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An activity that's continually growing in popularity in the UK; around 50% of all households now feed the birds, according to a survey by the British Trust for Ornithology.

As a nation, we spend at least £200 million a year on bird food - enough to sustain up to 196 million birds, which is more than the combined population of many of Britain's common wild species.

The study concludes feeding garden birds has supported the population growth of some species, while increasing the diversity of the varieties coming into our garden. In total, the British public supports some 133 species by providing food, bird tables and water all year round.

It is very important to help out wildlife, particularly birds – overall numbers are in serious decline. The question is, how do we do this safely, without putting the birds at risk?


Why do you need to consider the birds' safety?

For many of us, putting out bird food in our garden is an act of kindness that doesn't merit a second thought. However, there are natural predators as well as man-made hazards in the wild - and the last thing anyone wants to do is put the birds at risk.

The two natural predators are cats and sparrowhawks, while the birds might also be injured by a hazard such as flying into the window of your home, which can be fatal.

Cats are the major cause of unnatural bird deaths in the UK. There are about nine million cats in Britain and they kill an average of 30 birds each per year, according to the RSPB. This adds up to a terrible total of 55 million birds dying annually through being caught by cats.

Normally in nature, a balance exists between the predator and the prey. However, because domestic cats have no natural predators themselves, their population will remain constant or rise. The secret is finding ways of preventing cats from killing the birds as they feed.

Sparrowhawks weren't a major concern for smaller birds in the 1950s and 1960s, because their population had declined. In the 1970s, it began to increase again after the poison DDT was banned and sparrowhawks were protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act.

Between 1970 and 2005, the UK sparrowhawk population increased by 108% to 35,000 breeding pairs. Although people love to see sparrowhawks soaring in the sky, the sight of one snatching a bird from your garden isn't a pleasant one.

As well as predators, it is estimated around 10% of the total bird population dies by flying into windows.


How can you make your garden safer?

Cat owners can help prevent their cats from killing birds by putting the food in strategically placed bird feeders. It isn't wise to put bird food on the ground near bushes, as a cat could lurk there unnoticed and dart out.

Hang bird feeders from tree branches, on the fence, or on other garden structures, within 20 metres of trees or hedges, where the birds can fly to safety quickly should a predator appear. This might protect them not only from cats but from sparrowhawks too.

If you have ground-level feeders, erect a low fence around them - preferably a trellised type so the birds can see all around them as they feed. This way, the birds can easily escape and the cats won't be able to sneak up on them.

Put a bell on your cat's collar to alert birds to its presence. Keep your cat indoors at dusk and dawn if possible, as these are the times when birds are most vulnerable due to poor light. Always leave food indoors for your cats and keep them well-fed. Then they will have less inclination to chase birds.

If you see your cat stalking birds in their feeding area, fire a water pistol at him. This is harmless to your cats and they will learn to avoid the area if they associate it with getting wet.


Can you stop birds from flying into windows?

Glass windows can look very inviting for birds, as they reflect the sky and foliage, making it appear there are places beyond where birds can fly and land. You can take a few simple steps to reduce the dangers.

Never place bird feeders in close proximity to your windows. Even if it gives you a better view of the birds feeding, there is also a greater chance they will smash into the glass. Put decorative decals or stickers on the pane so birds can clearly see it isn't something they can fly through.

Installing blinds, net curtains or sunscreens inside your windows can also stop the illusion that the glass isn't there. You can buy one-way transparent film to put on the windows, so you can see out, but no one can see in. While this will stop birds from flying in, it's also handy if you have privacy problems with neighbours or passers-by.


Should you supply water for the birds?

Supplying garden birds with water to bathe in is just as important as providing food, especially in winter. Birds need to keep their feathers in good condition and having a bath in clean water is an essential part of their health and wellbeing.

Wetting the feathers loosens dirt, making their feathers easier to preen. As with food, place the birdbath away from thick bushes or undergrowth where your cat could lurk. Get a stone birdbath on a high, slim pedestal that the cats can't climb up and put it in an open space, where the birds have a good view of predators approaching.

It's also a good idea to put the birdbath within reach of a hosepipe and water supply, first so you don't have to keep filling it with a watering can and secondly so you can give it a good clean from time to time.

With a little care and planning, your garden birds will enjoy feeding safely, as they will see your garden as a haven where they can feast and bathe. This, in turn, will provide you with some wonderful and entertaining sights.