By Dave Clark, Dulwich Society Wildlife Committee member & British Trust for Ornithology, Waterbirds Recorder for Dulwich Park
The presence of abundant and varied wildlife enhances our own lives and it's a good indicator of an environment that is surviving and flourishing. But, on the Wildlife Committee, we often find that instead of recording and celebrating what animals, birds and insects live and thrives in our area, we are monitoring sad declines. Our discussions are constantly dominated by dire warnings about global warming, freak weather conditions and the increasing invasion, both locally and throughout the country, of our green and brown spaces - all very bad news for wildlife. It can sometimes feel overwhelmingly gloomy.
However, on reflection, we've come to realise that, even at our local level here in Dulwich, we can have a positive influence on our environment. And we can do so by simple, small but highly effective increments. In this issue, we will focus on our wild bird populations. Our gardens might be modest or grandiose - or we may not have a garden at all - but we can all attract birdlife near our homes to feed and breed and we can help to keep those birds healthy. Here are some useful pointers:
1. FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Habitually, we scatter our unwanted bread for birds to eat. That's fine - up to a point - but if you put out bread, please follow the ABC guide:
Avoid bread being the birds' only food source
Break it up into manageable bird-sized bites (to avoid choking accidents) and soften rock-hard crusts with warm water
Compost any mouldy bread or it will harm any birds eating it
Nuts and seeds are the most popular form of food for feeders. Start off with peanuts and /or black sunflower seeds, always avoiding anything that is salted. Peanuts need to be broken up ( or an adult bird might kill a nestling by trying to feed it a whole nut). As you get more experienced, you can then fine-tune and diversify your bird feeds, placing other types of grains into your feeders to specifically attract different species of bird. Never put out uncooked rice or desiccated coconut which are both dangerous for birds.
Fat balls are particularly favoured by many species - but do hang them in places where feeding birds can keep a weather eye out for advancing predators, such as your cat! You might like to put out bruised fruit to attract blackbirds and thrushes; this needs to be placed on the ground (and remove any that has gone brown, mushy and rotten). If you regularly reposition your feeding stations, you will help avoid giving your garden visitors a nasty bacteria-borne infection, such as e-coli or salmonella, which is spread via droppings and saliva and is invariably fatal to small garden birds.
2. A DROP TO DRINK
Birds don't appear in our gardens by sheer accident. They are looking for something vital: sustenance. Like all living things, they need both food and water (which is why gardens with ponds attract such a rich array of wildlife)
It may sound obvious, yet we often forget to offer a supply of clean water for our garden visitors. This does not have to be an expensive customised bird bath. A simple shallow, inexpensive (e.g. washable plastic plant tub base) container on the ground / in the borders will suffice. As long as the water level is not too low in relation to the lip of the container, birds will find and will be able to use this source for drinking and bathing (which is just as important for ridding feathers of parasites like blood-sucking mites).
3. WATCH - AND WAIT A WHILE
Be patient. Like all wild creatures, birds are wary of a new food source and can take time to trust the environs. After all, a fledgling would not survive long if it did not take a while to check the coast was clear before diving in for a meal. Putting out a dependable supply of fresh food and water guarantees that they will come eventually.
4. FEEDERS AND FEEDING AREAS
If you have plenty of flowers, trees, native shrubs and compost heaps, birds will naturally be attracted to your garden because of its supply of insects. But, if you want to attract more birds and help them with a year-round food supply, you could add some designated bird feeders and bird tables, which are the most popular forms of food dispenser. Choice of size, look, design and price is limitless. Don't go mad, start off small and inexpensive, observe the changes and develop your feeding strategy accordingly.
5. ALL YEAR MENU
Once birds have established a food source within your garden, if possible try to keep some sort of supply going all year round. We all have busy lives and take holidays, but your local birds will come to rely on your garden.
6. FEEDING EMERGENCY TIMES
There are key times in the calendar when a garden supply of food can be essential to birds' survival.
In winter, food supplies in more rural districts can be more difficult to find, particularly on really cold days, and so many birds search within urban environments for something to keep them alive.
In spring, when parent birds are scurrying to and fro feeding hungry nestlings, food can become scarcer and birds become more competitive. Additionally, the chicks are protein-dependent. Seeds and nuts maybe OK for the adults, but youngsters need live food (such as caterpillars and other invertebrates) to fuel their speedy growth.
7. FOOD QUALITY
Be particularly careful that food laid on the ground or on birdtables is not left for too long. Not only may you lose the relationship you have developed with our feathered friends, but you could attract unwelcome guests<
Where possible, buy seeds / nuts from a recognised source (i.e., it will ensure that they are free of harmful fungal toxins or pesticides). Beware of cheap offerings!
8. YOUR PETS
If you own a cat, a little bell on the collar is often sufficient warning for birds that a predator is near. Leaving clear sight- and flight-lines around feeders and birdtables and not putting them right up against shrubs where predators could lurk is also essential. Keeping cats indoors around daybreak and dusk has been proved (Mammal Society survey) to cut the carnage of catted victims, too - because these are key feeding times for most bird species.
Fledglings are particularly vulnerable. They are not as nimble and fleet of foot and wing as their parents, so take extra care if you know that nests are present within your garden or if you own nestboxes. Where possible, keep those pet predators indoors for the crucial day or two while young birds become independent.
Clean feeders once a month by soaking in boiling water with a small amount of bleach. Birds can be affected particularly by salmonella and canker from other birds' faeces and saliva. Try to freshen your birds' water supply at least once a week. Rule of thumb: if it looks yukky, you can bet it is.
10. GET A BOOK
Now you've got more birds into your garden, enjoy them! Identify them, get to know more about their habits and how you may attract other species. You might even like to set up a mini web-cam in a nestbox and become the local Bill Oddie! Good luck!
For more in-depth information on how to attract and feed your garden birds contact the RSPB: http://www.rspb.org.uk Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, The Lodge, Sandy, Bedfordshire, SG19 2DL, UK; Tel: 01767 680551