Put food out and watch the birdies

THE clocks have just gone back, the dark evenings are upon us, the grey clouds envelope the landscape like a well-worn duvet and it’s very tempting to stay in the warm, waiting patiently for spring.

But,there is an alternative.

Instead of settling down in front of the telly this winter, there is an alternative that doesn’t involve going outside.

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Well, not much, anyway.

Feed the birds in your garden, set your chair in a favourable position and just let the entertainment unfold before your eyes.

It is likely, in fact, that you are already doing this.

Feeding birds is a huge and expanding business and you can revel in the idea you are helping to keep literally tens of millions of birds alive when their natural food is scarce.

While watching birds, you will be surprised at how many different species will turn up, even in the most urban of gardens.

You may then also get to know individual birds that visit regularly, learn how different species behave, what foods they prefer and, at some stage, you will get a lovely surprise when an unfamiliar bird visits.

A few years ago, for example, a garden in Southwick was visited by a small bird called a yellow-browed warbler that, by rights, should have been somewhere in south-east Asia.

Wherever they are, many gardens attract starlings and house sparrows – species that have adapted easily to urban environments.

They are joined by collared doves and, if you live in towns along the coast, you may see herring gulls.

Robins and blackbirds will visit, providing there is a bit of shelter, while the archetypal garden birds, blue tits and great tits, move around from garden to garden, sampling everything on the menu.

Increasingly, more species are moving out of the countryside into town gardens, and this added diversity makes watching even more pleasurable.

Finches are a particularly colourful family and a variety of different seeds and grain will often attract them.

Niger seed is a particular favourite food of goldfinches, while sunflower seeds are irresistible to greenfinches and chaffinches.

As winter progresses, it is worth looking carefully among the chaffinches for a similar species, more orange in colour than pink, the brambling, another occasional visitor from northern Europe.

Sadly, however, there is a disease that is affecting finches now, particularly greenfinches, called trichomonosis.

This parasite grows in the throat and, eventually, the birds are unable to swallow, and starve.

They do look really ill and, if you see one, it is best to stop feeding for a while to avoid the parasite being passed to other birds, especially where numbers congregate together.

In the new year, siskins, smaller, but a brighter green than greenfinches, start to come into towns as food in the countryside becomes scarce.

A recent and very welcome addition to the garden feast is the bullfinch, which has realised only in the last couple of years what it has been missing. The bright-pink breast of the male brightens up any dull winter’s day.

A favourite visitor is the dainty long-tailed tit.

Usually arriving in family parties, these small black and white birds, with a delightful pink flush to their feathers, purr softly to each other. Those gardens that are close to woodlands have a really good chance of attracting a nuthatch or great-spotted woodpecker.

Both species can dominate a bird table, but we can forgive them as their colourful and striking presence makes you want to just sit and admire them.

There are some “dos” and “don’ts” when feeding birds, so if you would like some advice, please visit our website www.sussexwt.org.uk – or ring WildCall, our free wildlife information hotline, on 01273 494777.