This post will be my first garden post of the year, although it does involve preparatory work in the kitchen. As you will see from the title, I have been busy making bird feeders to put in the garden. I have been meaning to have a go at making some sort of feeder for a while, as I would like to have some addition to the bird table that Verity made from driftwood some years ago (an activity with the OWLS group). This works well for the larger birds but I wanted to try making something especially for the smaller birds. We do actually have a small wooden feeder box with a wire grill on one side that hangs on the lilac tree, but the blue tits don’t often seem very interested.
The immediate prompt for making a feeder however (and choosing to make a fat-based feeder) was reading a book that I was given for Hogmanay, The Secret Life of Cows by Rosamund Young (Faber 2017, Farming Books & Videos Ltd, 2003). In amongst all of the cow, sheep and pig stories was an episode about wild bird feeding. The Youngs make winter bird feeders by melting fat, stirring in breadcrumbs and moulding the mixture in small plastic cups. I was very taken with their method of fixing the feeders onto canes and putting them in the ground instead of stringing them to hang. This, I felt I had to attempt for myself.
In a further bit of research before beginning my wildlife task, I consulted Gardenersworld.com and discovered a couple of useful articles. Here is my version of a fat cake, adapting the ideas from the website and the Life of Cows instructions. Gardeners’ World advise putting out fat balls from November to March, so I am just about in time for this season. The writer suggests fillings which include oats, cake or bread crumbs, peanuts, dried fruit and cheese in melted lard or suet. I used a couple of left over disposable cups to mould the feed mixture as my book suggests, although you could use yoghurt pots as the instructions in the Gardeners’ World recipe. The guide proportions are a ratio of one part of fat to two parts of filling.
I used a basic lard from the supermarket and reckoned that trying 100g would give me about the correct amount to fill my two cups. For my mixture I had a root around the kitchen and came up with porridge oats, desiccated coconut, a dried fruit and cashew mix, mixed seeds (pumpkin and sunflower seeds) and some brown soda bread. I didn’t have any cheese in, but I figured that if you have a fat base then you don’t really need the fat in the cheese. I used a blend of these ingredients to make up 200g, crumbling up one slice of bread and crushing up the cashews a little before mixing with my melted lard. My mixture just nicely filled the two containers. For the one cup, I made a hole and put string through as per Gardeners’ World and as you can see, I fixed a wooden spoon in the other to make it easier to fix the cake onto a cane when set. I popped both in the fridge for an hour to set firm.
The final stage was to fix the fat cakes in place in a good spot in the garden. I hung my strung feeder onto the lilac tree, near the old wooden feeder as that spot is familiar to regular bird visitors. In one of last season’s tomato pots I stuck a long cane and fixed the other cake on to it (after removing wooden spoon!). I did push a bit too hard and the cane came through the end slightly, so I fixed some wooden pegs underneath so the cake wouldn’t slide down the cane. As you will see from my photographs, one of our ever-curious resident robin pair came to have a close look at what was going on, while the mate kept a watch from a distance. Then, I retreated to the house to watch for my first proper customers. Perhaps not surprisingly, the blue tits were the first to sample new tuck shop, though the robins were not too far behind. Both these birds managed to get the hang of the feeders very quickly and perched or clung on to feed. These birds have managed to feed from both types of feeder quite easily.
Rosamund Young describes in her book the antics of various species of birds when confronted with a delicious new food source on a stick. Similar to my experience mentioned above, she comments that the blue tits ‘learn how to feed from them within minutes, hanging upside-down with ease’. Where we differ is in the case of robins, as she notes that it took the robin some time to achieve success. She writes, ‘The best the robin could ever manage was to screw himself into a tight ball on the ground directly under the cup and leap vertically’ until eventually one bird learned to shimmy up the bean pole to feast. Apparently, chaffinches became quite angry with the feeders, but so far, I haven’t spotted any in our garden so I am unable to make a comparison. What we do have are greedy starlings however, arriving en masse to hog the food and scare away smaller feeders.
So far, my experiment has proved a success and I will hope to make another couple of feeders to see the birds through March. If anyone out there has had a go at bird feeders, do let me know what you have tried.