Hubcap’s favourite Christmas ’19 present from me (to the extent that he’s asked for it every year from now on) was a subscription to the RSPB. This wonderful charity, with its large active membership and healthy bank balance, is able to buy up and preserve vast tracts of land for the benefit not just of birds but of all wildlife, as well as the general public and wider environment. In addition to a quality members’ pack which includes a comprehensive handbook, merchandise catalogue and excellent quarterly magazine, the subscription gives us both free, unrestricted access to all RSPB reserves for a year; and we were about to take advantage of this for the first time with a trip to nearby Fairburn Ings when lockdown started and all sites were closed for the duration!
Luckily, we can still bird-watch at home. This spring has been particularly good for our feathery friends; despite predation by cats, rats, squirrels and magpies, our resident blackbirds, tits, robins and starlings have all successfully raised broods (like the parent and two kids illustrated) – thanks in no small part to regular feeding by many of our neighbours. I feel very proud that my home-made fat blocks go down so well – yesterday’s disappeared in just five hours! This is largely due to the starlings - making a tremendous comeback in this area - and a prolonged dry spell which has driven worms and grubs deep underground, depriving them of an important natural food source. And since we have at least four sets of parents, with at least one great fat fledgling apiece, feeding non-stop, small wonder I’m struggling to keep up. Good job it’s not always like this – during mating season, for instance, when the birds have other things on their minds, a single block lasts the best part of a week.
I began making fat-blocks last year;not to save money, although mine do work out slightly cheaper (c. 75p each) - and much better quality - than the mass-produced versions, and considerably cheaper than posh brands, which can retail at over £1 apiece. No, my main aim was to cut our use of non-recyclable plastic packaging – in this case, on average, around 250 – 300 trays, plus their film covers, per year! It’s an easy, satisfying (if rather messy) job - and if you fancy trying it, here’s my recipe:
3 x 250 g blocks of lard, c. 50 g flour, c. 350 g peanuts/200 g sunflower hearts, (finely minced in a food processor), 50 g nyger seed, and 50 g of crushed dried mealworms. Melt the lard, pour into a bowl, and add all the other ingredients (I sacrificed an old mixing bowl/utensils specifically for this purpose - see pics). Stir well and leave to cool/partially set, stirring occasionally to keep it just runny enough to pour. Give a final good stir to distribute the bits evenly, and pour into 4 re-used fat-block trays/cover with re-used film. Clean utensils by warming/wiping off fat residue with paper towel (makes great fire-lighters!!) – it’ll block your drains if it goes down with washing-up or dishwasher water. Allow to fully cool/set then refrigerate to keep them solid. Put in holder and feed to birds - they'll love it, like the six starlings in the picture below!
Aside from an abundance of highly nutritional food (we also put out seeds, nuts, un-netted fat-balls, whole mealworms and suet pellets to suit all tastes), our garden attracts such a great number and variety of birds because it’s very safe (one advantage of being small and sheltered).
People are often disappointed when their well-stocked feeding-stations receive few visitors; however, if placed in the middle of a lawn to be clearly visible from the house, they’re also clearly visible to predators like sparrow-hawks; and as birds are particularly vulnerable when feeding, they feel too nervous to hang around. This means exposed feeders may empty so slowly that the contents go mouldy, especially if rain gets in – and as birds won’t eat mouldy food, they soon stop coming altogether.
We’ve found that the key to enjoying plenty of birdlife in your garden is to provide what they most want and need: cover, perch, water, and a good variety of foods. So over the years we’ve supplemented natural nesting sites by putting up a wren-pot, plus boxes specifically tailored to sparrows, starlings and swifts, (as have several of our neighbours), while our twisted hazel and hawthorn hedge create a natural L-shaped refuge where birds can eat fat-block from complete safety within the tree, or make lightning raids on feeders from the hedge. As you can see from the picture below, (where you can make out a great tit on the feeder perch, a starling on the table, and an empty fat-block feeder in the tree!) there’s also plenty of low cover, especially in summer, for ground-feeding species.
Last autumn, we left our tall dead Echinops stems in place to house insects (thereby providing food for small birds), and discovered that they’re also in constant use as perches. So they’re now a permanent feature; as is our ‘temporary’ feeding station, lashed together from old garden canes, which proved so popular that we don’t have the heart to replace it (although I’d like a nicer bird-table than our emergency makeshift, installed to meet present unusual demands!). I put suet pellets, mealworms and seeds on it to supplemt the fat-blocks, rationed to one per day to make the birds forage elsewhere when it’s gone. We also provide water in two bird-baths: a shallow one on a pedestal favoured by the sparrows, and a deeper one for larger species like blackbirds and pigeons. Any shallow vessel with a rim, like the ceramic saucers for large plant pots, will do as a bird-bath, (an old rimless casserole dish of stagnant slime really won’t!). It's essential to keeping it topped up – we’re currently doing ours several times a day, due to the number of bathers! – and changing the water daily to prevent the build-up of harmful algae and parasites. Finally, to encourage natural food sources – berries, seeds, insects, (for whom we also provide bug-hotels), spiders, gastropods and grubs - we grow plants to flower and fruit year-round, leave our small lawn to grow as wild as possible, and avoid slug-pellets and weed-killer.
The reward, for a little thought and a modest outlay of time and money, is being able to watch continuous activity from the comfort of our couch: birds from robins to wrens courting, mating, nesting, and raising their young; the drama as crows and magpies raid nests or pursue novice flyers (or as irritated blackbirds yell at and dive-bomb Henry Wowler); the fun of watching fledglings beg, gaping and posturing, like teenagers begging their parents for burgers, or enjoying their first baths; and the satisfaction of knowing that, by providing bed and board, we’ve helped to build and maintain them. (Of course, being so bird-friendly also involves an element of washing their splatty poos off our vehicles, but we feel that’s a small price to pay!). And if you'd like to build up the bird life in your garden, I hope our experience may give you some ideas.