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Our garden birds and how they get through the winter unharmed

  • Austria
  • 12.2.2020

When winter sets in, it is high time to “assist” our feathered garden residents who stay with us during the cold season. But what’s the best way to do that? Does it make sense to feed birds and if so, what do you need to consider? And are there other ways to help the birds in winter? We have answers to all these questions.

the house sparrow - also called just sparrow - is one of the most well-known and widespread songbirds.When the classic "chillp chillp" sounds, usually intoned by a whole troop, because the birds are extremely sociable, everybody knows who is singing. House sparrows, commonly known just as sparrows, are omnipresent, unmistakable and indispensable winter guests in our local gardens. But they are not the only ones who stay with us during the cold season. Greenfinches, which at first glance look quite similar to sparrows, but have yellow-olive feathers, also defy Father Frost. The delicate sparrows save energy by lowering their body temperature and only start the day at sunrise, which puts them among the late risers in the bird world. The tomtits also have to be mentioned. Great tomtits with their sulphur yellow breast and black bonnet are the most common representatives in the winter garden, closely followed by the smallest domestic tomtits, the blue tomtits, which impressively prettify the winter with their blue-yellow feathering. Nuthatches exercise headfirst along tree trunks, singing blackbirds warble their songs, croaking jays join in cacophonously, striking male chaffinches stay at home in contrast to many female chaffinches, who are drawn to the south, and with a little bit of luck even a goldfinch, one of the most colourful representatives of the native bird world, with its red face, black and white head and partly yellow wings, adorns the winter garden. In total, Austria has more than 150 species of birds, which remain in our country all year round, even in winter, as so-called resident birds. As wild animals, they can of course care of themselves. Nevertheless, the frosty season is a challenge for all wild animals, winged and wingless. However, growing asphalt surfaces, overly "tidy" gardens and intensive agriculture with its winterly bare fields hardly offer an abundant source of food. This can be countered. But if you want to reach help of birds in winter, you should know how. The basic rule for feeding must therefore be: If you feed them, feed them properly!

The right time to start feeding
As long as no vegetation sprouts, the landscape is covered with snow and the birds have not yet started to breed, it means thumbs up for bird feeding. At low temperatures, blue tomtit, nuthatch and co. need much more energy to maintain their body temperature. Once you start feeding, it is best to feed continuously throughout the winter. That way, the birds always have a reliable source of food to fall back on and do not have to search for available food in the event of severe frost. In spring, it is important to let the feeding fade out slowly, because especially in the case of late onsets of winter until April, feeding places gain another important function, especially for returning migratory birds. Spread over the rest of the year, however, it does not make sense to feed free-living birds, because the natural food supply is sufficient.

Bird Feeding 101
The "when" of the bird-feeding 101 has now been clarified, leaving still the "where", "how" and "what", to be also clarified. Because even in doing so - unknowingly - some things can be done wrong. It is best to set up bird feeding places near bushes and hedges, free-standing and preferably out of reach of domestic cats. That way, birds can approach the feeding place from a safe cover. Some bird species, such as blackbirds, chaffinches and robins, prefer to feed on the ground, so ground feeders are also suitable for them, but only if cats do not patrol the garden regularly.

feeding must be regular, hygienic and of high quality to be really useful.Feeding silos - the new birdhouses
Hygiene at the feeding place is the be-all and end-all of bird feeding. Many winter birds have a high energy metabolism, i.e. they feed and at the same time repeatedly defecate. If this gets into the food, it contaminates the feeding place and enables the transmission of diseases. Rain and snow are equally problematic. Wet bird food becomes mouldy and also supports the spreading of germs. Instead of feeding the animals, it can make them sick. In the classic open birdhouses, as we all know them, the food is exposed to the weather; the birds sit in their buffet and use it simultaneously and fatally as a lavatory. In order to keep the food dry and free of excrement, it is necessary to rethink. Instead of traditional bird houses, feeding silos, columns and automatic feeders should be introduced into winter gardens. They may not sound particularly tempting, but they fulfil all the basic requirements of the bird feeding 101. With the silos, columns and automatic feeders, only the birds' beaks come into contact with the food. If you do not yet want to litter of your old bird house, you can of course continue to use it, but for the birds' sake you should make the effort to clean the house daily with hot water and dispose of the old food that has not been eaten yet.

