In winter, your hardy residentbirds and autumn migrants from the colder parts of the world will be doing their best to stay alive, fattening up to get through the cold nights.
But the residents will also be taking a good look around and clocking any potential nesting sites in preparation for the warmer weather.
When the spring migrants arrive, the competition for a prime spot is fierce. Staying in one place all year round is the trade off that residents make – they’ll suffer the cold winters as long as they can keep their territory for laying those eggs.
When the spring migrants arrive, the competition for a prime spot is fierce.
There are a number of things you can do to entice arriving birds to stay at your place and make sure they don’t encroach on someone else’s patch too much.
We’re not saying this won’t happen, but providing choices for all birds will help out.
Short day duties
On cold days in winter it can be hard to motivate yourself to get outside.
If you’re like us and love a bracing walk in the crunchy frost and snow, then maybe you’ll not have a problem with some brisk outdoors work, but if you find it hard to stir yourself from the warm comfy chair, spend some time pondering the eventual arrival of the spring migrants.
Winter can seem long due to the harsh weather, but by using just a few of the short hours of daylight and recognising its potential as a time to prepare for the beauties of spring can do wonders for inertia. On dry days, put on your coats, hats, scarves and gloves, and potter about making good.
There’s nothing else quite like coming into the warm afterwards, too.
Winter is the ideal time to trimback any unruly hedges or shrubs and trees that you have, so that when the warmer weather arrives and the sun shows through the murk, these plants will focus on rekindling their surface area and mass, providing fantastic cover for nesting birds.
If you don't have any hedges then consider pushing some cuttings of willow into your soil any time between November and April, at about six to nine inches / 15 to 23cm apart.
Willow is one of the easiest plants to grow from cuttings and when they are long enough, you can then weave them together into arches or fences, and when they sprout and intermesh, they will attract a slew of insects for birds to feed their young, as well as make an ideal nesting area for smaller birds like wrens and robins.
Also, it’s fine to rake up your leaves but consider keeping some back in a pile for birds to forage under for insects, and they’ll come in useful for sprinkling on top of all those seed hulls beneath your feeders and helping them break down to mulch.
Winter is the ideal time to trim back any unruly hedges or shrubs and trees.
Whilst winter doesn’t naturally seem to be the season for sowing any seeds, there are a few plants that are hardy enough to establish themselves in the cold ground, ready for blooming in the spring.
Keep an eye on the weather and always avoid frosty days, of course, and it’s always best after some rain which will hopefully have softened the ground a little.
Buttercup is an excellent species to consider introducing into your garden during the late winter months.
Birds eat their leaves and seeds, and the flowers in spring will attract bees, butterflies and moths, all contributing to the pollination of your other plants and providing a good snack for a passing bird.
Japaneseskimmia is a superbly low maintenance evergreen shrub that does well in shady gardens, and provides berries in the autumn and insect-attracting flowers in the spring.
This manages very well with winter planting, and is adored by ornamental landscapers and the everyday gardener alike, but you do need the space, as it can grow to be 6m tall and wide.
You’re also increasing the chances of successful broods in your resident birds.
If you’ve been topping up your feeders throughout the winter, it’s not a bad idea to rearrange them as the days get warmer and you’re sure spring is nearly here, after cleaning them of course.
The birds that have been feeding there all winter will know exactly where to find food, having a bit of an advantage over the incoming migrants. By moving them around, everyone gets a fair shot at locating the food.
If this tactic seems a bit mean to you, don’t worry, birds can usually smell the food in a matter of hours, but you can always just erect more feeders if your budget allows. This is often a helpful move anyway, as your garden is going to get very busy in the spring.
Feed to breed
You’ll also be pleased to know that by putting food out, not only have you been helping the residents and autumn migrants get through those cold nights, you’re also increasing the chances of successful broods in your resident birds.
Long known to be a vital resource for birds during winter, fatty and oily seeds and suet cakes are the perfect food for helping birds get the calories they need for energy. But it has now come to light that birds who eat this nutritious mix are more likely to raise a full brood of young.
A study carried out by the University of Exeter, UK, and Queen’s University Belfast, UK, conclusively showed that birds who were provided a steady flow of food like peanuts and sunflower hearts laid their eggs earlier in the spring, compared to the wild birds who foraged elsewhere, and they also went on to have another two or three more broods throughout the ensuing year, all successful.
The “artificially” fed birds produced the same number of chicks, but an average of one more per clutch fledged. The vitamins and minerals in nuts and bird seed that we provide are thought to make the female bird stronger and more able to produce healthy eggs, leading to more robust and resilient chicks.
You also may already know that continuing to feed the birds after winter and on through spring is also a wonderfulthing to do for your birds.
Given the changes in weather patterns all over the world in the past few years, it’s not easy to know when the insects will hatch or the seeds will emerge, and adult birds can teach their fledglings the best places to look if they ever need to top up their daily forage. Remember the phrase “winter feeding helps spring breeding” 😊