THE news that hundreds of twitchers have descended on a quiet coastal village in Hampshire to catch a glimpse of an incredibly rare Spanish sparrow may prompt some of us to dust off our binoculars to look out for unusual birds in our own gardens.
And what better time? With the RSPB’s annual Big Garden Birdwatch on Saturday and Sunday, January 28 and 29, when people are invited to spend an hour recording the birds they see in their own gardens and surrounding area to help provide a snapshot of bird numbers and species in Britain, we may see something other than wood pigeons or magpies.
The mild winter so far should have proved beneficial to birds in this country because there will have been more natural food available, according to the RSPB.
However, it is crucial that gardeners still top up their feeders and birdbaths because if it does turn cold, the birds will need sustenance, the charity warns.
Last year’s results showed that some of the smaller birds which decreased in numbers the previous year bounced back.
Sightings of goldcrests doubled, long-tailed tits increased by a third and coal tits by a quarter.
But in the last 30 years many species have been in decline.
Sightings of house sparrows, robins, chaffinches and starlings have all declined since 1979, while wood pigeons and collared doves have shown big increases.
Indeed, wood pigeons have become a pest to gardeners who grow their own winter brassicas such as kale and purple sprouting broccoli, providing a veritable feast for these large birds.
Some gardeners say the pigeons can be deterred by hanging up red cloths. Others resort to covering crops using netting.
“Wood pigeons are happy in lots of different habitats, unlike other birds which aren’t so adaptable,” said Richard Bashford, of the RSPB.
“Some birds avoid gardens because they are so timid but wood pigeons and collared doves do well in gardens. They eat fruits, berries, grains and seeds and aren’t fussy.”
However, there are specific foods which smaller birds love and which you might consider when refilling your bird feeders.
Small birds such as goldfinches love nyjer seeds and sunflower seeds. Peanuts are rich in fat and are popular with tits, greenfinches, house sparrows, nuthatches, great spotted woodpeckers and siskins.
Crushed or grated nuts attract robins, dunnocks and even wrens.
But never use salted or dry roasted peanuts and only buy from a reputable source.
Fat balls are great for many birds, especially in cold weather, but make sure you remove them from any nylon mesh before putting them out, as birds can catch their feet in the mesh.
Live food such as mealworms are relished by robins and blue tits, and may attract other insecteating birds such as pied wagtails.
Make sure the mealworms you buy are fresh. Any dead or discoloured ones shouldn’t be used as they can cause problems such as salmonella poisoning. Again, buy from a reputable source.
Of course, your own planting scheme can also go some way to making your garden a haven for birds.
A good hedgerow, with a mixture of deciduous trees, shrubs and climbers, will provide birds with both shelter and food. Leave an area of your lawn to grow long, to encourage insects to it, and add some nectar-rich plants such as knapweed, red hot pokers, Michaelmas daisies, snapdragons, cornflowers and cosmos to your border.
Red and yellow flowers are said to be the most frequented by birds.
House sparrows can often be seen attacking red and yellow flowers in spring and autumn, eating buds and petals. Berried plants including the spindle bush, the rowan, holly and hawthorn are also a magnet to birds.
When buying bird food, avoid seed mixtures that have split peas, beans, dried rice or lentils as again only the large species can eat them dry. Consider also that kitchen scraps such as cut-up fruit, cake crumbs, grated cheese and uncooked porridge oats are likely to attract bigger birds.
If you select your bird food carefully, hopefully you’ll soon have a host of winged visitors – and not only the large ones – to your garden.
For more information, visit rspb.org.uk/birdwatch.