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Feeding Garden Birds

A beautiful, well maintained garden is a wonderful thing but what makes it special is the birds; you can attract birds to your garden throughout the year with very little effort.

Take at look at the RSPB’s Top Tips for attracting birds to your garden:

  • Introduce a bird table
  • Put out high protein seed mixes & kitchen scraps such as animal fat and soaked, dried fruit
  • Put out hanging feeders for black sunflower seeds, sunflower hearts, sunflower-rich mixes or unsalted peanuts
  • Ensure a supply of fresh water every day
  • If it is very cold use tepid water but don’t use any antifreeze products
  • Supply apples and pears for blackbirds, song thrushes and other members of the thrush family
  • Fat blocks rubbed into the bark of trees is a great help for treecreepers, goldcrests and others
  • Put up nest boxes to provide roost sites for the smaller birds; they will then be used for breeding later in the year.
  • Plant berry-bearing plants such as hawthorn, rowan, holly, cotoneaster and berberis in your garden
  • Leave wild, weedy or shrubby areas in the garden; these provide a natural seed source, cover and a supply of small insects
  • Feed live foods such as mealworms and waxworms to attract a wide range of species.

There is a wide variety of bird seed mixtures available from pet shops and the big DIY stores. The better mixtures contain plenty of flaked maize, sunflower seeds, and peanut granules. Mixes with nuts are suitable for winter feeding only. Small seeds, such as millet, attract sparrows, finches, and collared doves. Blackbirds love flaked maize. Tits and greenfinches seem to prefer peanuts and sunflower seeds.

Wheat and barley grains are only suitable for ground feeding pigeons and doves. Avoid seed mixtures that have split peas, beans, dried rice or lentils as again only larger birds can eat them dry. Mixtures containing green or pink lumps should also be avoided as these are dog biscuit, which can only be eaten when soaked. Black sunflower seeds are an excellent year-round food and sunflower hearts are very popular as well as being less messy. Nyjer seeds are small and black with a high oil content and are particular favourites with goldfinches and siskins.

Peanuts are rich in fat and are liked by tits, greenfinches, house sparrows, nuthatches, great spotted woodpeckers and siskins. Crushed or grated nuts attract robins, dunnocks and even wrens. They can be high in a natural toxin (aflatoxin) which can kill birds, so buy from a reputable supplier.

Fat balls are an excellent winter food. If they are sold in nylon mesh bags, always remove the bag before putting the fat ball out as the soft mesh can trap and injure birds. To make your own bird cake, using a one-third fat to two-thirds mixture, pour melted fat (suet or lard) onto a mixture of ingredients such as seeds, nuts, dried fruit, oatmeal. Stir well and pile into a container such as an empty coconut shell or plastic cup. Allow to set. Live foods such as mealworms are loved by robins and blue tits, and may attract other insect-eating birds such as pied wagtails. Mealworms are a natural food and can be used to feed birds throughout the year. Birds need high levels of saturated fat, such as raw suet and lard to keep warm in the worst of the winter weather.

Blackbirds readily take dog food, and even feed it to their chicks but dry biscuits are not recommended as birds may choke on the hard lumps, soak it first and ensure it stays moist during hot days. Never give milk to any bird, regardless of species or age as it can result in serious stomach upsets or even death. Birds can, however, digest fermented dairy products such as cheese, and mild grated cheese can be a good way of attracting robins, wrens and dunnocks. Any breakfast cereal is acceptable, although you need to be careful only to put out small quantities at a time. It is best offered dry, with a supply of drinking water nearby, since it quickly turns into pulp once wetted.

Always remove any stale or mouldy food promptly as stale food provides a breeding ground for salmonella bacteria, which can cause food poisoning.

It is also most important that you provide a source of clean water. Birds need water for drinking as well as bathing but remember that it may freeze during the winter so check your supply regularly during cold spells. During the summer the water will quickly evaporate so, again, check it regularly.

Now you know what to feed the birds but where do you feed them? Consider the following as you decide where to site your bird table.

If possible your bird table should be placed where the birds will not be disturbed by humans but don’t place it so far from the house that you can’t see it. It should be in an open, safe place where the birds can see that they are safe from predators and placed where it gets neither too much sun nor too much cold wind.

A small bush about two metres from the table gives the birds somewhere safe to perch while they look to see if it is safe to feed. Birds prefer different feeding places so provide a raised table placed on top of a post, hung from a branch or a bracket but also provide some ground feeding stations.

The most important thing to remember is to keep your bird table or feeding stations clean as dirty tables can harbour dangerous bacteria left by sick birds and start an outbreak of disease. Brush off debris every time you put out fresh food and scrub the table with a mild disinfectant solution every few weeks. Each autumn clean the table, tighten/replace screws and make sure it is still a safe place for birds to feed.