low night time temperatures mean that birds and other animals face death if they have not eaten enough to give them the energy to stay warm. Good quality food with a high energy content is vital, as is clean fresh water; many birds and animals suffer when ponds, puddles and lakes freeze. Urban and suburban gardens will be seeing unusual avian visitors as birds are forced to search further afield for food. On my frosty run last week I saw a beautiful flock of goldfinches gleaning frost twisted thistle heads beside the pond. And during the worst of the snow I could hear greenfinches twittering and whirring throught the back gardens; I’d be surprised if they’d found much to make it worth their while that day. I’ve mentioned my reluctance to feed the birds in our cat infested garden before, but seeing these hungry refugees inspired me to buy nut and seed feeders in the hope of helping them out.
Of course you don’t need to spend huge amounts of money on feeding the birds – as you can see, an upturned bucket or bin works well as a low level feeder, and I sprinkled this one with porridge oats and a bit of muesli. It was gone in a flash, and while the neighbours cats remain safely tucked up indoors I’m going to continue using this as a temporary bird table. Next time I will be brushing the snow and any debris off first!
The peanut feeder has been a more modest success – from what I can see, only one solitary nut has been pecked. However I believe it can take some time before birds can bring themselves to try a new feeder, just in case it’s a trap. Once the local birds know that it’s not, they will be eating happily, so I have to be patient. It doesn’t help that due to the design of our flat there is no window looking out onto the garden so watching the birds eat involves opening the back door – which disturbs the birds and freezes me. I did get to see one unusual little visitor quite close up though – a female grey wagtail, soaking wet (from having a bath? I guess so…) appeared like a conjuring trick in our kitchen window box while we were eating breakfast.
A lousy picture which makes her look more like a pipit or thrush, but I wasn’t willing to move the curtain and risk disturbing our guest. At first she barely moved, then set about fluffing up and preening the water from her feathers, flashing a beautiful long tail as she did so. Apart from this being an unexpected intimacy with a lovely little bird I’ve never seen in these parts before, her appearance inspired me to try my luck with a window mounted feeder. I haven’t bought one yet, but I’ll let you know how it goes when I do.
There are a few things to bear in mind when feeding the birds, such as keeping them safe from predators, what they can and can’t eat, but really it’s not rocket science. For lots of really helpful information on feeding the birds in the UK, check out the RSPB bird feeding advice. Another great resource for USA specific species is from Cornell’s project feeder watch. But to be honest, wherever you are in the world there are just a few basic rules you will need to know. Here’s my short rundown of helpful do’s and don’ts:-
Bird Feeding Do’s and Dont’s
Do…Leave out clean fresh water for the birds as well as food. Even in winter birds must bathe to keep their plumage in the best possible condition, and drinking water provided in gardens is vital when all other water has frozen.
Don’t… Give birds milk or foods soaked in milk – they cannot digest it and it will make them ill. They can’t eat dried, dessicated coconut either, as it will swell up inside them. Fresh coconut is fine.
Do… Be aware of predators – feed birds in a clear area away from overhanging bushes or anything that could hide a cat.
Don’t… worry if you buy a bird feeder but the birds haven’t started using it yet. It can take them a little while to get used to new feeders, a couple of weeks sometimes. If the feeder is in a safe space and stocked with food which that particular feeder is made to hold, they will come.
Do… remember to carefully clean bird feeders and tables every so often with a mild disinfectant, and rinse carefully. This will help prevent the spread of infectious diseases between birds and ensure that harmful mould does not grow.
Don’t… feed the birds mouldy food – certain kinds of mould can make birds seriously ill and even kill them.
Do… remember to save your apple cores or bruised bits of banana for the bird table. If you know where the blackbirds forage in your garden, an apple core is a tasty treat for them to find! Want more ideas of things to feed the birds? Check the RSPB’s advice on what birds like to eat here!
Whether you feed the birds on an upturned dustbin, a well established bird table or feeding station, a window feeder, or even from the palm of your hand I’d love to know your tips, too, so why not leave them in a comment here?
PS:- The wonderful Michelle of Rambling Woods has a website stuffed with bird feeding tips and has offered to help answer any questions you may have on the subject over at her blog. Although she claims to “not be an expert,” I can highly recommend a visit to this helpful, resource rich and informative site.
Yesterday we were told to expect two feet of snow to fall overnight, and sure enough, around about midnight it began. A fine, crisp powdery snow falling thickly – as I watched from the top of the fire escape it obliterated the grass below. I went to bed thrilled skinny that even in London you get the good snow sometimes!
The morning dawned quiet and still, a strange thing in the city. But the snow was not the thick blanket I had hoped for and the flakes that were still tumbling out of the sky were wet and melting as they fell. I trudged down the slush covered fire escape with the new bird feeder in one hand and a stepladder in the the other, trying to figure out where the most squirrel proofed place in the garden might be. That’s when I spotted the dainty tracks criss crossing the snow. There were two sets of tracks, one old and hard to read and filling up rapidly with falling snow. The tracks you see to the left however were crisp and fresh as a daisy. A fox! Looks like foxy was running to leap the fence when she heard me open the door – I just missed seeing her. I know that foxes hunt the mice and other rodents that hang around the compost bins and nearby garden sheds and wonder if this weather makes hunting easier or harder. I realised that my delight in the wintry weather largely comes from having plenty to eat and not having to hunt for my food under a freezing blanket of snow. This is harsh weather for wildlife and set to stay for a week at the very least, which is why I’m breaking my rule about never feeding the birds.
Feeding the birds in my neighbourhood is a bad idea; it’s pretty much inviting them to commit suicide. Our eccentric cat loving neighbour feeds all the local cats which means that his – and our – garden is constantly full of them. Come the snow, the cats go home and I feel a little better about doing it, but there are still the squirrels to contend with – I doubt they’d actually kill a bird, but they can certainly drive them all away and eat their food. I like squirrels, but in the garden they are cunning gluttons. And then of course there is fantastic Ms fox. But I wouldn’t mind a bit if I saw a fox take a bird from our garden - it’s what they do, it’s what they’ve always done, just making a living after all. If I feed the birds and a fox benefits from that one day… well, good luck to it.
So I hung up the feeder and retreated indoors, assuming that the big snow we were promised was all just talk. A couple of hours later the sky was dizzy with whirling snowflakes, the clouds an eerie ultraviolet. Let’s see how it looks tomorrow.
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