Feed your Garden Birds

During bad weather, of all the things we can do to help the wildlife in our gardens, feeding the birds is probably the most important and rewarding, especially through the winter months.  With over 1 million acres of garden in this country there is plenty of opportunity for us as gardeners to make a huge difference to the survival of native birds by providing them with food. 

Birds can be fed in a variety of different ways using the enormous range of products now on the market.  Times have changed dramatically since the days when peanuts were all that were available, and it is now possible to target specific bird species by offering their preferred food.  As well as helping the survival of garden birds, encouraging them to your garden has a therapeutic effect for many people.  Close proximity with wildlife has been shown to reduce stress levels in some people and many people of all ages find watching the birds in their gardens relaxing and rewarding.  Taken to the next level, we can now join schemes whereby garden owners monitor the bird species visiting their gardens, and scientific organisations such as the British Trust for Ornithology collect and collate these observations and use them in research to look at trends in bird population numbers.  All in all, garden bird watching can be rewarding for us in many different ways, as well as being very beneficial to our native birds.

So does feeding our garden birds really make a difference to their survival?  The answer to that is a resounding ‘yes’.  The decline of many once common species such as house sparrow and starling has been widely researched, and there is compelling evidence that lack of natural food in our countryside for these birds has played an significant part in their loss.  This is where wildlife gardeners can have a very positive input.  Supplementing natural food in our gardens with seeds, nuts, dried insects and fruits will provide nutrition for a wide variety of species, especially over the winter months when these foods are in short supply in the wild.  At other times, for instance through the breeding period, supplementary feeding in gardens helps adult birds to keep themselves well-fed and healthy, allowing them to spend more time searching for the high protein insects that their nestlings require.  This can increase fledgling survival.  Later when the young birds emerge from the nest and are able to feed themselves, they are often brought to feeders by their parents who recognise that peanuts and sunflower seeds are high energy foods, just right for helping their youngsters to put on weight quickly.  So feeding the right foods all through the year can have a dramatic effect on the survival of birds in your area.

What to feed  Many mail order companies provide a range of seed mixes as well as the traditional peanuts that many of us fed to our garden birds in the past.  Peanuts are still a valuable high energy food source for a range of birds, especially the tits, woodpeckers, nuthatches and some finches, but many other products have come into the bird-feeding market place.  The most useful is the black sunflower seed, with or without its seed coat or husk.  This is a food source valued by a huge range of bird species including all the tits, greenfinch, chaffinch, goldfinch and siskin, house sparrow and robin. 

Seed mixes  Peanuts and sunflower seeds (known as sunflower hearts without the husk) make up the bulk of many seed mixes now available.  These are often known as ‘high energy’ mixtures and have a high calorific value making them very suitable as winter food for lots of different birds.  If seeds of other types are added, for instance millet or corn, collared doves, house sparrows and dunnocks will also be attracted.  If raisins or sultanas are a component of a mix then blackbirds and thrushes will find the food especially palatable.  Large quantities of grain or corn will attract collared doves, wood pigeons and even pheasants although some people prefer to avoid these mixes to deter greedy wood pigeons.

Peanuts  Peanuts can be bought as whole nuts or as peanut granules.  The latter are usually found in seed mixtures and are the most nutritious part of the peanut.   Peanuts should always be fed in a wire mesh feeder, to ensure that whole nuts cannot be taken.  Although there is very little risk of birds choking on a large peanut, this is still a worthwhile precaution. 

Live food  Many birds, especially robins, are partial to live foods such as meal worms or wax worms which are available from bird food companies.  In fact some birds appreciate these insect larvae so much that it is even possible, with patience, to encourage robins to take them from the hand.  They should be fed in small containers to prevent them from crawling away!  Earthworms can also be bought for this purpose - blackbirds and thrushes are particularly fond of these.

Nyjer Seed In recent years it has been possible to purchase nyjer seed which is a huge favourite with goldfinches.  Often these most colourful of our finches will come to the garden if teasel, lavender or thistle seeds are available, but they are more difficult to coax to the bird feeding area.  Nyjer is a tiny black seed which goldfinches find irresistible.  It may take a few weeks for the first birds to find it, but once they have the 'word' will spread and others soon arrive.  It is not unusual to have charms of twenty or thirty goldfinches around a special nyjer feeder.  Greenfinches, siskins and redpolls are also fond of this seed. Goldfinches are also adapting to sunflower hearts which in some gardens they may prefer.

Fats  High energy fat foods are available in the form of vegetable or animal fat with seeds incorporated.  Some also include dried berries and insects.  These are generally fed to your garden birds in a special hanging wire container in the form of a block, as if they are placed on a bird table they may disintegrate easily or be quickly devoured by starlings.

Scraps and fruit  Many of us still give leftover scraps, fruit, bread or cake crumbs to our garden birds.  These can be very nutritious and a valuable food source for many species, particularly house sparrows, starlings, chaffinches and blackbirds.  Apples are a firm favourite with blackbirds, thrushes, redwings and fieldfares.  Wrens and robins love crumbs of cheese.  Many food scraps may be fed to garden birds, but never include meat products as these may attract less welcome creatures such as rats. 

How to feed the birds  There is now a huge variety of foodstuffs available for garden birds, but we need to know the safest way of feeding them.  The traditional bird table is still a favourite with many people but is becoming less popular.  Smaller birds such as blue tits or coal tits may find it difficult to compete with larger more aggressive species on tables, especially starlings.  If this is the case in your garden, hanging feeders are an excellent alternative.  These can also be easily moved from one location to another in the garden helping to prevent the build up of harmful diseases.  Some seeds, especially nyjer where the individual seeds are very small, should be fed from a specially designed feeder.  Peanuts should always be in a hanging mesh container to prevent whole nuts from being taken. All feeders should be frequently cleaned with an antibacterial solution specifically for bird feeders. This has been shown to prevent the spread of several common bird diseases.

Some common garden visitors such as chaffinches, house sparrows, dunnocks and collared doves, are happiest feeding on the ground and a low table with a fine mesh top to allow drainage can be a useful addition. Sadly this can also put your birds at risk from predation by cats so make sure a table such as this is close to a window where you can watch if cats are about.  You can also buy mesh covers for ground feeding tables which prevent larger birds such as pigeons eating up all the food. If cats are not a problem in your area, seeds simply scattered onto a lawn will encourage a range of birds to the garden.

What can you expect?  If you go to the trouble of feeding the birds in your garden, what species can you expect to see?  To a large extent that depends on where in the country you live.  People who live in the Chilterns can now expect to see red kites in their gardens if appropriate food is put out for them.  Siskins are more common in the north and west, and in some gardens in the London area, parakeets are now common visitors.  Most of us can expect to see a minimum of ten different bird species around our feeders at different times of year, and some of us will see a great many more.  If natural food in the form of berries and seeds is also available, twenty or thirty different bird species is a possibility.   Blue tits, blackbirds, starlings and house sparrows may be your commonest garden visitors, but even these species will give you hours of hours of enjoyment and you will greatly assisting their survival by providing food for them.

Visit www.justaddbirds.co.uk for more information and Jenny's recommendations


© Text and photographs Jenny Steel 2017