As the season starts to change, there is a great deal that the general public can do to support the wildlife living in their area, not least of which is leaving out food for the garden birds.
It might be an obvious place to start, but simply ensuring that feeders are kept topped up will make a huge difference to the regular visitors to your open spaces. Putting out seed or fat balls might only take a few moments, but watching the birds flock into your garden and swarm around the feeders is a great feeling. You are helping them to survive the winter and setting them up in readiness to look after their eggs and fledglings in the spring.
The type of food you should put out does vary depending on the birds you want to help or attract:
There is a huge variety of ready-made seed mix on sale so it can be confusing to know which to buy. The best all-round mixes contain sunflower seeds, peanut granules and plenty of flaked maize because it is suitable for many species. In general terms, smaller seeds are better as more species can eat them and they are ideal for upright, hanging feeders. A bird table is another good option for feeding smaller birds, especially as you can position it so that you can watch from a safe distance.
Mixtures designed to be scattered on the ground, with bigger nuts and seeds, will tend to attract larger birds, which many smaller species may see as a deterrent.
Fatballs and scraps such as cheese are great as a high-energy source for the smaller birds but although most of us have done it for years, breadcrumbs have very little nutritional value for birds, so try to find other options if you can.
Where there is food, there should be fresh water, too. Many birds will drink from a shallow bird table, so do make sure they can access it all winter long. The lack of depth means that it may freeze over rather quickly so break the ice for your avian friends. Having something floating in the water, even a small twig, will help to prevent the water from freezing. During very cold weather, top up water supplies with tepid water, but NEVER add any chemical products to the water in an attempt to prevent it freezing.
Planting bird-friendly trees and shrubs, space permitting, is a great way to provide for wildlife all year round, and the autumn is a good time to plant. The foliage will attract insects in the warmer months, an important source of food for many species. And some plants will also produce berries for the colder months.
Honeysuckle is a good bet all round; beautiful and scented for human visitors and a great choice for insects. It is perfect food for chicks in the spring. Dog rose and goat willow will bring the insects teeming in. The berries of hawthorn, rowan, holly and ivy are a favourite snack for adult birds, and also help out smaller birds such as robins, which eat the insects that the shrubs tend to attract. Of course, apple trees are another great choice for us and for wildlife alike.
Once your trees and shrubs are mature, installing a nest box will be gratefully received by the smaller species; a regular source of food and somewhere to roost!
Caring for birds is important all year round, not just in the harsh conditions of winter. The young need supporting in spring, and though we imagine a plentiful supply of food during the summer months, the hard ground can make it harder to find.
Finally, make sure you keep your equipment - feeders, bird baths and bird tables - clean. Failure to do so can help to spread infection and disease, which can undo all your efforts in a flash. A few simple steps from Britain's home owners really will make an enormous difference to the countryside and its wildlife.