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Winter lifesavers: how to help birds get through the colder weather

PUBLISHED: 09:31 10 February 2016

Great spotted woodpecker feeding on a coconut. All manner of birds and mammals will be attracted by food supplied

Great spotted woodpecker feeding on a coconut. All manner of birds and mammals will be attracted by food supplied


February is a crucial month for wildlife. Rebecca Taylor of Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust explains how we can help see our garden visitors through to spring

Bird feeders are a vital source of winter fuel but keep them fresh and clean to prevent diseaseBird feeders are a vital source of winter fuel but keep them fresh and clean to prevent disease

By February, natural food supplies for wildlife are in short supply and for many wild animals this is the hardest time of year. A little help from us can make a real difference to their chances of survival. So bundle up warm and get outside, there’s work to be done!

Get creative for birds

Feeding birds is a great idea year-round, but is especially important during the colder months. Don’t just put out bird seed – get creative. Like humans, different birds have different tastes, so try to alternate foods as much as possible. From peanuts to coconuts, mealworm to cornflakes, keep things varied and all sorts of birds will visit your garden.

When the ground is frozen, birds such as blackbirds and thrushes are unable to dig for worms and other insects, and as the stock of natural fruits and berries dwindles this makes it an especially hard time. Alternatives can be life savers. Halve old or bruised apples and pears and spear them on the branches of shrubs, cut side up. These prove a tempting treat, especially for blackbirds, robins and blue tits.

Fat balls and feeders can be hung from trees, while cereal, raisins and biscuit crumbs or even bacon rind and cooked potato are useful additions to the bird table and provide a welcome source of winter fuel. Just remember not to put out too much at one time – ideally just enough for a rapid turnover. Leftover food can becoming mouldy or contaminated with droppings or saliva, which can be a reservoir for diseases that affect birds. So clear away any old food and clean your bird feeder, table and bath regularly with boiling water and a safe disinfectant.

This is also a good time to clean out empty bird boxes before new nests are built in spring and to install new ones.

Recommended bird food and feeders can be found at

Treats for mammals

While many people feed birds, there are plenty of other animals who also appreciate winter food aid. Deer love root vegetables like turnips, while foxes prefer fruit. Smaller mammals such as hedgehogs like anything from dog food to seeds. Before dusk, put out some treats in a secluded area and check back in the morning to see what was most popular.

Water resources

If you have a pond, do keep an eye on it, especially if it is really cold. If it freezes, melt a small hole at its edge – this will allow birds and other animals to drink. Floating a tennis ball in a pond can stop it from freezing altogether. 
And don’t forget about birdbaths. They are a vital source of water for many garden birds. Remember to put out fresh water each day and never use chemicals to clean or de-ice.

Chemical hazards

Substances like antifreeze can be fatal to animals. Ensure that any antifreeze bottles are kept away from wildlife and pets and make sure any spillages are well cleared up.

Winter bloomers

Adding plants with colour and scents in midwinter is important for insects venturing out in any warmer spells, as well as providing shelter. It also gives cheer to us and a reminder that the garden will soon burst into life again.

Recommended plants:

 Mahonia

 Daphne

 Hamermalis witch hazel

 Winter jasmine

 Winter honeysuckle

 Cotoneaster


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