RSPB's Nature on Your Doorstep volunteer, Izabela Kennedy shares winter wildlife gardening tips and best ways to attract birds into your garden. 

Winter months can pose a challenge for local wildlife, including birds, which become more active and visible in their search for food. January is often the coldest month of the year and although our usual gardening jobs are on hold at this time, there are things we can do to support and give nature a home in our outdoor spaces.

Most of us already feed birds in the winter but how can we ensure our gardens and outdoor spaces provide natural food sources all year round and attract variety of wildlife onto our doorstep?

Leaf it alone and mulch

Leaving dead plant material on the ground or adding bark mulch will protect the soil from frost and keep moisture at the roots of your trees and shrubs. Leaf piles create great habitat for hibernating insects that ground feeding birds rely on. Blackbirds and winter thrashes often hunt for food around spent flower borders and bark mulch.

Rake leaves off lawns and sweep them under bushes and trees or build a leaf-mould cage in the corner of your garden. Many creatures will hide in leaf litter and provide for birds through the winter. Bark mulch is a great way to prevent weeds from germinating in your borders and can also be used by birds as a nesting material in the spring.

 

 

 

Let your perennials stand through the winter

So, you have succeeded at growing a wildflower meadow with majestic flowers and grasses attracting insects and birds during the summer months and now you are not sure whether to tidy it all up?

Delay clearing the spent stems and seed heads until early spring for seed feeding birds and to provide insect hiding places. These can attract a variety of birds like goldfinches, sparrows, siskins, and blue tits.

Adding seed bearing flowers to a garden, like allium, teasel, globe thistle, mallow, field scabious and great knapweed will provide colourful blooms in the summer, produce seeds for the birds and add a feature to your winter garden.

If leaving dead stems poking out of the ground is too unsightly for you, cut the stems and bunch them up into a dry bouquet and hang it on a tree branch or a fence. The birds will find it and enjoy the seeds and other critters hiding in there.

 

 

 

Create a woodpile for wildlife

Dead and decaying wood is an important element of a wildlife friendly garden. If possible and safe, leave dead trees and shrubs in place to decompose naturally over time. These will provide habitat for specialist invertebrates and fungi.

Don’t dispose of the branches and tree clippings and pile them in a sheltered corner of your garden instead. Larger branches can be cut into logs and create an inviting home and feeding ground for insects, small mammals, and birds. Some birds like robin or blackbird may choose to nest there in the spring.

 

 

 

Start composting

If you have a space in your garden, consider building a compost heap which is a great way of recycling your organic, household waste and in return you get a perfect compost to fertilise your garden. Starting your own compost heap is fairly easy, can be done all year round and it has endless benefits to wildlife garden.

Composting material provides food for decomposers such as fungi and soil invertebrates specialising in breaking down plant material, which in turn increases diversity of wildlife in your garden and attracts birds. You can build your compost heap from pallets, buy one already made or just do it the old-fashioned way and keep it as an open heap.

 

Plant trees and shrubs for garden birds

January is the perfect time to enrich your garden with wildlife friendly shrubs and trees. Bare-root plants are widely available at this time of the year and are cheaper than plants grown in pots. Planting in dormant season also gives the plants time to establish before the spring.

 Plenty of plants out there provide tasty berries over the autumn and winter period which appeal to birds like blackbird, bullfinch, sparrow, and winter thrushes. Shrubs like our native holly through its natural prickly protection can provide shelter from winter weather as well as natural nesting places in the spring, not to mention the colourful focal point of deep green and scarlet red it provides for several months.

If you have space, rowan is a great addition for winter thrushes with its autumn berries, hazelnut will keep the nuthatch happy, goat willow and birch support a vast number of invertebrates for adult birds such as great and blue tits, wrens, and robins. Let’s not forget crab apple. The fruit is enjoyed by starlings and greenfinches and whatever is left can be turned into jams and preserves.

Shrubs like blackthorn, hawthorn, spindle and guelder rose apart from autumn/winter berries also provide wonderful blossom for pollinators in the early spring. Whatever you decide to plant, make sure to provide decent compost to line the planting hole and add mulch on top.

  

Plan for the coming year

Winter is a great time to plan for the coming spring and summer. Clear out your bird boxes and supply with dry, natural bedding for winter roosting (hay or wool are good choices). If you can, remove the boxes and pour some boiling water inside to clean them.

January is good for installing new bird boxes. Different bird species nesting boxes are available to buy or you can choose to build your own. Ensure new box is securely fixed, away from predator reach and facing between north and east to prevent it from getting too hot or wet. Avoid placing it in direct sunlight or above a doorway.  

 

You can give wildlife a head start in spring by preparing wildlife-friendly plants now. Plant wildflower seeds in pots and leave outside for the rest of the winter. These should be ready to be transplanted as plugs in the spring. Alternatively, seeds can be stored in the bottom of the fridge ready to be sown when spring arrives.

Feed the birds

Feeding the birds is recommended all year round but winter is the period of greatest need. If you have feeders in your garden or outdoor space, make sure to clean them every couple of weeks using mild disinfectant solution followed by a good rinse. This will keep any potential diseases from spreading between birds.

  

Remember the water. This is particularly important during winter months when natural supplies may be frozen and birds rely mainly on dry diet, like seeds. Water to bathe in is also essential for birds to keep their feathers in good condition.

If you are looking for a fancy bird bath to add feature to your garden or a balcony, we stock several different designs in our shop. Shallow bawl or a dish with water, no deeper than two inches, placed in a sheltered area of your garden will also suffice, just remember to keep it clean and replenish with fresh water often.

To find out more about helping birds in and around your garden visit our How you can help birds page.

 

  

If you have not yet signed up for the Big Garden Birdwatch 2022 there is still time to do so. The event will take place 28-30 January and it is a fun and engaging way for the whole family to look out for birds in your local area. Tips on feeding and attracting different species of birds in preparation for the Big Garden Birdwatch can be found here.

 

To explore more wildlife gardening tips throughout the year visit our Year-Round Gardening page.

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