A Nature ‘How To’: Feeding Garden Birds

How to: Feeding Garden Birds

IMG_9165Do you feed the birds in your garden? In the UK, gardens cover a larger area than all the nature reserves put together, making our homes an invaluable resource for wildlife. Gardens are especially important as places of refuge during winter, particularly when food becomes increasingly hard to find in the wider countryside.

Whatever size garden you have it is possible to do something to help the wildlife that visits, whether it is at home, school, or even outside your workplace. In the UK, It has been estimated that up to 75% of households provide food for wild birds at some point during the year[1], but if you don’t yet, it can be hard to know where to start, and it is possible to unwittingly harm birds despite your best intentions, by providing the wrong sort of food.

But first let’s think about the reasons why you might want to leave out a few morsels for your wild neighbours…

There is much current research being undertaken and reported in the media, as to the health benefits of regular contact with nature. There is nowhere easier to reap these benefits to our mental and physical wellbeing than the green-space on our own doorstep. Spending time in nature can improve low mood, and reduce anxiety and stress levels.

Of course, there are also conservation and environmental issues connected with feeding garden birds, and our efforts can make a significant difference to the survival of wildlife, particularly in the coldest winters.

My own experiences of feeding and watching birds in the garden are rooted in early childhood – the accessibility of these wild birds and the fact I could easily help my parents put out the feed, meant I deeply engaged with nature and learnt from it.
Even now, twenty-plus years later, I still get a great buzz from seeing birds making the most of food I have provided, and knowing that I’m making a difference.

This feeder is filled with a seed mix containing sunflower hearts, millet, pinhead oats, suet pellets, raisins and mealworm pieces. It is a new addition to my allotment wildlife corner and I look forward to seeing which birds visit. The cage is help to deter squirrels and large birds.

When and Where…?

It is a commonly held belief that you only need to feed birds in winter. Whilst it is true that winter can be the hardest time for birds, as snow, ice, or even just persistent rain can lock away the meagre amount of natural food, and they will readily accept emergency rations from our gardens, it is beneficial to provide food all year round. I keep feeding birds throughout the spring. At this time of year when parent birds are working hard to find enough food for their nestlings, it is helpful for them to have a reliable ‘pit-stop’ where they can quickly refuel themselves before getting back to the challenge of rearing chicks.

IMG_3430In late summer, many of our garden birds are much less evident. This is because summer is moulting season and moulting birds are vulnerable so keep a low profile for a while. Of course, natural food is also much more plentiful, so the birds have less need to rely on our hand-outs. I usually reduce my feeding in July and August; only offering a small amount of seed daily, so that food does not hang around and spoil, but there is something there for those inevitable wet and rainy days.

Where you offer food is probably going to be limited by what space and opportunity you have available. Food can be offered on the ground, on a bird table or from hanging feeders, depending on what is being offered and where.

Many of our favourite garden bird species are surprisingly resilient to human activity, and will of course make the most of those quiet hours in the early morning and at the end of the day if the feeding area is near a busy spot such as a path to the office or school playground.

IMG_3426If possible however, try to follow these simple points:

  • Place the food near to cover. Small birds do not like to be exposed, and will feel much safer if there is cover such as trees and bushes nearby that they can dash to and hide in if danger threatens.
  • Keep food out of reach of dogs, as some bird foods are not safe for dogs to eat. Also try to place the feed away from places used frequently by cats or where cats can easily hide and pounce from, to reduce predation.
  • Different birds feed in different ways, some will cling to hanging feeders, others prefer to skulk around on the ground, so think about which birds you wish to attract


So what’s for dinner?

Well, it could be the same as you are having tonight – many kitchen scraps are perfectly suitable for sharing with birds. Fruit such as apples and pears, cooked rice, potatoes or pastry, or uncooked porridge oats, even unsalted bacon rind, lard or meaty dog/cat food can be offered.

Alternatively, you can treat your birds to seed mixes, nuts and specialist feed mixes that are widely available from supermarkets, pet shops, mail order companies or wildlife charities such as the RSPB and Wildlife Trusts. Seeds and nuts offer a natural source of fats and proteins that birds require, and can be offered easily with lots of options to suit different feeding styles and diets. Some will also include dried fruit and/or insect protein: mealworms are particularly popular!

A quick checklist of what is good, and not so good, to put on the menu:

Very Tasty Please Avoid
Bird seed mixes

Sunflower seeds

Peanuts (reputable seller only as can contain toxins)

Niger seed

Fat balls/cake

Mealworms (live or dried)

Dried and fresh fruit

Grated cheese

Cooked rice, potato, and pastry


Uncooked oats

Bread should only be small amounts mixed with other feeds as it contains little nutrition

Cake, as long as low sugar

Milk – birds cannot digest milk so it should never be offered, cheese is ok though.

Cooking fat which contains meat juices

Margarine/butter or oils – these can cause problems for feathers, only offer solid fats such as lard and be careful in hot weather

Desiccated coconut – this can swell in birds stomachs which can be fatal

Cooked porridge is not suitable but uncooked oats are fine

Mouldy food can cause respiritary problems

Salt – never put out salty foods as this is extremely dangerous to birds


Thirsty work

Water is almost more important than feed as birds need to drink and bathe every day. Fresh clean water should always be provided alongside food, and kept free of ice in winter.

Keep it clean

Keep an eye on the feeders or table – if not all the food is being eaten, reduce the amount you offer so that left over food is not accumulating and spoiling/going mouldy. Clean feeders and tables regularly with a mild, pet-safe disinfectant to prevent build up of bacteria and disease.

These faded sunflower heads made the perfect ‘natural bird feeder’ on my allotment, after the flowers had finished in the autumn

So there is is folks! My guide to feeding birds in a garden near you. Be patient, it can take a while for birds to learn that your cafe is open, but once they do there are endless hours of enjoyment to be had from watching them.
Why not start up a little friendly competition with you neighbours or family members and see whose feeders attract the highest number of birds or most interesting species?
You can also contribute to citizen science – each year the RSPB run The Big Garden Birdwatch when people across the country spend an hour with a cup of tea and their feet up, counting the birds in their garden. The 2018 survey is happening next weekend (27-29th Jan), just visit the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch website to register to take part for free!

Good luck! I’d love to hear what birds you see, or if you have any questions just leave a comment or contact me here




[1] Source: https://www.bto.org/volunteer-surveys/gbw/gardens-wildlife/garden-birds

Words and photos by myself unless otherwise stated. Watercolour illustrations by my wonderful artistic Mum, Shirley Lewis (https://www.facebook.com/ShirleysStudioStuff/)

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