in winter, the robin often feeds on bird houses.The right food
The question remains as to the right choice of food. Basically, the more different the food on offer is, the more birds are attracted by the choice. If you offer a variety of seeds, fat food, berries and nuts, you can accommodate and observe on average up to 20 different bird species in your own garden. In principle, soft food eaters, granivores and omnivores can be distinguished from each other like the cawing jays. On one hand, blackbirds, thrushes and robins, with their preference for apples, raisins or fat-soaked cereal flakes, are among the soft food lovers. On the other hand beech and greenfinch, goldfinch, bullfinch or hawfinch, keep it firm to the bite. As grain eaters, they prefer sunflower seeds, peanut kernels and oily seeds such as poppy or hemp. House sparrows, tree sparrows or yellowhammers also like it pithy, but prefer small seeds and peeled sunflower seeds. And among tomtits, nuthatches and woodpeckers, solid fat food, such as the classic tomtit dumplings, is very popular in addition to sunflower seeds and nuts. Kitchen waste, however, is not for birds! And, also for our feathered friends: quality is important. So it is better to buy food from a specialist shop than from a cheap discount store.

A colourful garden
In a particularly severe winter, however, even supplementary feeding cannot work wonders. Single individuals can be saved, but it is not enough for entire populations. It is therefore even more important, to create a rich habitat for the animals from the outset than providing food. A near-natural garden with many wild shrubs makes more sense in the long term than a temporary feeding place. What should such a garden be like? Hedges with berries that can be harvested by the birds over the winter should form the basis. These include rosehip and hawthorn bushes, elderberry, rowan, cranberry, snowball, parson's cap, privet, barberry or dogwood, a colourful potpourri of berries, which many birds like to snack on. If you also leave sunflowers and thistles, plant hazelnut bushes and let a copper beech thrive, you will provide the seed and nut lovers among the birds with all kinds of delicacies. In this way the garden remains a busy place full of life even in winter!

tomtit dumplingsMake your own tomtit dumplings
Tomtit dumplings provide energy-rich fat food and can also easily be produced by yourself. Carefully heat animal fat (beef tallow from butchers) or vegetable fat (coconut fat) until the grain mixture can be incorporated. Whichever fat you choose, it is important that it hardens well. If the fat is too soft, it could contaminate the bird feathers. Sunflower seeds and hemp seeds, which are particularly rich in oil, are suitable as a food mix. Oat flakes, chopped nuts (unsalted peanuts, walnuts, hazelnuts) and smaller seeds such as millet, poppy seed or flax supplement the mixture. A dash of cooking oil ensures that the fat does not become too hard and crumbles.

text: Christine Sonvilla, photos: Christine Sonvilla, Marc Graf

Ivy as autumn and winter food

  • Austria
  • 6.12.2019

Last rescue for insects: Ivy as autumn and winter food.

1Who does not knows, the climbing ivy. It grows on living or dead trees, on rocks, walls, ruins or on facades – the native climbing plant simply grows everywhere. And that's fine, because at the end of the year, ivy flowers and berries are among the last food sources for insects and birds, and ivy blooms all the way to frost. Wherever it thrives, it forms an important habitat for small animals. The evergreen foliage particularly provides birds with a protected breeding ground that is safe from enemies.

Only old ivy plants bloom

2However, the plant needs several years in order to form flowers at all. Only once the main branches become woody, ivy develops flowers. If you always radically cut the plant down, you are depriving it of the opportunity to form flowers, and thus also many insects from finding the last food in the year.

The flowers not only provide nectar in autumn, but also plenty of fruit in winter. In fact black berries will develop from the yellow flowers and these belong to the favourite food of many native garden birds. Because their diet is quite meagre in winter these fruit enrich their food supply.

Hands away from scissors

If you want to cut your ivy, then you should do it from beginning to mid-February. Later you may disturb breeding birds. If the plant becomes too big, you can prune it at the end of June (after the breeding season). Old specimens quickly catch up with the cut and still form flowers in autumn.

