Guide to feeding garden birds

Ensure you are prepared to entice a variety of species into your garden and watch them swoop over the fence to feast on the spoils.

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Garden birds illustration
© Dan Cole/The Art Agency

 

As the cold season approaches and natural food supplies begin to dwindle, resident British birds and winter visitors start to rely even more on the food you put out in your garden.

By understanding the best way to feed the birds in your garden you can put out foods that will attract an increasing number of species, while making sure you are providing them with a healthy and safe food source to get through the winter.

Ensure you are prepared to entice a variety of species into your garden and watch them swoop over the fence to feast on the spoils. To help you do that, we’ve put together this essential guide. 

 

EIGHT WAYS YOU CAN HELP YOUR GARDEN BIRDS

1 Plant fruit or berry-bearing trees such as rowan, holly, hawthorn and honeysuckle and shrubs such as cotoneaster, berberis and pyracantha to encourage birds to visit your garden for shelter, and to feed on natural food sources. 

 

2 Install a birdbath to urge your birds to see your garden as a one-stop shop for their daily routine. Water is particularly vital for seed-eating birds that have dry meals and need to be able to wash them down. Keep an eye on your birdbath to ensure it doesn’t freeze over in winter, and when defrosting it do not use salt – this can kill the birds. 

 

3 Provide different types of feeders and spread them around your garden to increase your chances of attracting a variety of species. By dispersing food in different locations, you will help prevent the birds squabbling over a meal and ensure that smaller species receive their fair share of food and are not bullied off a feeder. 

 

4 Prevent outbreaks of disease by regularly cleaning your feeders with a 5 per cent disinfectant solution every few weeks – more frequently if sick birds visit – and rearrange them regularly to discourage bacteria and parasites from bedding in. Try to move the table now and again to stop the accumulation of droppings. 

 

5 Feed your birds twice daily in severe weather, and – if you can – always adjust the quantity given to the demand, so you don’t attract unwanted rodents. Stick to your feeding routine once you’ve started as the birds will become accustomed to it and rely on you. By feeding birds year-round you’ll give them a better chance of survival. 

 

6 Position your birdfeeder so it is about 2m away from cover to create a safer feeding station. Nearby vegetation can provide a lookout point for the birds and a place to dash to if disturbed. Keep your feeder away from fences, overhanging branches and low-lying bushes that a cat can hide in. 

 

7 Mount a feeding tray no more than 10cm off the ground (to preserve the grass) or scatter food on the lawn to attract ground-feeders such as thrushes, blackbirds, chaffinches and sparrows. If possible use a cage to protect the birds from predators. 

 

8 Ensure the post supporting your feeder is smooth and straight as this will make it much more difficult for cats and squirrels to climb. Adding a sloped baffle to your feeder will keep squirrels off-balance. 

 

FIVE MISTAKES TO AVOID WHEN FEEDING GARDEN BIRDS

1 Don’t just put out peanuts, don’t buy multi-purpose pet food and don’t feed the birds bread in large quantities as it isn’t nutritious and is an empty filler. If you do, try to only put out breadcrumbs that are soaked and not stale.

2 Don’t position your feeder in an open space in the middle of the lawn – the birds can become a very easy target for sparrowhawks.

3 Don’t ever put out desiccated coconut as it swells up inside a bird’s stomach. Also avoid providing sugary treats and cooked oats, which can dry and solidify around beaks.

4 Don’t spend lots of money on ‘designer’ birdfeeders. The best feeders are made of untreated wood or plastic – making them a lot easier to clean.

5 Don’t buy a bird table with a nestbox: birds will not be inclined to nest in another’s feeding territory. Also, we don’t recommend tables with a birdbath in the tabletop – the food might get wet.

 

BEST BIRD FOODS FOR DIFFERENT SPECIES

PEANUTS - Favoured by chaffinches, great spotted woodpeckers and nuthatches.

Don’t put these out in spring as they may choke young birds. Use high-quality nuts and check the mesh size of your feeder is about 6mm – large enough to prevent beak damage, but small enough to prevent the removal of large pieces of nut. 

 

NYGER SEEDS - Favoured by goldfinches, robins and siskins.

Need a special type of seed feeder because the food is small. 

 

SUNFLOWER HEARTS - Favoured by goldfinches, chaffinches, greenfinches, house sparrows, robins and siskins.

Rich in protein and unsaturated fats that don’t require the effort of removing the husks. 

 

MEALWORMS - Favoured by blue tits, song thrushes, blackbirds and robins.

These live larvae are an excellent source of protein and ideal during spring to aid busy parents as they forage for a nest of hungry chicks. 

 

SUET - Favoured by blue tits, long-tailed tits and great spotted woodpeckers.

Calorific food best offered in colder months. 

 

MIXED SEED - Favoured by song thrushes, dunnocks and collared doves.

Suited to hopper feeders, trays or flat surfaces. 

 

 

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