What to feed your birds

Many birds have come to rely on our gardens as a valuable food source.

A well kept garden should naturally attract a diverse range of birds but any extra food you can provide will help to keep birds healthy all year round. Feeders can make your garden into nature’s food court and, like a food court, variety is the key. If your food court offers the right stuff, you will be treated to a wonderful spectacle of colour and behaviour as an array of birds come and go.

A wealth of choice

It’s essential to have a good mix of foods so that all tastes are provided for.

Seed mixes – try to avoid buying ones with split peas, beans, dried rice or lentils as only larger birds can feed on these. Some cheap mixes may also contain green or pink lumps. This is dog food so avoid them entirely as the dried biscuits can choke birds. Good mixes will include flaked maize for blackbirds, sunflower seeds and peanuts for tits and greenfinches and millet or other small seeds for house sparrows, dunnocks and finches.

Black sunflower seeds and sunflower hearts – a great all purpose, year round food with a high oil content which provides lots of energy for little birds. Use sunflower hearts if you want to avoid having to clean up left over husks.

Nyjer seeds – will attract siskins, goldfinches and greenfinches.

Peanuts – tits, house sparrows, nuthatches and great spotted woodpeckers will fly in to fatten up on these. Avoid salted or dry roasted peanuts. Purchase from reputable bird feed dealers since cheaper supplies may be high in a harmful substance called ‘aflatoxin’. Crush them up to attract robins, dunnocks and wrens.

Fat balls – will help to keep birds insulated against the harsh cold of winter. If bought, remove mesh netting as they can trap and injure small birds. Smear fat on tree trunks to attract nuthatches, treecreepers and woodpeckers. Don’t be tempted to use left over fat from your Sunday roast, margarines or vegetable oils as these are more likely to contain bacteria. They can also end up smeared onto bird’s feathers, which will damage their wings.

Mealworms – live mealworms can provide a squirmy little treat for hungry robins, blue tits or pied wagtails. Don’t put out dead or discoloured worms as these can make birds ill.

Great tit on feeder

Kitchen scraps – meaty dog or cat foods, bacon rinds, beef fat trimmings or meat bones will help blackbirds through the height of summer when dry conditions reduce the number of earthworms. Be careful as larger birds like gulls may also be attracted to the meaty treat which may become a nuisance. Dried cereals, cake crumbs, soft fruit or cooked rice will add a bit more variety to your food court. Leftover vegetables such as peas can also be put out. Even crushed eggshells can be used, providing an excellent source of calcium. Avoid putting down bread during the summer as it tends to fill birds up with little nutritional value and swell up in the throats of hungry chicks, choking them.

Ground feeders – species such as dunnocks and thrushes don’t feel comfortable clutching to hanging feeders while they eat. Scatter food on the ground for them but make sure to clear it up on a regular basis to stop it attracting vermin.

Water – to finish off your bustling food court, always make sure to provide a source of water. Never put down milk for birds as they cannot properly digest it.

Keeping everyone happy

A good food court has to be able to provide for a lot of birds of all different types, many of whom do not like to share. Some bird species are feeder hogs and will scare off any others who try to feed in their spot. Starlings and house sparrows are particularly tenacious but larger species like collared doves can also stop other birds feeding. Overhanging roofs on bird tables can stop larger species and breaking larger foods up will stop them being snatched away but the best way is to provide several different feeding stations so that everyone can get their share.

Providing a year round service

Winter feeding is essential because birds need plenty of food to stay warm but it’s important to keep feeding your birds throughout the year so that they can breed successfully and survive any natural food shortages. In the coldest months, try to provide food on a regular basis, twice a day if possible and focus on putting out high fat foods which will provide birds with the energy they need to survive cold winter nights. Birds like routine so try to put the food out at the same time every day. During summer, switch to more protein rich foods such as black sunflower seeds, mild cheese or mealworms. Avoid putting out fat (which can go rancid quickly in the sun), bread, dry hard foods or whole peanuts during this time of year as these may be harmful if adults feed them to their chicks. Peanuts can be put out but only if crushed up very small so that they don’t choke hungry chicks. Extremes of weather during summer can affect natural food supplies for breeding birds so your food court could keep them going through these hard times and even help their chicks to survive.

Written by Luke Raymond

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