According to the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), the wild bird population of Great Britain has increased over the last forty years. Winter time is relatively mild and wet, which allows many birds to find natural food, like berries or insects. Leaving your garden unattended for winter is always a good idea; the flowers still hold seed in their seed heads even when, to a human eye, they look a bit dead and mouldy. Fallen leaves cover up the ground, allowing worms, beetles and caterpillars to hide and overwinter. Spiders still build their nests in forgotten corners of the garden, allowing birds to catch a nutritious dinner every now and then. But the real reason behind the large increase of songbird population is simply additional feeding by us, humans.
Birds are active for many hours a day and especially in pre-nesting season they will gather supplies to then spend more time building nests and bringing up young. Having a small feeding station will not discourage them from looking for natural foods, but will supplement their diet when they need it. Whilst watching birds from my window, I’ve noticed that the feeder can be unoccupied for hours and suddenly there seems to be a queue to snack on peanuts and sunflowers. I haven’t asked any of them personally about the tactics, but it seems like they share the location of the feeder with their friends, and especially when the weather is very cold and wet, the feeders are occupied non stop.
There are many fancy bird feeders on the market, as well as plenty of various mixes of seeds, often intended for different breeds. However, if the weather suddenly takes a turn for the worse and you can’t venture out to buy anything, you can make a simple yet quick treat for birds with what you may have in the house. I remember as a small child, spending my winter in Poland where the temperatures were hitting -20 Celsius regularly, my gran used to buy a thick piece of pig skin with fat, pierce it through with a string and hang on a leafless tree. A range of birds that didn’t migrate to warmer climes used to gather on a tree and one after the other come and take a peck or two of the fat. It was rather surprising for me as a small child to see a bird eating pig fat, but my gran explained that thanks to this they can gather much needed fat to keep them going through the cold months. Whilst in the UK we don’t experience such extreme cold, birds still appreciate an occasional fat ball snack. And instead of buying one, you can make them easily at home.
The recipe can be tweaked to fit what you have in the house, but you’ll definitely need one block of lard, some string, scissors and your chosen food for birds. You can use pre-bought bird seed, oats, raisins, various other berries (although check if they’ve not been additionally enhanced by extra sugar), seeds and nuts. If you happen to be brewing kombucha or wine, you can use spent fruit from it in your mix. Combine all the ingredients in a bowl, keeping a 1:1 ratio of lard and other ingredients. The lard should be room temperature to help with even distribution of seeds throughout it. Once the mixture is loaded with goodies, you can turn them into balls. Push a chopstick through the middle to create a hole where you’ll later put a string through and stick the finished balls in the freezer for about 2-4 hours.
In the spirit of reusing what you’ve got, you can also use an old yoghurt pot, a coconut shell or even citrus fruit skin like pomelo. Firstly make holes in it and attach the string, then stuff it tightly with the mixture and pop in the freezer. If you have nowhere to hang your balls from, you can use a loo roll middle, cover the outside in lard and then roll onto seed mix. You can put these tubes over bare tree branches or bamboo canes.
When the lard and seed mix is firm enough, take it out of the freezer and put up on a tree near your window. Brew yourself a nice cup of tea, grab some binoculars and watch your newly acquired clients’ excitement when they find their fancy new dine-out restaurant. While you’re there, get planning the garden for Spring!