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Armchair Birdwatching

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Goldfinches eating seed from a bird feeder.

'Armchair birdwatching' is an indoor hobby1 by and large, and suitable for the housebound, the elderly and families with young children. While you may watch birds from the comfort of your armchair anywhere in the world, the bird species, food and methods in this Entry are based upon experiences in the UK.

Feeding Garden Birds

If you've ever been interested in feeding birds in your garden then this article is intended to provide some basic information in where to begin. The basics of birdfeeding equipment: a sturdy table and one or two hanging feeders, can be obtained quite simply. Once you start to build your hobby up you may find that you can slowly accumulate such things as better bird tables and feeders, you don't need to invest in expensive equipment right from the beginning. Of course others will soon get to know about your new hobby and you may find that you are given additional feeders and specialised foods for birthday and Christmas presents2.

Buying a bird table that has a roof is a good idea, as this prevents the food from becoming waterlogged when it rains. Feeders made from wire, or that are clear plastic tubes with openings for the seeds may cost a little more but are generally more squirrel-proof than those made of wood or plastic netting. Paying at the outset for squirrel-proof feeders will save you money in the long term. You should also provide water for the birds to drink and bathe in. Make sure that the ice is removed in winter and that the water is changed frequently all year round, to prevent the spread of disease. If you can't afford a birdbath any shallow tray of water will do fine.

Where to Site the Feeders

As the main purpose of this hobby is actually to spot and observe the birds at close quarters, you should site the bird table and feeders where you can sit quietly, in the comfort of your armchair, and wait and watch.

Your best view of your garden may be from the window over your kitchen sink. So if you tend to stand washing dishes and preparing vegetables here, then it may be a good idea to place as additional table where you can easily keep an eye on it here as well - your dishwashing will be less dull in return.

If possible, your table should stand on paving or other hard surface. This will make sweeping up much easier, as the birds will drop food off the table which if left for long periods will look unsightly. It may even attract vermin such as mice. If you only have a lawn, you will have to move the tables to mow, and this can deter the birds as they prefer tables to remain in exactly the same place. If you leave the table permanently in one place on your lawn, you will end up with patchy grass around it. However, this may be a price worth paying if you are able to watch interesting birds visiting your garden. Some birds are happier at taking food from the ground, so scattering some food for them around the base of the table is always worth doing.

Don't forget that the domestic cat is also likely to be interested in watching the birds, and possibly trying to catch them. Even if the birds escape from the claws, they are likely to be frightened away by a cat lurking in the shadows. Try to site the tables away from areas that cats can use as cover, or invest in a cat scaring device3.

What to Feed?

This depends on the birds that naturally frequent your garden, of course. It is a waste of money buying specialised food if the species of bird the food is prepared for is nowhere to be found in your locality. Start with general wild bird food mix and some table scraps suitable for birds such as blackbirds, robins and sparrows. Then by observing what gets taken, and what birds find your table and feeders, you can venture out into more specialised foodstuffs.

General Food

The obvious choice is a peanut feeder, as members of the tit family are fairly common garden birds which happen to love peanuts. You can hang these feeders from any existing trees where you can observe the birds. Sparrows and robins cannot use these hanging feeders, so need to have small, peck-size food such as seeds sprinkled onto a table top. A wild bird food mix that contains a variety of seeds is suitable for many types of garden visitors.

Table scraps can also be used. Small amounts of bread can be added to the table, and blackbirds in particular can handle quite a bit of this each day. Don't put such large pieces that they have trouble flying away with it in their beaks. (Blackbirds will often fly off from the table if another bird arrives.) Bread is a good supplement, but should not be the only type of food you provide.

Don't forget to clear away any uneaten food, and replenish with fresh. It's better to only add the amount of food that gets taken in a 24-hour period, than put out too much and waste it.

Sunflower seeds come in various types, both with husks and ready-shelled. The advantage of having the shelled types is that your garden will look less messy. It is amazing how many seeds the birds take, and often they will drop uneaten seeds in other parts of your garden, with the resulting sunflower seedlings popping up in surprising places. The empty husks will also need clearing away. The disadvantage of the shelled types is that they are more expensive, so it depends on your purse.

