Catering for Garden Birds: A how-to guide

Given the state of the wider countryside and the impact of habitat loss, development and changes in land-use upon bird communities never has it been more important to take proper care of the populations residing in our gardens. Contrary to popular belief, it is vital that we cater for them year-round, not just in Winter, so to ensure a regular supply of food and water, provide a safe haven from predators and provide room for our garden birds to breed and flourish. Given the precarious state of many familiar garden visitors – House Sparrows, Starlings and Greenfinches alike are all in serious trouble – I have compiled a list of things we all can do to take proper care of our feathered friends. Sponsored by Kennedy Wild Bird Foods this post details a number of small things each of us can do to cater for our garden birds.

What to feed garden birds?

When feeding garden birds, it is best to offer different foods at different times of the year. For example, during the breeding season when birds are feeding growing chicks, high-protein foods such as mealworms and waxworms will be of most benefit. While adult birds at this time, due to the pressures associated with rearing offspring, require rich foods capable of dispensing energy very quickly. Sunflower seeds and peanuts are a good choice in this situation. In Winter, food sources with a high-fat content – suet and fat balls – help birds sustain themselves during difficult weather conditions.

When it comes to attracting a diverse range of birds to your garden, variety is key. Dried and live mealworms – soaked in water so to provide vital moisture if using the dried variety – are a favourite among Robins and thrushes; while peanuts often attract species such as Nuthatch and Great Spotted Woodpecker. Crushed up or dispensed in feeders, peanuts are one of the best foods to provide when seeking diversity and are readily taken by a whole host of species. My own resident Coal Tits are certainly fond of them.

High in protein and unsaturated fats, Sunflower hearts (and seeds) are the preferred indulgence of many species, ranging from Great Tits to Greenfinches and are another excellent choice when it comes to attracting the greatest range of species possible. Similarly rich in fat, yet far finer, Nyger seeds are popular with finches, particularly Goldfinches, yet often attract less familiar species such as Siskin and Lesser Redpoll. The latter two species tend to land in our gardens during Winter, so it is best to provide Nyger year-round.

Of course, the cornerstone of any garden feeding station should be a good quality seed mix. Often tailored towards individual groups of species, seed mixes high in cereals are appealing to sparrows and pigeon species; while those boasting a wider array of seeds frequently attract buntings such as Yellowhammer, as well as finches. Consider the addition of Millet or Hemp seeds in small quantities for great effect.  From mixtures carefully crafted so to appeal to thrushes, to suet mixtures ideal for robins and tits, there are an awful lot of options to choose from when selecting the seed mix right for you.


Collard Doves are one species which benefits from feeding at ground level

How do I dispense food?

Due to the specific adaptions and feeding practices of different species, it is best to dispense foods in alternate ways. Placing food on a raised bird table is a traditional, and effective, way of attracting many different garden birds, but there are many other options depending on the foods you are offering.

Hanging seeds dispensers are ideal for Chaffinches, Blue Tits, House Sparrows and many other species, and prevent too much food being lost to larger birds such as corvids and pigeons. Nyger seed should be dispensed via tailor-made Nyger feeders so to prevent the seed simply pouring out of the ports in normal dispensers. Peanuts are best provided in mesh-coated feeders so to prevent species such as Nuthatches removing whole nuts and hoarding them, with the mesh also providing the perfect footing for myriad birds to cling on as they feed. Hanging feeders are also an excellent idea for suet and fat-based products, particularly if your garden boasts a healthy tit population. It is, however, also an option to smear such products into holes in trees (or even on the trunk itself) so to provide species such as Treecreeper which seldom visit obvious feeders with a readily available food source.

Not forgetting the other species in your garden, it is important to ensure some foods are placed at ground level so to benefit species such as Blackbird, Robin and Dunnock. While a scattering of seed, complete with sultanas or mealworms will often prove irresistible to magpies, woodpigeons and Jackdaws. You may even end up with a Stock Dove or two if you are lucky.

Is water really important?

Yes, water is extremely important. While we all know that providing garden birds with food is critical, fewer people know that water is of equal significance. A bird bath is an excellent way of providing our garden visitors with both a safe place to bathe – important so to keep feathers in tip-top shape and shake off any nasty parasites – and drink. A good birdbath should be light enough to easily clean and refill; while the surface should be rough so to allow birds to grip with their claws without slipping. Cleaning your bird bath every few days is essential to the health of visiting birds, while it is also vital to remember to place your birdbath in an open area where birds can easily view approaching predators. Do not place yours amid thick cover, particularly if there are cats in your neighbourhood.

