The festive season and feasting go hand in hand. Christmas is notorious for triggering over-eating and over-buying. Come January, our winter-vitamin-deficient bodies are craving green, fresh foods – and anyway, more than half of us are on some kind of self-imposed diet! It is estimated that every Christmas, around 270,000 tons of food is wasted across the UK. From stilton crusts to mince pies, cooking fat to that christmas pud you knew no-body was going to eat – you might be tempted to share this over-catering with your garden birds.* But what is really safe to offer, and should we put out kitchen scraps for wildlife at all?
In the UK, It has been estimated that up to 75% of households provide food for wild birds at some point during the year, 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.
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!
Alternatively, 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, rather than ending up in our rubbish bins.
A quick checklist of what is good, and not so good, to put on the menu…
- 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, and the same applies to cake, which must be 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 respiratory problems
- Salt – never put out salty foods as this is extremely dangerous to birds
Water is vital, as birds need to drink and bathe every day, and can the surprisingly difficult to find even in winter. Fresh clean water should always be provided alongside food, and kept free of ice in cold weather.
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. This winter has seen a significant outbreak of avian flu (you may have seen the news articles about agricultural flocks and back yard poultry alike going into their own kind of ‘lockdown’) in wild birds. To help stop the spread and protect the birds in your area, it is important to regularly clean bird tables, feeding stations and water dishes. Soapy water does a good job, or you can buy pet friendly disinfectants which contain no harmful chemicals (look online or in your local pet supply store). Try to avoid large build up of waste food beneath feeding areas, and refresh water frequently.
*Obviously, the ideal would be to reduce this waste! Plan meals in advance and shop with a list of what you need, trying to buy ingredients which will split over several dishes/days. Think about what you are buying – feeling guilty about that extra yule log, or find you’ve overstocked on tins of soup that sit in the cupboard for months? Drop of a few excess items at your local foodbank collection point and see if you really miss them. Always store food carefully and properly, and remember the difference between ‘best before’ and ‘use by’. Freezing leftovers is also very budget friendly, helping you out later when finances are tight after that christmas splurge. If you have outside space/a garden, invest in a compost bin, or maybe share one with your neighbours. Vegetable and uncooked food waste (never meat, and avoid grains and pulses), along with garden material, are an excellent resource and compost heaps create a fantastic wildlife habitat.