December – the small bird project

That first frost in November caught us all by surprise.  It certainly shocked the nailhead guys who woke up to find their tails stuck in a sheet of ice that had formed across the top of the pond.  Once it melted I hoped they would be able to swim off, none the worse for their experience.  It was definitely time to get the over-winter shelter sorted and I wondered whether to put the pond inside.  Nature must have a plan for these creatures I thought.  I knew that all the maggots, carefully laid in the damp mealworm, had formed hard brown cases and were snoozing inside safe from the ravages of winter.  Surely the nailheaders should have morphed into adults by now, or alternatively found their own winter jackets.  The pond was very shallow.  No way of snuggling down at the bottom, though I guessed that the red worm things could still be found down there.  When I looked through the water I noticed there were more empty cases than before.  A number of nailheaders had literally flown the nest, but there were still some wrigglers in there too.  Was it now up to me to protect these guys?

I was busy with my small bird project.  I have no objection to pigeons, or starlings, crows and magpies, but I really wanted to attract some of the smaller birds as well.  The first step was to pigeon-proof the seed feeders.  Pigeons eat like hungry men in an all-you-can-eat restaurant.  If there is food, then it gets eaten.  None left for the little fellers who prefer a quieter dining experience.  Despite my previous attempts, I had been foiled by pigeons flying like humming birds so they could feed from a seed tube which didn’t have a large enough perch.  The crows too were adept at solving problems like this. ‘Bring it on,’ I could hear them saying.  I needed to be smarter than these birds.  A tall order, but I was up for the challenge.

Circular feeder with fat balls

Circular feeder with fat balls

I ordered two circular feeders with minute perches, just right for tiny bird feet.  I put these up along the garden fence, one full with seed and the other with fat ball.  They were totally ignored all summer long.  In September I added a seed feeder protected by a cage, allowing only small birds to enter.  Despite the picture on the label showing a number of small birds happily partaking of their exclusive feeding station this was not my experience. No-one went near it and I can’t blame them as it looked totally like a trap.

I knew what the trouble was.  Partly it was the abundant summer which meant that all the birds could find plenty of food for themselves thank you very much.  It was also the location of my garden.  Our small terrace forms a comet like tail for the larger gardens up and to the left.  These houses have mature trees, lawns, bushes and space.  I just wasn’t getting the footfall.  Like any good shopkeeper I decided to provide more of what the customer wanted in the hope of attracting the wildlife once the weather turned colder.  I started by changing the quality of the fat balls on offer.  On advice I selected some ‘Chunky Dumplings’ from  livingwithbirds  and once unpacked I could tell that this was high class cuisine.  The crow was the first to try them and I must say they have proven to be a big hit.  The old fat balls used to lie neglected until they went mouldy, but these ones are literally flying off the shelf. I also put mealworm out into two different feeders for the starlings.  To reduce argument I placed them some distance apart.  The starlings soon returned to enjoy their mealworm, but still no small birds.

Chunky Dumpling fat balls.  Yum

Chunky Dumpling fat balls. Yum

I wondered if the small birds were put off the feeders due to lack of cover, so took them away from the fence and arranged them all in the tree; trying to ensure that the pigeons could not use a handy branch to snack attack.  With personalised feeders and high quality fat balls tastefully displayed, I sat back with my customer survey questionnaires and waited.

As the long, hot summer turned slowly into autumn I received very few small bird visitors.  A female robin made a solitary appearance, signalling her arrival with a distinctive peep, peep.  She ate any remains on the tray and nibbled the fat balls but didn’t go anywhere near the other feeder tubes.  But then robins are ground feeders, so what did I expect.  Then one day a Great Tit came for a taster session.  He went to each feeder in turn and selected its wares.  I started to get really excited and crossed out ‘Great Tit’ in my spotters guide, but sadly my offerings were not to his liking and he did not return.

The abundance of natural food lasted well into the autumn and my small bird project failed to excite any interest.  Even the female robin seemed to have disappeared.  But I knew that come winter, they would be beating a path to my door and as news spread my humble garden would once again become the ‘Ivy’ of bird gourmet dining.  My confidence was finally rewarded when a whole host of small birds arrived, possibly on a coach trip.  The tree next door was alive with wag-tails, never before seen in this neck of the woods and great tits (more than one) ricocheted through the branches of the tree selecting titbits from all the feeders.  I even saw one go inside the cage!   They were of course too rapid for me to capture on film so you will just have to take my word for it.

Shelves protecting the strawberry plants from the slugs and snails.

Shelves protecting the strawberry plants from the slugs and snails….

becomes the winter shelter courtesy of a new jacket with matching zips.

…becomes the winter shelter courtesy of a new jacket with matching zips.

The winter shelter is now complete.  The flap is left open until the frosts start with a vengeance.  The geraniums were the first to take up residence.  They are veterans of the winter shelter as this is their third year in hibernation and they soon settled down.  Around them I put in all the smaller pots, including some pansies.  Not sure if they will survive but let’s see.  The strawberry plants were evicted in the process but they turn the most wonderful autumn colours before they die down and the frost doesn’t seem to stop them bouncing back again once the warmth of the spring arrives.  The bulbs have all been planted.  The ones stored in the shed had got eaten a bit by the mice but some had new green shoots which looked ready to burst so I planted them all.  I covered over the hibernating snails with the old IKEA curtain, not needed now the winter shelter has a bespoke jacket complete with matching zips.  So as we all snuggle down for winter, the restaurant is fully open for birds large

Snails tucked up beneath the old IKEA shower curtain.

Snails tucked up beneath the old IKEA shower curtain.

and small.  I’m pretty sure that I will be able to report more sightings of small birds now that the weather is starting to bite.

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4 Responses to December – the small bird project

  1. Della we use to have bird feeders to encourage the birds, but I had to stop that due to my cats. I also listened to my hubby who is the gardener and he said it is better to plant the plants these birds like, to encourage them into your garden. As you are a gardener you probably know this and I am happy that your bird life has …..the abundance of natural food around for these birds.

    Hopefully your winter feeders will be a great back up when things get a little bleak in the colder months and you will have many visitors.

    I would be lost without my red robins and blue wrens they light up my day yet I have to make sure the cats don’t get them. My two loves clash terribly.

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  2. Della Law says:

    You are of course quite right Kath. It is much better to provide the natural habitat rather than the shop bought food. I found this excellent article which confirms this point of view. http://nativeplantwildlifegarden.com/birds-in-the-winter-wildlife-garden/ It is partly selfishness, as I love to see the birds feed and also the fact that my garden is so tiny. I have planted a wonderful pyracantha which produces lovely red berries, but I don’t have the space for the grasses and trees unfortunately. I have managed to plant a few bee friendly plants though and I hope they will all come up again next year. Thanks for your comment.

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  3. Chunky Dumplings? I’d have to buy those just for the name! I offer suet and mealworms to my winter birds, too, as well as sunflower seeds and peanuts, which they go crazy for.

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  4. Della Law says:

    I love to see the birds in winter visiting the feeders. Gives me a warm glow!

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