Alys Fowler: feed the birds

‘Birds are as much a part of my garden as the plants.’ Photograph: Alamy

I love my garden in winter, mostly because it’s crowded with small birds. Now that I’m viewing it from the kitchen window, rather than close up, I disturb them less and see many more. That, or I am getting old, because small birds used to be just that. These days, I even name them. They are as much part of the garden as the plants, and have become necessary to my happiness.

I buy a sack of Farmer Phil’s British birdseed to supplement what the garden offers. The feeders next to good perching spots tend to get emptied quickest. There’s always a lineup for feed, so it makes sense to have waiting spots, somewhere protected from predators and high winds.

My strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) and a wild rambling rose, both of which are evergreen, make great places to dart in and out of. The birds scatter the feed about: most of it is mopped up by ground-feeding blackbirds and pigeons. Some germinates in spring, but the seedlings are easy to pull up; that said, I left the millet be this year, because I liked the way it looked.

I leave seedheads standing over winter. Some are so prized that the weather hardly gets cold before they are dined upon. Sunflowers, teasels, Knautia macedonica, Mexican tree spinach (Chenopodium giganteum) and orach (Atriplex hortensis) are soon stripped. Rudbeckias, echinops, echinacea, Verbena bonariensis and evening primrose (Oenothera biennis) are equally popular, particularly with finches.

Any apples that haven’t stored well and are starting to rot go out for the birds rather than on to the compost heap. Mushy apples are unpleasant to stand on, so I put them out on a large platter (I use an old one with a crack large enough that it drains). This seems to be more successful than those hanging skewers that the fruit always falls off, though do raise the platter off the ground, to keep it away from rats.

Bare fences are good only for sitting on, but a clothed fence is a useful habitat for birds. These living boundaries, be they hedges, climbers or large shrubs, provide cover from predators, shelter from the weather (particularly if they are evergreen) and a great habitat for spiders and other insects, which in turn provides more food for the birds.

Ivy is a dense habitat for all sorts of wildlife. Its dry, unappetising-looking berries are actually packed full of calories for birds. Any rose that provided decent hips will be dined upon, as will cotoneaster (particularly C. horizontalis), guelder rose, and the berries of honeysuckle, dogwood, elder and holly.