Don't forget the birds ...; gardening

Daniel Butler on the best garden snacks
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As the first serious frosts slice through the borders and whip the last of the leaves from the horse chestnuts, it's time to spare a thought for non-migratory birds that will continue to visit the garden. "Hard weather can be a real killer, particularly for smaller species like wrens, tits and robins," says Chris Harbard, a spokesman for the RSPB. "Snow makes it difficult for them to find food, while long nights and low temperatures mean energy reserves can drop dangerously."

Millions of birds survive each winter thanks to bird tables, which also bring rewards for humans, by increasing the range of visitors and making them much easier to observe. Indeed, when people first start putting out bird food, they are often surprised at the range of birds they find are sharing their garden.

In spite of this, there is confusion about when, where and what to provide. Indeed, until recently the RSPB advised only winter feeding.

"We used to think there should be plenty of wild food during summer, which, by definition, is more 'natural' and therefore better," explains Mr Harbard. In fact, research now suggests that feeding all year can be a real help, particularly in urban gardens with few mature trees. This means a narrower range of food, and reduced breeding success for many species.

A bird table allows parents to feed themselves quickly, freeing them to find natural food for their young - particularly in bad weather. As a precaution, however, the RSPB advises against hard, fatty foods. "Parents sometimes choke their young with lumps that are too big for them to swallow," Mr Harbard says.

There are few such worries in winter, when virtually anything will do. In general, the more varied the spread, the more visitors. Seed attracts finches; tits like peanuts; and thrushes appreciate fruit such as apples cut in half. Another option is a "bird cake" made by melting one part lard with two parts of seed, nuts, dried fruit, breadcrumbs or kitchen scraps. The gooey mass is left to set and is then hung up outside.

Scraps are also welcome, particularly those with a high fat content, such as grated cheese rind or chicken carcasses. But salted peanuts should be avoided at all costs. Mr Harbard adds that though fears have recently been expressed about the saltiness of bacon rinds, there is no evidence that they cause problems. And the birds love them. "If you're worried, you can always soak them first in water," he says.

Water should, in any case, always be available, particularly when natural supplies are likely to be frozen solid.

Any good party, however, attracts gatecrashers. Squirrels can be deterred with a proprietary feeder, or by threading a wire through two plastic bottles and suspending feeders in between. Most cats are put off by a tall bird table with a good overhang, while keeping the ground clear beneath it reduces the risk of rat invasion.

Sparrowhawks are more difficult. Not only are they protected; they are attracted to the bird table by the regular diners - for "peanuts" read "blue tits". Most bird watchers appreciate their speed and agility, but for the squeamish, silver foil threaded on cotton may act as a partial deterrent.

The feeding station should be placed where you can see it. After all, you're putting out all the food," says Mr Harbard. "Make the most of it."

'Feeding Garden Birds', is available free from the RSPB - which also sells feeders and bird tables. Send an sae to RSPB, The Lodge, Sandy, Beds SG19 2DL.