Fat balls - spherical lumps of rendered fat that hold a mixture of seeds and grain - are obtainable from pet stores and other outlets. These can be hung from the table, and are enjoyed by the tits. The RSPB recommends that you remove the balls from any plastic nets that these may be sold in, due to the danger of birds getting their feet entangled. You can also place fat balls on the table top itself, particularly useful in a cold winter. Just break them up a little so that the blackbirds and robins can get hold of some of the pieces. If you feel adventurous, you can use beef dripping to make your own fat balls. Melt the fat and stir in some seeds and grain. Shape into balls and allow to set.

You can not only make balls yourself, but also something more pretty with fat and seeds packed into a ceramic flower pot. You attach a string through the hole at the bottom of the pot and then fill the pot with the fat and seeds. Once the mixture is hard you can hang it on a branch upside down. Of course the pot can be painted - I did this when I was in elementary school.
- Tavaron

It's not a good idea to put large amounts of meat scraps onto your table, although blackbirds and robins will welcome small amounts. Cut the pieces up small, and make sure that you only add fresh food. If it is not taken within a day, then you should remove it and dispose of it. Cooked bacon rind was the food of choice for tables in days gone by, but any hard, fatty meat is suitable. Oil or grease, such as poultry fat, that may contaminate the birds' feathers, should not be given.

Suet4 is an easy food to provide, and you don't need to pay the premium price at pet stores, just pop some into your supermarket trolley and sprinkle it onto the table, or even on the ground for the blackbirds to peck up. It will soon vanish.

Little scraps of grated cheese are another valuable source of fat and protein, so rather than throw the bit of dried-up cheese away, save it for the bird table. Low fat cheese is not recommended.

Fruit is another foodstuff that you can offer the birds. Pieces of apple, or whole apples, sultanas and raisins all provide variety and nutrition. However, you may find that while blackbirds may peck holes in the windfall apples and pears under your fruit trees, they may be reluctant to do the same to an apple you place on a bird table.

Specialised Food

There are all sorts of mixes available from Internet stockists, which are designed for specific types of birds. However, it is best to order these once you've discovered which species are likely to arrive as some of them can be expensive. Two of the most common special bird foods are niger seed (also known as nyjer or nyger seed) and mealworms.

Niger seed: Tiny little nutritious black seeds originally grown in Ethiopia, Guizotia abyssinica is now stocked by every store that caters for home birdwatchers. It is not cheap, but you should find that birds readily take it.

Mealworms and insects: You can either buy live or dried mealworms, or mixtures that contain other dried food for insectivore birds. Live mealworms are particularly nutritious, especially for breeding birds and their young.

There is an abundance of 'designer' bird food available on the market, but don't feel you have to spend a great deal of money on this. Some of it is just basic ingredients such as oats, packaged and marketed in gimmicky ways.

Some 'Fun' Foods

If you've got children and want an activity to involve them, or keep them busy in the winter holidays, you can get them to thread long strings of whole unshelled monkey nuts, using blunt bodkins and wool. They can then give these as stocking fillers to older members of their family as Christmas gifts. Half a coconut hung into tree branches can also keep kids amused, as they get to eat some of the other half of the coconut - it's always fun breaking open one of these!

Various types of garden birds pecking seed from a table.

Types of Birds You May See

Some of the most commonly seen garden visitors in the UK are blackbirds, robins and types of tit. Depending on the locality, you may be lucky to have thrushes, finches and many other species. Larger birds may be the collared dove, or even jays. The list of what may arrive is extensive, and this is where the fun of observing happens. You may not have many sparrows, but you may suddenly discover that you are looking at a house sparrow, or another bird called the 'hedge sparrow', which is another name for the dunnock. Up until then you might have assumed that all these little brown birds were the same species.

