Over the last few days here in Birmingham, it has properly started to feel like Autumn. I love this time of year. The golden sunlight showcases nature's beauty brilliantly and forces you to look more closely at tiny details you haven't seen before. I love the cool crisp air in the morning. I love wrapping up all warm and cosy and walking in the woods, through carpets of sunshine-coloured leaves. I love seeing the dew drops clinging to each blade of grass and each spiders web. I love taking in big lung-fulls of really fresh air. And once I've enjoyed all these magical autumnal experiences, there's nothing I love more than getting home and tucking in to some warming, hearty food, or a nice hot cup of tea!
It seems apt then, that at this time of year, when daylight hours diminish and we are all stocking up for the winter, the RSPB asks us to spare a thought for our feathered friends and make an extra effort to feed the birds. Whilst natural food is still in abundance for them at the moment, the supplies will soon begin to dwindle as the weather gets colder and it is a great time to get into a good routine of providing food and water for the birds to help them through the winter. Feeding the birds is also a great way to spark children's interest in birds.
Children love feeding the birds. They like to know that they are doing something that helps wildlife and they get a great deal of satisfaction from seeing the birds gobble down the food they have put out for them. And they love being on the bird-feeding rota at school. Do you have a bird-feeding rota at your school? You may already have a bird feeder hanging in a tree, offering sunflower seed or peanuts (do you keep it topped up?), but why not spend some time with your club or class to talk about other ways to feed the birds? You could include some activities like making different types of bird feeders or bird 'cake', or perhaps have a go at some non-fictional writing about what different birds eat. The children could create bird menus for different bird species, (following a bit of research in a bird book, or here on our website!) and follow it up by making some appropriate food for a variety of birds. Below are some activity ideas that you may like to include. Or you could come up with your own ideas (just make sure to follow the golden rules, below). We'd love to hear about your efforts to feed the birds, what has worked, and what hasn't! Please share them by commenting on this blog post!
What food can I put out for birds?
Seed mixes keep a variety of birds happy, from house sparrows and blue tits, to a variety of finches, blackbirds and pigeons. Blue tits will only visit a feeder or bird table - they don't feed on the ground, so it's a good idea to have some seed in a feeder, whilst you could scatter some on the ground or on a bird table. Blue tits love peanuts too, but make sure you don't put salted nuts out, or leave whole nuts lose, as birds may choke on them. Nuts in a wire mesh feeder is the best way to serve them! If you don't want to spend money on a feeder, you can crush or grate peanuts and put them on a bird table, which will attract robins, dunnocks and even wrens. Make sure you buy peanus from a reputable supplier who can guarantee the quality, as they can sometimes contain high levels of a natural toxin which can be harmful to birds. Some schools are also wary of providing nuts for birds, because of some children having nut allergies - find out what your school's policy is before you decide to provide bird food which contains nuts.
Bird 'cake' is a really popular thing to make in school! You make it by pouring (warm, not hot!) melted suet or lard on to a mixture of ingredients such as seeds, nuts, dried fruit, oatmeal, cheese and cake. Mix it together and turn it out onto a bird table when it is set, or pack into yoghurt pots with string attached, or coconut shells to hang up in trees. And talking of coconut shells, you can hang these up as they are, just make sure you rinse out any 'milk' residue to prevent the build-up of mildew.
Household foods suitable for birds include the obvious bread (crumbled down and moistened if very dry), cooked or uncooked pastry, cooked rice (not salted), dry oats, cheese (sprinkled under hedges will help wrens, who don't often venture out in the open to feed), cooked potatoes (cold, not hot!) and all sorts of dried and fresh fruit. Apples left on the ground may attract redwings and fieldfares, migrant thrushes that spend winter in the UK!
Variety is the spice of life!
It's good to bear in mind that birds have different eating habits! Some feed on the ground, whilst others prefer to feed in the trees, so putting up a feeder, or food on a bird table will appeal to tree-feeding birds. It's good to provide a variety of different feeding points to attract a wide range of birds. If you're scattering food on the ground, don't put large quantities out on one day, as there's the risk the birds won't eat it all and it may attract some less welcome visitors overnight.
If you want to have a go at introducing a bird table to your school grouds, you could try making one from this simple design - just click on th design on the right hand side of the page. Bird tables are suitable for many species, and ground feeding birds will hop around below it, eating up the scraps that other birds have dropped.
If you fancy having a go at making your own bird feeders, you could try making this recycled bottle feeder, or why not rub bird cake into pine cones and hang them up in the trees? You could try designing your own feeders, but if you do, make sure that there are no sharp edges which could injure the birds (or the children!), or mesh which the birds could become entangled in. If you're making a hole for the bird to be able to reach inside a feeder, make sure it's big enough so that they won't be in danger of getting their head stuck.
However you decide to feed the birds, make sure the feeder or feeding area is easy to clean. You'll need to clean it regularly to stop dirt building up. Wear gloves to do this and wash hands well afterwards. Using a 10% disinfectant solution now and again is recommended. Changing the feeding area regularly can help to stop the build up of food and droppings too.
Don't forget the water!
Birds need water, and although many people put out food for birds, they often forget to provide a source of water. It is even more important in very cold or hot weather. You can provide water in a number of ways, but the easiest way to do it is to provide a bird bath. You can make your own - an upturned bin lid supported on stones, or a large dish will do - just make sure the water is shallow and the inside of the bath is rough so the birds can grip it with their claws. You'll need to change the water daily too, to stop it getting dirty.
Providing natural food that lasts
Whilst you can provide a wide variety of food for birds, there's also lots you can do to provide natural food in your school grounds for birds and other animals all year round. Planting native plants and trees is a good place to start, which provide nectar, insects, fruit, nuts and berries throughout the year. For more ways to make your school grounds more wildlife-friendly, have a look at our Homes For Wildlife pages, look back at Faye's blog about providing habitats for wildlife and keep an eye open for my next blog in a few weeks time when I'll be taking a look at planting trees in your school grounds!
Thank you for feeding the birds in your school grounds! As the weather gets colder, they'll appreciate the fact that you're providing them with that extra energy they so need in winter. Don't forget, we'd love to hear what your school or club has been doing to feed the birds, and whether you've had any more birds visit your grounds as a result!