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January: Looking well fed

Posted on 30th December, 2017

A winter paradox of garden birdwatching is the sight of robins and blackbirds eyeing the goodies on the bird table above them. At first sight they look as well fed as any Christmas card bird, but their rotund shape belies the the fact they are desperately trying to lay down sufficient fat to see them through the longest and coldest of winter nights. Their plumped-up feathers trap as much air as possible to insulate them during the day. But they will only survive the night by burning body fat to keep warm. A bird like a blue tit can lose up to half its bodyweight overnight just staying alive.



Their appearance may mimic portly, post-festivities humans, but to survive they still need well stocked birdtables - or berry-laden hedgerows, if there are any left un-flailed.


This year’s abundant garden crop of pyracantha berries has been just about stripped by the blackbirds, no doubt with the help of an occasional, locally-scarce, mistle thrush aided and abetted by wintering fieldfares and redwings. The next item on their standby list will be ivy berries. This much-maligned plant may need keeping in check, but cutting it back while it still has berries removes another lifeline for desperate birds. As one of the latest flowering plants it’s also a valuable source of nectar for late summer bees and insects, then of nourishing black berries for wintering birds.



I feed a variety a food to birds in my garden, but the one guaranteed to appeal to just about every species is my own mix of 500g of ‘value’ porridge oats with half a bar (125g) of lard stirred into it – just zap it the microwave for a few minutes first to melt the lard. It works out cheaper than most other quality bird food and is high in the important ingredient – fat.


Another essential for birds is access to water. Species that are mainly seed-eating can’t get sufficient dietary water from seeds alone, but all birds depend on maintaining their feathers in optimum condition to keep them warm. Even in freezing conditions bathing is part of their daily routine.



Part of the post-bathing ritual is preening the feathers; this ‘zips’ the feathers back together again. While the birds do it, they also apply a coating of oil to the feathers which they get by wiping their bill over their preen gland, a small organ in the skin on their rump. As well as helping to waterproof their plumage, the oils contains antibiotic chemicals to protect them against parasites such as feather mites. One scientific study found that male house sparrows with the largest preen glands were most successful in attracting mates, possibly because their plumage was in optimum condition, indicating they were healthier and stronger males. A seemingly insignificant activity, therefore, could have a significant life-changing impact.


So, as well as helping birds with additional food (in regularly cleaned feeders) to complement your untidy, but bird food-rich garden, remember to provide access to water.


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