Children can learn much from the wildlife outside their windows. David Alderton looks at one of the cheapest and most accessible ways to watch it
Early November is a good time of year to set up a bird table in the school grounds. As winter draws in and the regular food supplies of birds become scarcer, a bird table is not just a decorative addition to school grounds but something of a practical necessity. It can also be a valuable learning resource, which crosses many areas of the curriculum.
It often takes a while for birds to accept a new feeding site, so a table should be installed before winter really sets in. By then, birds should be visiting the table regularly, and, with luck, you may see as many as 40 different types of bird in your grounds on a regular basis. This will obviously depend to some extent where your school is. A school bird table in the middle of Liverpool is, obviously, not going to notch up as many visitors as one in the wilds of the country, for example.
However, any well-sited bird table should provide an excellent opportunity to watch birds at relatively close quarters. Some, such as robins, can become incredibly tame, almost feeding from your hand, particularly if you place food on the table at the same time every day. They will soon be waiting for their daily ration, especially when the weather is cold.
Even if your school premises do not possess much greenery and all you have is a patch of concrete without access to a garden, you can still put a bird-table outside. There are even special feeders that can be attached to the windows or window ledges of buildings without balconies.
bird tables come in a wide variety of styles of which rustic structures are particularly popular. If you make your own, try to avoid elaborate designs which may make it difficult for the birds to feed in comfort. Since you should provide fresh food every day, there is no need to worry if it becomes wet. What is much more important is that the feeding area can be cleaned properly.
If the bird table is not free-standing, then place the supporting post into a hollow, metal fencing stake, rather than fixing it straight into the ground. The metal support will anchor it firmly into the soil and will help to prevent the timber from rotting prematurely below ground level.
Choose a sheltered spot, preferably one where as may children as possible can watch visitors to the bird table in comfort from indoors. Avoid anywhere directly beneath trees, or next to fences or similar places, where cats can hide and ambush the birds as they feed.
Many people think that it is enough to put out wild birdseed and peanuts for the birds. And so it is for species such as green finches, which eat mainly seed. Others, such as blackbirds and thrushes, which feed on fruit and invertebrates, need a more specialised diet and will benefit from being offered special soft-bill food and meal worms.
Table scraps can provide valuable variety to the birds' diet, but never overload the bird table. The aim should always be not to provide more food than will be eaten in the course of a day. It is important to wipe clean the feeding surface every day, because otherwise uneaten food here is likely to turn mouldy and may then harm the birds.
Not many people stop and think about this potential threat to wildlife, although there is evidence that certain moulds that can be traced to peanuts produce deadly liver poisons called aflatoxins. So, if you want to be on the safe side, you can now buy peanuts which have been screened and are free from harmful moulds.
Blue tits and other small birds are particularly vulnerable to the effects of cold weather. Peanuts provide a good source of fat to help them maintain their body temperature when their normal foods are in short supply.
Special feeders are available for peanuts and other wild bird foods, so that even if you do not have a bird table, you can still feed birds easily. They can also serve to prevent squirrels from stealing all the nuts.
Although providing a choice of food for birds is important, a supply of fresh drinking water is just as essential, particularly during the winter months. Dehydration can kill birds, so thaw and fill up a drinking pot for them, both in the morning and after-noon when the temperature falls below freezing.
It is also a good idea to place a shallow bowl of food on the ground in cold weather, although beware of dogs, as they may try to steal anything tasty. Many birds instinctively prefer to feed at this level; it also means that if you have a horde of greedy starlings descending on to the bird table itself, other birds can still obtain food at the same time.
David Alderton is a specialist on pet and animal welfare
WHERE TO BUY
For schools which are looking for a one-stop shop for resources linked to birds and bird tables, Ernest Charles is a specialist company which caters for wildlife. It has specialist feeders such as the basic seed feeder (Pounds 2.75), the easy feed hanging feeder (Pounds 2.75) and the cottage feeder (Pounds 14.95), which is a large container to hang on a pole or mount and has seed perches running round the sides. Other more elaborate feeders include the mini nuttery starling and squirrel-proof feeder (Pounds 16.96) and the nuttery metal bird table feeding station for Pounds 145, including stand, water dish and two separate feeders.
The company provides a wide selection of bird food, from seeds and nuts to crushed berries, dried insects and worms. Among the reference materials, there are The RSPB Birdfeeder Handbook by Robert Burton, Dorling Kindersley Pounds 14.99; the Bird Table Book by Tony Soper, David Charles, Pounds 12.99, and the Complete Garden Bird Book by Mark Golley, New Holland, Pounds 9.99. There is also an RSPB video narrated by David Attenborough - The Video Guide to British Garden Birds, Pounds 12.95.
* For details and catalogue, contact Stuart Christophers, Ernest Charles Co, Copplestone, Crediton, Devon EX17 2YZ. Tel: 01363 84842.