Natural Seeds for Birds

We hear a lot about the changes that have taken place in farming over the last fifty years, and the problems that these changes have caused for, amongst other things, the bird life in our countryside.  No one can fail to notice the reduction in numbers of birds of all types, including those species that divide their time between our gardens and our fields.  Starlings, song thrushes and house sparrows are just three well researched examples of birds that have suffered, partly as a result of loss of natural food in agricultural land.  That food consists largely of insects and seeds, and tidier farmland and verges have resulted in reductions in both these food sources.  But people who positively encourage wildlife into their gardens, and put some thought into how they manage them and what they actually grow, can help to redress the shortage and provide vital natural food for birds.

Finding food is a major activity in a birdís daily life.  Small birds in particular require up to 30 percent of their body weight in food every day, and that search may bring many different species to our gardens.  Supplementary feeding all year round is recommended by the RSPB and the British Trust for Ornithology, and itís been estimated that as many as a third of British households feed the birds to some extent.  The food that we supply can be life-saving, especially during the winter and at nesting time, but having natural food around the garden is also important for many reasons.  Some species of birds are too shy to approach feeders, although increasingly new species are learning to take advantage of our generosity.  Seed supplies in feeders may run out and the birds that have come to rely on that supply will need to seek food elsewhere.  If there is a good supply of food around the garden in the form of natural seeds and berries, your local bird population will always have something to fall back on and watching birds feeding naturally around your garden is one of the great pleasures of wildlife gardening!

A mixed diet of invertebrates and seeds is the norm for most species, with nestlings requiring large numbers of insects during fledging.  But in addition to invertebrates the majority of native birds eat seeds or berries at some time during their life cycle. This means that a little information on plants that have nutritious seeds is a good starting place for a bird friendly garden.  Providing plenty of natural seeds and berries simply requires thoughtful planting and maintenance.

Most of us at some idle moment have watched a greenfinch on a seed feeder in the garden.  He will sit, hogging his space and squabbling with other contenders, lazily taking seeds one at a time, and discarding the majority in favour of the one seed that takes his fancy.  Those dropped to the ground will not be wasted.  Ground feeding species such as dunnocks and chaffinches will find them, or perhaps a field mouse or bank vole, late at night, will visit the area to clean up after a fussy finch.  But watching the activity around our feeders does tell us a great deal about birds and their seed eating habits.  They have very particular preferences and we need to cater for those if we are to provide natural seed and berry food for them in our gardens. 

Wildlife friendly gardeners are advised to leave all herbaceous vegetation uncut over the winter months to provide seed for birds, and in the autumn we all start to think about tidying up our borders for the winter.  Unfortunately this notion is rather optimistic Ė our fussy greenfinch would turn his beak up at the majority of plants left to go to seed.  Leaving herbaceous vegetation uncut is extremely important as it can provide winter shelter for insects, amphibians and small mammals and of course some seeds will be eaten, but in general if we see a blue tit or a wren searching through the winter plants, they are usually looking for the tiny insects sheltering there.  In order for seeds to be worth the bother and use of energy required to search them out, they must contain a good few calories in the form of protein or fat.  Some plants have more nutritious seeds than others, and fortunately these useful plants come in all types, suitable for borders or for wilder areas including meadows.

Wildflowers are always a good choice for a wildlife garden and there are many pretty perennial wildflowers that attract seed eating birds that are eminently suitable for a garden situation.  Good choices for borders would be any of the wild geraniums, (meadow cranesbill and mourning widow are especially good), plus greater or lesser knapweed, teasels, purple loosestrife, yarrow and meadowsweet.  Water mint is also an excellent bird seed plant but prefers either damp soil at a pond edge, or clay.  Itís a vigorous plant and it can be grown in a container without a drainage hole to keep it under control.  I would also include some of the more Ďweedyí wildflowers somewhere in my bird friendly garden, perhaps in a wilder undisturbed area, but not everyone wants a garden full of dandelions, chickweed and thistles although I am quite happy to have a few!   

Non- native annual and biennial plants are particularly useful in a bird-attracting garden.  By their very nature, they rely on germination from seed to proliferate and are therefore capable of producing large quantities of sometimes very nutritious seeds.  Good choices amongst the biennials would be honesty, evening primrose, forget-me-not and dameís violet which is also called sweet rocket. These are all plants that enhance a relaxed, cottage-style garden border. Good colourful annuals to encourage birds include cosmos, and cornflowers.

For more permanent borders hardy geraniums are a great choice as their seeds are large enough to tempt several species. Greenfinches and bullfinches in particular enjoy the seeds from these plants.  Others to include would be any varieties of the lavender family especially lavender itself, lemon balm, hyssop and winter savoury which are all great for goldfinches.  Michaelmas daisies, scabious and Coreopsis are also good choices.

If you have a bit of empty space in your garden, you could try sowing an annual bird seed bed.  Itís worth bearing in mind that by their very nature these will be plants that seed profusely!  In the countryside more weedy species such as fat hen and dandelion provide masses of nutritious seeds for certain bird species, but you may want to restrict a bird attracting bed to more colourful plants.  You could try a mix of pretty native and non-native annuals.  Herb Robert, wild cornflower and its many coloured varieties, amaranth, annual grasses such as quaking grass, sunflowers of all shapes and sizes and Cosmos will provide a colourful patch that the birds (and bees) will visit for many months.

Keeping your bird feeders topped up with a good quality, preferably wheat-free seed mix is really important for our native birds, but planting some of the varieties mentioned could mean that your garden becomes a regular natural food source for our native seed-eating species especially greenfinches, goldfinches, chaffinches, dunnocks, house sparrows, and winter visitors such as siskins and redpolls.  Add some good shrubs with berries, or trees with seeds and your garden or allotment could play a vital role in encouraging birds to find the natural food they need to survive the winter.


© Text and photographs Jenny Steel 2017