With the Met Office forecasting low temperatures across the UK, the RSPB is appealing to people to help garden birds survive the winter.

After benefitting from a mild autumn, birds start to struggle as soon as the cold snap kicks in. The countryside becomes bare as natural food sources dwindle, but more energy is needed just to keep warm and the short days leave less time to find food. The nature charity says there are three key things that birds will need this winter: food, water and shelter.

RSPB wildlife advisor, Charlotte Ambrose said: “Up until now birds have been able to feed on insects and seeds, but the cold weather means they move into our gardens to find refuge. You can make a real difference and improve their chances of survival, as well as being rewarded by great views of wildlife in your garden or outside space.”

The RSPB's top tips to keeping birds happy and healthy this winter are:

• Variety is the spice: The best thing you can do is to provide a variety of food. To keep energy up during the colder months, give calorie-rich foods like mixed seed, nyjer seed, sunflower seed and good-quality peanuts.

• Make your own: Fat balls or homemade bird cakes only take a few minutes to make and are a great children’s activity. These can be made cheaply with lard or suet and are an excellent full-fat winter food.

• Spare some scraps: It's not necessary to buy food in, kitchen scraps like mild grated cheese, old fruit, cooked rice, unsalted bits of fat, roast potatoes and raw porridge oats are all gratefully received.

• No thank you! There are some foods to avoid as they can be dangerous for birds. Cooking fat from the roast or Christmas turkey mixes with meat juices during cooking to make a runny, greasy mixture. This sticks to feathers and stop them from being waterproof. Other foods to avoid are dried coconut, cooked porridge oats, milk and mouldy or salted food.

• Keep it fresh: Another essential is fresh water for drinking and bathing. Finding sources of water can be hard with freezing temperatures, but a simple trick will help keep a patch of water ice-free. Float a small ball, such as a ping-pong ball, on the surface of the water and even a light breeze will stop it from freezing over.

• Hide in a hedge: Providing shelter from the harsh weather is extremely important. Plant dense hedges such as privet or hawthorn or let ivy or holly to grow and they'll be providing a place to roost in and shelter from the elements.

• Warmth is key: Nestboxes are not just used over the summer egg-laying season – many birds use them on a cold winter’s night. These boxes are frequently communal with many residents packing in together for extra warmth. The record number of birds found in one box is 63 wrens!

Ensuring your garden is filled with food now will improve your chances of having a successful Big Garden Birdwatch. The RSPB’s annual event is on Saturday 27, Sunday 28 and Monday 29 January 2018. To take part, all you need to do is spend one hour at any time over that weekend noting the number of avian visitors to your garden or nearby park. You can sign up for this year’s Big Garden Birdwatch from December 13 rspb.org.uk/birdwatch