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Wild bird SOS: your blackbird needs a hearty breakfast
Friday, 10 January, 2003

Our country columnist John Sheard urges readers to serve up an early meal for their garden birds - or lose them to the cold snap.

DURING this week's cold snap, I have been down to my allotment every day with the normal household waste for my compost bins and an added extra: a lunch box for my friends, the wild birds.

    Blue Tit
   
Blue Tit
Today, to my surprise, I was told that I was doing the wrong thing: not by feeding the robins, blackbirds, tits and sundry other regulars - but by not feeding them at the optimum time of day.

For according to the highly respected British Trust for Ornithology, the best meal to feed your birds in harsh weather is a hearty breakfast. Otherwise, they could die.

Now I have been looking after wild birds since I was a child (when dinosaurs still roamed the earth, according to my grandchildren) and until the BTO provided this gem of information in this morning's post, I was totally unaware of the crucial importance of an early morning feed for our feathered friends.

According to the trust's research, blackbirds and blue tits lose 10% cent or more of their body weight during a single frosty night, burning up calories like a central heating system to keep them alive.

By dawn - which, of course, is late in the day at this time of the year - they desperately need to replace those calories and their normal food supplies are in short supply. After a cold spell like the one this week, they can easily die.

So the BTO is asking anyone who cares about wild birds: "Is your garden ready with an energy rich breakfast?" This does not mean, of course, they you shouldn't stock your bird feeds at any other time of the day - that can still be a life-saver - but the earlier the better.

There is other bad news of the weather front, too. The present cold weather comes after a long, mild damp spell which carries more dangers for wild birds: damp conditions aid the spread of avian diseases.

Reports have also been received in parts of Yorkshire of robins and blackbirds nesting in December. Some of the blackbirds even produced chicks, which have virtually no chance of survival - but trying to rear them could also be fatal for their parents.

This constant chopping and changing in the weather patterns is causing a great deal of concern amongst BTO scientists, who are trying to gauge the long-term consequences for our bird populations.

In this, they are in urgent need of more volunteers for their Garden BirdWatch scheme, the biggest Internet survey of British garden birds ever carried out. Volunteers are simply asked to monitor the birds in their gardens and report their findings to the trust, preferably on the net. Advice is given on spotting the different species.

Anyone wishing to join this scheme - and schools are particularly welcome - should contact mike.toms@bto.org. More details are available on the BTO website, www.bto.org/gbwhome.htm

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