Your Garden in December

Blue Tit on a snowy spade

Tips for looking after the birds in your garden in December

The challenges of late autumn extend into the winter, with the shortest days of the year allowing just eight or so hours in which to lay down sufficient fat to keep the birds warm for the long, cold nights. As well as the high energy demands of keeping warm for long periods without food, birds sometimes have to travel long distances ahead of weather systems to avoid snow or severe cold. These ‘weather movements’ often produce dramatic changes in the species visiting the garden, with dozens of new birds literally arriving overnight.

At this time of year high energy foods become truly vital and by packing lots of calories into every beak full, we can increase the number of birds that we are able to help. It’s a good idea to plan for cold weather, perhaps by having additional feeders on standby for periods of freezing or prolonged snow cover. Simple measures such as always having fresh drinking water available, sweeping areas clear of snow and avoiding disturbance at the feeding areas in the first and last hours of the day will also help to maximise the effectiveness of your feeding station.

Five things you can do to help are:

1) Provide high energy content food

Hi-energy no mess, sunflower hearts and kibbled sunflower hearts are ideal choices, allowing the birds to feed at maximum efficiency. Don't forget to sprinkle some along hedge bases or in flower borders so the shyer species such as Wrens and Dunnocks can benefit.

2) Ensure a regular supply of fresh water for drinking and bathing

Put out water in a shallow container with gently sloping sides or a flat, partially submerged stone in the middle. Site it away from areas that will make ambush by cat easy, so at least two metres (six feet) from low-lying cover, and not so close to the feeding station that it gets contaminated with food or droppings.

Either empty it every evening so that it's ready for the morning, or simply allow a little extra time at the start of the day to de-ice and top-up. In hard weather birds may eat little but dry seeds or peanuts so they need to drink more rather than less. Their plumage also needs to be in peak condition to provide as much insulation from the cold as possible.

3) Minimise disturbance at the feeding station

In December the days are short and the nights are long and cold, typically 16 or 17 hours depending on latitude.

Small birds need to lay down enough fat to be able to shiver themselves warm during the night, consuming around a third of their bodyweight in food on cold days, so the first and last feeds of the day are literally vital.

If it has been, or is about to be, a very cold night, a quarter of an hour's worth of disturbance at the wrong time can literally be a matter of life or death for some birds. Please leave topping up feeders and other tasks until midday or after dark.

4) Keep it clean

The combination of cold, damp and lots of birds means that feeders, tables, the ground underneath them and bird baths are all likely to become dirty. Hardware should be cleaned regularly and if you have the space it's a good idea to move feeding areas to "rest" the contaminated areas.

5) Don't forget the nest boxes

Many small birds will use nest boxes as roost sites during the winter. Now is a good time to clean the boxes out so that they will provide a clean refuge over the coming months. Birds may already be using the nest box as a roost site so cleaning is best done during the day. To be doubly certain of avoiding disturbance make some noise as you approach or gently tap the front of the box before you open it.