Keeping Feathered Friends Fighting Fit for Spring

One mild New Year’s morning a few year’s back I opened our front door and was greeted with the honking from a flypast of Bewick’s swans. They, like many other bird species, over winter here in Ireland.

Here in Corrogue we are blessed with a great biodiversity. When you live amidst such plenitude you develop a stewardship mentality. This New Year, like last year’s, will be arctic. Care for our feathered friends has become a daily task as we try and help them survive these freezing temperatures.

It takes a lot of energy for a bird, with its hollow bones, to stay alive in subzero weather. With snow and ice on the ground they can’t get to worms, insects or other grub on the ground. Most of the berries, which were particularly bountiful this autumn, have been stripped.

Each morning my partner puts on his boots and refills the bird feeding station in the apple trees. Since we have a cat, Zymina, who fancies herself a savannah huntress, we have taken to hanging the largest jingle bell around her neck as a warning system. She’s not much of a tree climber so the apple orchard seemed the safest bet for a feeding area.

Birds need not just wild birdseed, like sunflowers. They need fat. Some species can get it from peanuts. But it is important to put out suet or lard. You can now even get suet cake that has mealworms in it. Cheese will do in a pinch. Bacon rind is apparently yummy for them. Raisins and chopped apple will also help them keep going.

What is sometimes forgotten is that birds also need water and it freezes overnight. Which reminds me that this part of West Cavan is associated with the Yellow Bittern in a famous poem by the Irish language poet Cathal Bui (Yellow Cathal).  During the late 1600s Ireland had a ‘mini Ice Age’ with very bitter winters. Cathal Bui, coming home from the pub, noticed that the poor bittern’s beak had frozen to Lough MacNean in its desperate battering to get to fresh water.

So always take out fresh water each morning or break the ice in your birdbath.

Yesterday morning was bitter and frost had formed on the inside of the windows overnight. As the room warmed up I noted a siskin was hanging upside down off the side of our cottage. It was chomping on lichen, which grows in the guttering. With the cleanest air in northwestern Europe, this part of Ireland has a lot of lichen that grows on trees and rooftops. The siskin is a less common garden visitor. We normally have robins, blackbirds, thrushes, various titmice, and all sorts of finches including the rather shy bullfinch that visit the garden. Sparrow hawks hunt for mice, rats and shrews. But this was a new species to visit. I guess word is spreading about our diner in the apple trees.

While we have run out of the store bought birdseed I am grateful that we planted hundreds of sunflower plants and teasel last summer. We are now taking out the dried heads for feeding the birds. The teasel heads are frequently seen having birds supper on them. Nature is helping keep the larder stocked.

These days plant catalogues are coming through in the post and I’ll be researching what other plants I can put out next year that will help support our wild bird population.

There are all sorts of bird feeders. Peanut feeders that hang on branches are handy. A bird table where you can put out suet cake, leftover cooked rice, chopped apple and raisins is another option. Just don’t feed them uncooked rice or dry bread (it swells in their tummies). Also make sure your cat can’t hop up, otherwise you could be inviting them for a Last Supper!

In a pinch, my canny friend from New Zealand, Arlene, has even been known to improvise a seed holder by recycling a juice box or milk carton. She puts in some drainage in the bottom. Cut a hole to fill with seed and then thread a twig through the box to form a perch. She used some wire to thread through the top to hang from a tree.

You can also melt some lard and add birdseed and form suet cake using the bottom of a milk carton as a mould. So if you have any meat fat from your Sunday roast you can recycle it to our feathered friends. Just put in some wild birdseed or sunflower seeds to make ‘cake.’

Come springtime you will be rewarded by the migrants coming back. I always get a lift when the swallows return and when the cuckoo sounds its distinctive call.

About BeeSmith

I was born in Queens, N.Y, reared in Pennsylvania, did university in Washington, D.C. Then I moved to England for nineteen years. I lived first in London and then in Leeds. After my partner's sister died of cancer in 2000, we decided to take the leap of faith and move to Ireland to be nearer his family. Despite our friends thinking we were mad and feckless, it has worked out. The angels really do look after fools! We have a cottage on an acre and a quarter three miles from where the River Shannon rises. We have a polytunnel to grow vegetables and fruit organically, a small orchard of apple trees and plans to create a sacred space on the land over the rest of our lifetimes. We share our home with two tortoiseshell cats, Zelda and her daughter Zymina, and three dogs, Murphy, Pippin and Cara.

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