Casual Gardener: A helping hand for our garden visitors at this time of year

Winter doesn’t mean your garden gets a break – it’s a busy time for wildlife

RSPB communications officer Rishãne Colas

Winter can be a difficult time of year for our garden visitors. Natural food sources are harder to come by and the shorter days mean less time to hunt for those tasty morsels. It can also be tempting for us to cosy-up and hibernate indoors, but we’d be missing out on the sights and sounds in the garden at this time of year. It’s a great time to spot wildlife and some of nature’s most dazzling displays.

As the weather turns chilly, birds need a fatty diet to help them maintain their energy levels and stay warm - just like us. And isn’t Christmas a time for giving? Filling feeders and ensuring a fresh water supply can truly make a difference for these brave birds in winter.

This year, I’ll be sparing a thought (and some of my leftovers) for them as they are out there in the cold. Our festive leftovers can become snacks for our garden visitors; from roast potatoes to cheeseboards, chopped unsalted bacon rind to dried fruit. Some leftovers however, like fat from the roasting tin, can be harmful, sticking to feathers and preventing them from keeping dry and warm.

Big Garden Birdwatch
Blue tits feeding. PICTURE: JOHN GILES/PA

Getting various mixes of food (seed mixes, suet balls or nuts) can cater to every bird in the neighbourhood. A boost of energy and vital nutrients is on every bird’s Christmas list.

Thrushes love the fruit feast, Finches and Sparrows indulge in sunflower seeds. And Robins? They’re all about crushed peanuts. And who wouldn’t be? Known as the gardener’s friend, you might even spot one hopping nearby, keeping a close eye out for any grubs you uncover when digging in your garden. They always add a touch of Christmas cheer with their distinctive red breasts and cheerful songs.

Perhaps this year, you’ll even be treated to a brand-new bird flocking to your feeders, just in time for the RSPB NI’s Big Garden Birdwatch 2024.

Winter doesn’t mean your garden gets a break – it’s a busy time for wildlife too. You can create a cosy spot for hibernating insects by piling up dead plant material and leaves in a corner of your garden. Blackbirds and Thrushes will love you for it.

Plenty of native shrubs and trees provide tasty berries over winter and you can start planting them right now. Shrubs, like our native prickly Holly, provide shelter from harsh weather and natural nesting spots in the Spring. Trees like Rowan provide juicy berries in the Autumn.

Now’s also a perfect time to take a moment to plan for Springtime by cleaning out your bird boxes, adding dry bedding (hay or wool), and giving them a good clean with boiling water. These are just simple ways to keep your garden wildlife-friendly all year round.

While some think of winter as bleak and grey, there are many winter spectacles to be excited for. There are so many ways to help the nature on our doorsteps, from feeding garden birds through the Winter, to wildlife friendly gardening in the Spring. Charities, like RSPB NI, work locally to protect habitats, species and address the nature and climate emergency. To learn more or support RSPB NI’s work, visit