Feeding birds in the spring.
Birds time their breeding period to coincide with the maximum availability of their natural foods: for example, winter moth caterpillars in the case of blue tits and earthworms for blackbirds and song thrushes. But cold or wet weather during the spring can cause severe shortages of insect food, and if the weather is exceptionally dry and the soil hardened, as it was last year, earthworms will be unavailable to ground feeding birds.
If there is a shortage of food when birds have young in the nest they may be tempted by easy pickings from bird tables to make up the shortfall. Initially this will be just to feed themselves, but if the situation gets really bad, they will also take the food to the nest. If the food from your bird table isn’t suitable for the young chicks, it can do more harm than good.
1. Willow warbler at feeder; 2. nestlings.
It can be difficult for people to judge when there a food shortage in the wild; there is no real visible clue to show us, for instance, when the winter moth caterpillar hatch is delayed. Therefore, during the spring, it is best not to put out food that is likely to create problems for the nestlings of any species of bird; don’t put out loose peanuts, dry hard foods, or large chunks of bread (all of which can choke a baby bird) or fatballs which can quickly become rancid in warm spring weather.
For the breeding season, the RSPB recommends:
- Black sunflower seeds,
- pinhead oatmeal,
- soaked sultanas, raisins and currants,
- mild grated cheese, mealworms,
- wax worms or mealworms,
- mixes for insectivorous birds,
- good seed mixtures without loose peanuts,
- soft apples and pears cut in half.
3. Robin eating mealworm; 4. house sparrows at a bird table.
Some people use soaked dog or cat food and tinned pet foods, but these are not recommended: they may attract magpies, crows and cats. Cats are always a danger for fledglings, and both crows and magpies will take any eggs and nestlings they can find. If your bird table has attracted magpies, they will be watching from nearby trees and rooftops for signs of songbird nests in your garden.
Birds can suffer temporary food shortage at almost any time of the year, and if this happens during the breeding season, carefully chosen extra food on your bird table can make all the difference to the survival of the young.