We may have been enjoying something of an autumnal warm spell lately, but it seems that the weather has now turned and there's a definite chill in the air.
While this is a nice time for us to get cosy with our little ones in the home, spare a thought for our British wildlife, which must struggle on outdoors through the worst winter has to throw at them. Birds in particular often find it difficult to cope when their usual food sources get scarcer, especially if the ground is buried beneath snow and ice.
To help our wonderful garden birds out and also keep your children occupied over the forthcoming half-term week or during darker evenings in general, why not try making your own bird feeders?
The fat balls you can find in pet food shops are surprisingly easy to make yourself at home, plus you can tailor them to suit different species. Birds love them and they provide plenty of energy to ensure our feathered friends can stay warm.
In addition, they can help to foster a lifelong love of nature and conservation among your children, who will be delighted to see and count the visitors that arrive to eat your handmade creations.
All kinds of scraps can be incorporated into fat balls, including mild grated cheese and porridge oats. To adhere the dry ingredients together, melted lard or suet is best. Avoid using the fat from cooked meat, as it can coat birds' feathers and also become a breeding ground for bacteria.
You should also steer clear of anything too salty, especially salted peanuts or bacon.
If you like, purchase special bird seed first and add it to your mixture, as this will make it easier to attract particular species. For example, millet seeds will bring in finches, sparrows and dunnocks, while blackbirds like maize and tits favour sunflower seeds.
Try to avoid mixtures that feature solely larger ingredients such as dried rice or lentils, as you'll tend to only attract things like pigeons and magpies.
You'll need some sturdy twine or string, some old yoghurt pots and your seed and fat mixture. Mix all of the dry ingredients together in a bowl, then melt your suet or lard in a pan. It's probably best to get children to help out during the dry stage and ensure you do the hot fat part yourself.
Aiming for one part fat to two parts dry mix, combine the two and stir until the mixture sticks together. Meanwhile, make a hole in the bottom of each yoghurt pot and thread your twine through.
Again, the kids can help out with this next bit, which is spooning the mixture into the pots, ensuring the string goes through the middle and comes out of the top. Pack it all down and put it in the fridge to set overnight.
Once the mixture is hard, carefully remove the pots (you may need to step in and cut them away if they're tight). Tie a big knot in the twine to stop the fat balls from slipping down once they're hung up.
Finally, hang the fat ball in a high tree or bush out of the way of predators like cats and wait for the birds to come.
If you don't want to use yoghurt pots, you can also put empty coconut shell halves to good use. These are reusable and look pretty when hung up.
Don't make your fat balls too big or put too many out as they may go stale or attract pests like mice or even rats. The birds may be hungry, but they can only eat so much at once!
Try to avoid putting your food out in high-traffic areas, as the birds may be reluctant to come too close. The climbing frame and swing may be high, but children will no doubt still be using them in autumn and winter and our feathered friends won't like the associated noise.
Get youngsters interested
Once the birds start feeding, it's easy to spark children's interest in nature and conservation. You can produce a picture chart and get little ones to tick it whenever they see particular species, or start a scrapbook if you've got a camera and printer handy.
You could even get the family involved in birdwatching for official research, such as that carried out regularly by the British Trust for Ornithology to gauge population levels.
DIY bird feeding will make you feel you're doing something worthwhile, occupy your little ones and help British wildlife - what's not to love?