You may suddenly see a flash of unexpected colour alerting you to an entirely new visitor. This is the exciting part, when you realise that a nuthatch pair has discovered your feeding station and is busy flying back and forth for fresh supplies. But don't be downhearted if you're not attracting these flashy plumaged birds, because the unassuming sparrow provides plenty of amusement as they arrive in small family groups. The young fledglings are some of the most comical visitors to watch, and so, as there are fewer sparrows than there used to be, are worth encouraging.

You may be disappointed not to see a wren on the bird table, but if you've got room on a wall or fence to allow thick ivy to take hold, and also have undergrowth such as established heathers and other such woody low-growing shrubs, you may find them hopping about from perch to perch as they hunt for spiders.

How to Identify

One of the easiest ways to identify a species is to keep a bird spotting book by your chair, then you can quickly use it as a reference manual. However, sometimes the birds that you're not familiar with are quick to come and go and you may only catch a fleeting glimpse. You may be unsure as to the exact shape of the tail, or the markings of the plumage. Was it a female greenfinch or a siskin? If you're still puzzled, the cheapest way to learn is to go to your local library and borrow a selection of bird books. Often the photographs or illustrations are not exact matches to the colours of birds you can see, so it is worth having more than one source.

It's not only the 'look' of the bird that helps to identify it, but the way they fly, hop, take food and, of course, the birdsong or calls they make. Eg a nuthatch will creep, beak first, down the slope of the bird table roof. You may only see the soft blue/grey back for many visits before it reveals the rest of its plumage.

And as you've undoubtedly got Internet access, don't forget the many sites out there which have information on the species of bird to be found where you live. The RSPB website is a treasure trove for bird spotters in the UK.

Another helpful bit of kit is a small pair of binoculars, to zoom in close and so get a better view of those elusive birds further away from your window.

Record Keeping

Are you competitive? Or maybe you just like to collect information, in which case it is fun to keep some records of what birds you've seen. Some bird books provide a list where you can tick off and date arrivals to your table.

Keep a camera by your side, you may be lucky enough to get a perfect photograph.

Natural Food in Gardens

As well as providing food on the tables and in the feeders, don't forget that birds should also be foraging for their own natural food as well. All too often garden makeover television programmes seem to have steered gardeners into manicured areas designed for barbecues and drinks parties, rather than as havens for wildlife. Or even worse as car parking. So, if you're thinking of paving the whole of your garden, tearing up your lawn and replacing with slate chips and decking, please remember the wildlife that used to have this as its home territory.

Sparrows and other birds are in decline due to the neatness and tidiness of these types of gardens. A block paved front garden may be a wonderful place to park your car, but is a sterile desert for birdlife.

Grass lawns provide places for blackbirds to prey on worms and other creatures, thrushes will take snails (unless you've poisoned them with slugbait), and sparrows will eat the grass seed from the few stray patches of weed that you allow them. The odd sorrel plant gone to seed, a patch of wild strawberries as ground cover, some teasels even (for the goldfinches) and so on may look as if you're a terrible gardener, but be prepared to explain why you're allowing a few corners to be untidy and you'll feel a justifiable sense of achievement when you watch a thrush stalking the ground for prey. Not only that, these garden birds will pay you back in joy, by singing from your trees.

There are all sorts of berries that birds will enjoy in the autumn and winter months, viburnum, cotoneaster and rowan, and these shrubs and trees will provide you with pleasure throughout the year as well as providing the birds with a source of natural food. Don't be in too much of a hurry to cut down the dead heads of seed-bearing plants either, you will find many birds pecking at these as well as the insects that have crawled into the nooks and crannies.

Whatever type of garden you have, large or small, inner city or rural, we hope that you enjoy feeding your birds!

Garden birds on a birdfeeder.

Thanks to Keith Wolstencroft for the use of two photos in this Entry.

1Apart from the times when you need to go outside and replenish the bird tables.2If you have a relation or friend who has a bird table, then make a note now, supplies are always welcome, and you may never be stuck for a present-buying idea again.3These emit ultrasound, inaudible to humans but is supposed to annoy cats. Harmless to the cat but it has no effect on the birds.4Suet is a shredded beef fat used in the UK to make suet pastry and dumplings.

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