What else can be said about ivy?

We know ivy as an undemanding climbing plant, which grows even in deep shade. However, it can do even more: always green it inhabits plant boxes and tubs, fills gaps and enlivens with coloured leaf drawings. Its tendrils climb trees and house walls, creating a touch of romance. However, in addition to the small, narrow-leafed varieties with a slow growth, there are also species that proliferate and become annoying.

The many meters long tendrils of the climbing plant either root on the ground or hold on to the vertical with small adhesive feet. Anyone who has ever had to remove ivy shots from the house facade knows about the strength and unattractive traces left behind by these adhesive organs.

Planning is an advantage.

3If you plant ivy, you should think twice about it. Fast-growing species such as the common, simple ivy (Hedera halix) only need a few years after a short growth period to cover large areas-horizontally (on the ground) but also vertically (e.g. a complete house façade). After all, these areas are then permanently greened, because ivy does not lose its leaves even in winter.

Slow-growing ivy species (Hedera helix spp. helix) are better suitable for smaller areas or for planting tubs or boxes. Here you can choose between normal green varieties and colourful foliage varieties with green-white or green-yellow or even reddish leaves. Moreover, the leaf forms are different and can be round, narrow, pointed or wavy.

A survivor

The plant grows both in deep shade and in full sun. However, the more light and warmth ivy gets, the more water it needs. It does not mind short periods of dryness or stagnant water. Just an easy to care for plant, which – when used with the necessary caution – can well serve animals and offers food and nesting places.

Ecological significance

4At the beginning of the 20th century the ivy leaves, which are non-toxic for goats and sheep, were still used as a fodder plant in winter. And because ivy blooms late, it offers many insects, especially bees, the chance to absorb nectar on late sunny autumn days. Birds, such as the wren or the summer golden cockerel find a place to sleep and nest in the dense ivy, and towards the end of winter the ripe fruits are a popular source of food for blackbirds, thrushes, starlings and woodpeckers. By the way, it was found out that up to 30% of the heating costs can be saved by covering a facade in ivy and in summer the apartments in such a house are cooler. But be aware, its adhesive roots can cause damage under shingles or roller shutter boxes.

The ivy is, contrary to many opinions, not a parasite and, therefore, does not harm trees, on the contrary - the trunks are protected by it from strong solar radiation.

22nd Allotment Garden Award of the City of Vienna: Children's Awards 2019

  • Austria
  • 15.11.2019

On Saturday, 12 October 2019, the 22nd Allotment Garden Award of the City of Vienna took place in the Great Hall of the Vienna City Hall. This year's motto "My favourite work in the allotment garden" was again very creatively implemented. The popular children's award honoured the paintings and handicrafts of young allotment gardeners and this year there were numerous great entries again, which were awarded.



Emily and Leonie won the children's community award (up to the age of 14) with a delightful large, self-painted flip-book that shows how seeds and plants grow.





The individual prizes for children up to the age of 14 were awarded to Lorenz, Florian and Anna.



Lorenz has designed a picture work on green construction paper, which shows how the pond becomes an oasis after the winter.





Florian has designed a great apricot tree out of paper with lots of round fruit, because his favourite work in the allotment garden is harvesting the fruit.





Anna's favourite job in the allotment garden is to take care of the vegetable patch. So, she made a large, colourful bed full of carrots, radishes and other vegetables - protected by snails.




Luca, Phillip and Kathleen won the children's award up to the age of 6 with their drawings of what they prefer to do in the allotment garden.



Luca's drawing shows what he prefers to do in the allotment garden in summer. He likes to play in the sandbox and refresh himself with water games if it's hot outside.





Phillip loves scrounging raspberries, strawberries and carrots, which is why he has made this his favourite theme, as the drawing shows.





Kathleen has drawn that she prefers to be with her grandma in her allotment garden and to observe all the animals that can be found here: Butterflies, ladybirds, cats... - enjoying at the same time the beautiful flowers.



For their creative submissions, the children received a certificate, zoo cards, a drawing pad and watercolour pencils.

We congratulate all little winners and look forward to the creations of our youngest next year!

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