Keeping things clean

When many birds are attracted to any single area – a garden, for example – the risk of disease transmission increases. Prevention is always better than a cure in this situation and it is, therefore, best to ensure both food and water sources are kept clean. It is vital to monitor your food supply carefully, placing out only enough food that can be easily eaten over the course of a day or two so to avoid the build-up of rotten products. Food placed on the ground should always be cleared by nightfall so to ensure diseases carried by rats are not passed on to garden birds.

As a rule, keep bird tables and feeding stations free of droppings and rotting food so to prevent the spread of parasites and bacteria, and ensure your feeders and regularly cleaned using a five-percent disinfectant solution.

Proper cleanliness has become even more important during recent years due to the spread of Trichomonosis, a disease widely thought to have caused the rapid decline of Greenfinches since 2006, which is known to be transmitted at feeding stations.

Let your garden grow

Investing in certain plants or, better still, creating a “wild” area in your garden is a sure-fire way of encouraging birds to visit. Ensuring a steady supply of natural food all year is a great way to supplement the diet of birds, with fruit-bearing species such as Holly, Ivy and Spindle which provide fruit during the Winter months particularly appealing to thrushes, robins and Blackcaps. Nettles and brambles, often thought of as weeds provide both cover from predators and an excellent habitat for the caterpillars fed to chicks during the breeding season. Other plant species to consider include thistles and Teasel, for Goldfinches while, additionally, fruit-bearing trees such as apple or pear are an excellent attraction for multiple species. Providing, of course, some fruit is left either on the tree or as windfall, for their consumption.

As an additional note on planting, please consider creating areas of dense cover to provide suitable habitat for breeding. Ornamental conifers such as Leyland Cypress provide excellent abodes for species such as Goldcrest and Goldfinch; while even a growth of ivy will provide the ideal place for Robins or Blackbirds to rear young.

Abandon pesticides

This one is pretty obvious, but if you wish to encourage birds into your garden, please abandon the use of pesticides and herbicides. Aphids, slugs, snails and other insects often deemed undesirable provide an essential natural food source for many species, as do the seeds of various weeds. Forsaking slug killer is particularly important as secondary consumption of the poison can often lead to the death of birds. Anyways, a thriving avian population is an extremely efficient way of managing pest species so the use of these products will not be necessary after a short time.

Provide a nest box or two

Nest boxes provide a vital resource for many bird species when natural breeding sites are hard to come by – particularly in the urban environment. Myriad species will occupy nest boxes depending on their size, shape and location, and providing more than one type is important for maximum effect. Boxes with an entrance hole of between 25-28mm are ideal for tits and Tree Sparrows; while those with a diameter of 32mm attract House Sparrows and Nuthatches. Open fronted nest boxes are also a good option for Robins and Pied Wagtails but please, remember to ensure that nest boxes evenly spaced out so to avoid territorial disputes. Boxes for most bird species are best placed between 2-4m up a tree or wall and it is advisable to keep clear the entrance to the box so to provide a clear flight bath too and from the nest.

There are no limits to what you can do with a nest box and, depending on the species present in your area, it may be worth considering species-specific boxes wherever possible. Specially made boxes now exist to encourage House Martins and Swifts; while Tawny Owls will readily accept larger boxes. The possibilities really are endless.


Provide nesting material

As a final note on nesting, it is also possible to help our birds by provisioning them with nesting material during the breeding season. The lining of nests helps cushion eggs and chicks against the weight of the adult birds and provides vital insulation during bouts of cold weather, and is often made of a soft material. Simply leaving grass cuttings out for the birds is an excellent way of providing natural nesting material, though it is also possible to dispense your own. Pet hair, wool, hay, straw and shredded paper are great options when looking to cater for birds this Spring, and all can either be placed out in a cage – so to prevent mess – or draped over a branch or shrub near where your bird box is situated. By providing nesting material, you may well add to the diversity of the birds visiting your garden.

Of course, putting all this work into making your garden appealing for birds is only half the story, and from here, all you need do is sit back and enjoy your feathered visitors. And, of course, tell everyone you know about the wondrous birds exploiting your newly improved garden. This is where Kennedy Wild Bird Foods Birdspotter tool comes in – allowing users to log sightings of birds in their garden, add notes above behaviour, numbers and activity, and share their findings with likeminded individuals also using the website. The website is very user-friendly and includes a checklist of most resident UK birds, allowing users to record even the scarcest of garden visitors.


3 Comments Add yours

  1. Ali says:

    This is a brilliant post. I am really enjoying feeding garden birds, and want to carry on doing the right thing. Should I continue to feed in the summer?


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