Did you know that feeding the birds is just as good for you as for the birds you’re feeding? Humans rely on nature to regulate mood and behaviour, so when life is stressful and busy, taking a moment to watch the birds fluttering to a feeder or berry-laden shrub and re-fuelling, forces us to be mindful and present.
Have you marvelled at how quickly a newly-discovered bird feeder is emptied by hungry birds? Seen how they discard the bits they don’t want with a quick flick of the beak, while cherry-picking the best morsels on offer? It’s fun, entertaining and life-enhancing to watch.
It’s also good to know that with every beakful, the birds are building vital reserves to help them survive the colder Winter months. Read on to find out how and what to feed our wild birds and check out our very own bird food experiment…
Why is it a good idea to feed the birds?
Over the Summer months food is plentiful for birds. There are insects galore and seeds aplenty, but come Winter, many of their natural food resources disappear and as birds need to build up their fat reserves so they can survive the cold, they need the extra help we can give them.
There are two ways that gardeners are perfectly placed to help. The first is by leaving out food and water for birds and the second by creating a garden that welcomes and sustains wildlife.
Before you start shopping for bird feeders, there are a few things to consider. A good place to start is to think about which birds you’d like to attract, then check the list below to see which food they like. Each type of bird feeder is designed for a particular type of food, so once you know the bird and food type, you can pick the corresponding feeder. For example, if you like robins, choose a mesh feeder for crushed or grated peanuts, or mealworms. Never leave out whole peanuts as they can choke wild birds.
The size of the perches or rests for the birds to balance on will also determine the type of bird that visits. If you see a lot of squirrels in your garden you’ll need to buy special squirrel-proof feeders, or ones with metal ports, tops and bases as squirrels are experts at getting into plastic ones.
Birds and their favourite foods
House sparrows, dunnocks, reed buntings, collared doves, finches: Small seed, such as millet
Blackbirds: Flaked maize:
Tits, greenfinches, house sparrows, nuthatches, great spotted woodpeckers and siskins: Peanuts and sunflower seeds
Robins, dunnocks, wrens: Crushed or grated peanuts
Pigeons, doves and pheasants: Wheat and barley grains:
Goldfinches, siskins: Nyjer seeds
Robins, blue tits, pied wagtails: Mealworms
Tits: Insect cakes
Finches: Berry cakes
Wrens: Animal fat (finely chopped) and mild grated cheese
Starlings: Peanut cakes
Thrushes and blackbirds: Fruit
In Winter, the ideal food is energy rich. ie food that contains suet, nuts and oil-rich seeds such as sunflower hearts. Did you know dehusked mixes are preferable as it saves birds using energy dehusking to get to the food?
Bird food prices vary from shop to shop and brand to brand, but the reason some are more expensive than others is the quality of the food. Cheaper versions contain more ‘filler’ such as corn and wheat, which isn’t as good for the birds.
When you first put your feeder out, leave it half full until the birds discover it to reduce wastage. Also, once you start feeding, keep it up so they don’t waste vital energy without a reward. For a wider variety of birds, leave out a choice of food, or a blend that appeal to more birds.
The Great Millbrook Bird Food Experiment
Our head buyer, Dan Hume, used his own back garden to see which bird food his garden birds preferred! He used a Peckish Secret Garden Dual Seed Feeder (pictured) and into one side he put Peckish Complete Seed & Nut and into the other Peckish Winter Warmer. He also filled a Peckish Daily Goodness Nugget Feeder with Peckish Daily Goodness Nuggets. Both the feeders were put outside for one month to see what happened!
The result: The birds were much keener on the Winter Warmer than the Complete, so the Winter Warmer is our top pick! Plus, for the first time, Dan saw long-tailed tits, who had been attracted by the nuggets – see the picture on the right!
Bird baths and fresh water
Birds also need water to drink, particularly those whose diets are mainly seed-based, so leave out fresh water. If you can, change daily to prevent the spread of disease. They also love to bathe (plus it keeps their feathers clean which improves their ability to fly). It’s a wonderful sight to see a party of birds splashing about, so put a birdbath in a safe, open spot where they can keep an eye out for predators.
Key elements for your garden
Gardeners can provide additional help for a wide range of wild birds by planting flowers, shrubs and trees that either directly provide food for birds, or indirectly attract insects, a preferred food source for some bird species.
For attracting the widest variety of birds, consider introducing the following key natural elements into your garden – a lawned area featuring shrubs, flower beds and seed-bearing plants for food and cover. Then add in a bird table, bird bath, bird feeders and nest boxes.
A year-round supply of food
But what to plant? It’s worth considering that native plants may be better suited to your garden environment and soil so are more likely to flourish. Also think about which shrubs bear berries when, so you can make sure you can provide a year-round supply. Pyracantha is an evergreen shrub that’s good on most soils and produces a large crop of berries in relation to bush size in early Autumn, so it’s great for gardens on the smaller side as it can be pruned back while still producing a berry bonanza. Blackcaps, song thrushes and waxwings will all be attracted by the orange and red fruit.
Deciduous shrub Cotoneaster is also an abundant berry-producer and will grow pretty much anywhere with very little need for gardener intervention. For attracting blackcaps, fieldfares, redwings and waxwings, choose the smaller-leaved varieties. All types of Rowans are bird-magnets, bearing fruit from August. Hips from Rosa Moyesii are also attractive food sources in Autumn. Hollies come into their own in January and at this time when food sources are more scarce, feeding birds from dedicated feeders or bird tables is particularly helpful.
Don’t forget about insects
Some birds, such as wrens, robins and dunnocks, eat invertebrates so plant with a mind to attracting those. A healthy lawn means worms which, in turn, means dinner for birds like robins, thrushes and blackbirds. Green woodpeckers are fans of ants. Larger gardens can offer apple, pear and plum trees which provide both fruit and insects to feed birds. Blue tits are attracted by greenfly and aphids. Jays and magpies love the ripe fruit then, when it falls, it’s the turn of Winter thrushes to feast.
If you have a small garden, or a patio with no grass, or balcony, you can still attract birds. Seed-bearing flowers such as sunflowers can be grown in pots and produce masses of seeds attractive to finches, tits, sparrows and siskins.
Climbers are also a useful addition as they don’t take up much space. Try honeysuckle to provide a great nesting site and autumn fruits, plus it’s attractive to insects and aphids which will in turn attract thrushes, warblers and bullfinches. Ivy is also a good option to provide cover for birds and also nectar in Autumn to attract insects and late Winter fruit for food.
Make sure birds don’t just feed with you, they stay with you too, by giving them the perfect place to nest! Winter is the perfect time to put up nest boxes because they have time to blend into their surroundings. Wild birds like to choose a nesting spot that’s been in situ for a few seasons. Make sure you tilt the box slightly downwards so rainwater can’t get in. If you have an old nesting box, clean it out thoroughly and leak-proof it ready for its next family. Add a layer of clean, dry leaves or sawdust to the bottom for a cosy welcome.
For lots of brilliant help and information on caring for birds, please visit the RSPB website.