For the Birds
Have questions about what, how and when to feed the wild birds in your garden? Follow RSPB’s guide to what food you should leave out, and how you can keep your feeding station hygienic and pest-free.
Feeding birds in the garden is a popular activity, with over half of adults in the UK getting in on the act. That’s a lot of extra help for the birds!
Whether it’s supplementary food or natural foods achieved through well-kept lawns, shrubs and flowerbeds, by following these simple guidelines, you will play a valuable role in helping local birds overcome periods of natural food shortage, survive periods of severe winter weather, and vitally, come into a good breeding condition in the spring.
What food to provide
RSPB receives numerous enquiries about what and how to feed garden birds. Here, we look at what feed should be used, and what should be avoided.
Bird seed mixtures
The better mixtures contain plenty of flaked maize, sunflower seeds, and peanut granules. Small seeds, such as millet, attract mostly house sparrows, dunnocks, finches, reed buntings and collared doves, whilst flaked maize is taken readily by blackbirds. Tits and greenfinches favour peanuts and sunflower seeds, while pinhead oatmeal is excellent for many.
Avoid seed mixtures that have split peas, beans, dried rice or lentils, as these are often added to some cheaper mixes to bulk them up, and only the larger species can eat them dry.
Black sunflower seeds
These are an excellent all-year-round food, and in many areas they’re even more popular than peanuts. The oil content is higher in black than striped ones, making them much better for your birds.
These are small and black with a high oil content. They need a special type of seed feeder, and are particular favourites with goldfinches and siskins.
Peanuts are rich in fat and popular with tits, greenfinches, house sparrows, nuthatches and siskins. Crushed or grated nuts attract robins, dunnocks and even wrens, while nuthatches and coal tits may hoard peanuts. Salted or dry roasted peanuts should not be used and all peanut-based feed should be purchased via a reputable dealer to guarantee freedom from aflatoxin – a natural toxin that can kill birds.
Bird cake and food bars
Fat balls and other fat-based food bars are excellent winter food for your birds. If they are sold in nylon mesh bags, always remove the bag before putting the fat ball out, as the soft mesh can trap and injure birds.
Mealworms are a natural food relished by robins, blue tits and other insect-eating birds such as pied wagtails. It is very important that any mealworms fed to birds are fresh, as dead or discoloured ones can cause serious problems such as salmonella poisoning.
Waxworms are excellent, but expensive. Proprietary foods for insect-eating birds, such as ant pupae and insectivorous are available from bird food suppliers and pet shops.
The problem with cooked fat from roasting tins is that the meat juices have blended with the fat and when allowed to set, this consistency makes it prone to smearing – which is not good for birds’ feathers. It is also a breeding ground for bacteria, making it potentially bad for birds’ health.
Lard and beef suet on their own are fine as they re-solidify after warming, and as pure fat, they’re not as suitable for bacteria to breed on.
Polyunsaturated margarines or vegetable oils
These fats are unsuitable, as unlike humans, birds need high levels of saturated fat, such as raw suet and lard. They need the high energy content to keep warm in the worst of the winter weather and often these such soft fats can be smeared onto the feathers, destroying waterproofing and insulating qualities.
Dog and cat food
Meaty dog and cat food form an acceptable substitute to earthworms during the warmer, dry part of summer when worms are beyond the birds’ reach. Blackbirds readily take dog food, and even feed it to their chicks.
Milk and dairy
Never give milk to any bird. A bird’s gut is not designed to digest milk and it can result in serious stomach upsets, or even death. Birds can, however, digest fermented dairy products such as cheese.
Rice and cereals
Cooked rice, brown or white (without salt added) is beneficial and readily accepted by all species during severe winter weather. Uncooked rice may be eaten by birds such as pigeons, doves and pheasants, but is less likely to attract other species.
Porridge oats must never be cooked, since this makes them glutinous, meaning they could harden around a bird’s beak. Uncooked porridge oats are readily taken by a number of bird species and any breakfast cereal is acceptable bird food, although you should only put out small quantities at any one time.
Mouldy and stale food
Many moulds are harmless, but as some can cause respiratory infections in birds, it’s best to be cautious and avoid mouldy food entirely.
How to feed birds
From bird tables and hanging feeders, to devices you can make yourself, there are many ways to feed the birds in your garden.
Bird tables are suitable for many species and most foods. A simple tray with or without a roof is perfectly adequate, while a raised rim is necessary in order to retain the food. A gap at each corner will also allow rainwater to drain away and droppings and uneaten food to be cleared.
Nut feeders are made of steel mesh, and are the only safe method of offering nuts to wild birds. The mesh size needs to be large enough to prevent beak damage, yet small enough to prevent large pieces of nut from being removed – about 6 mm is a good compromise.
Seed feeders are tubular transparent containers with holes, through which birds are able to access the seed. These are designed for sunflower seeds and mixes labelled feeder seed, while nyjer seeds are smaller and require a special type of seed feeder.
Half-coconuts and tit bells filled with fat or bird cake can be hung from your bird table, a tree or bracket. They will attract greenfinches, house sparrows and tits.
Fill the holes and cracks of a post or suspended log with fatty foods, such as suet for agile birds. Meanwhile, for thrushes and dunnocks that prefer to feed on the ground, scatter food on the lawn or use a ground feeding tray or hopper.
If you put food such as apples and bread on the ground, space it out in different places in the garden. This will reduce competition between birds so that more birds can feed at any one time.
When to feed wild birds
Although feeding wild bird in winter is most beneficial, food shortages can occur at any time of the year. By feeding the birds in your garden throughout the calendar year, you’ll give them a better chance of survival full stop.
Autumn and winter
Throughout autumn and winter, put out food and water on a regular basis for the birds in your garden. In severe weather, feed them twice daily if you can. Birds require high-energy (high-fat) foods during the cold winter weather to maintain their fat reserves and survive the frosty nights.
Always adjust the quantity dependent on demand, and never allow uneaten foods to accumulate around the feeders. Once you establish a feeding routine, try to stick to it as the birds will become used to it and time their visits to your garden accordingly.
Spring and summer
Only feed selected foods at this time of year. Good hygiene is vital in this process, or feeding may do more harm than good.
During the summer months, birds require high protein foods, especially while they are moulting. Black sunflower seeds, pinhead oatmeal, soaked sultanas, raisins and currants, mild grated cheese, mealworms, waxworms, mixes for insectivorous birds, good seed mixtures, RSPB food bars and summer seed mixtures are all good foods to provide. Soft apples and pears cut in half, bananas and grapes also work well.
Avoid using peanuts, fat and bread at this time of the year, as these can be harmful if adult birds feed them to their nestlings. Commercially produced fat bars are suitable for summer feeding, but discard any remains after three weeks.
Temporary food shortages can occur at almost any time of the year, and if this happens during the breeding season, extra food on your bird table can make a big difference to the survival of the young.
This reasons as to why it is best to remain cautious and not put out food that is likely to create problems.
Taking care of your feeders, bird table and bird bath will reduce the chances of spreading diseases amongst the feeding few. Here are some top tips for a germ-free garden:
- Monitor your food supply carefully. If the food takes days to clear, reduce the amount of food you’re offering.
- Use a bird table or hanging feeders. A ground feeding tray is preferable to putting food directly on the ground because it’s easier to keep clean. Food on the ground should all be eaten before nightfall, as rats are attracted to leftover food and often carry diseases which can affect birds or humans.
- Keep your bird tables and surrounding areas clean and free from droppings or mouldy food, which can provide breeding grounds for parasites and bacteria. If large amounts of droppings have accumulated, they should be cleared and burnt, before cleansing the ground with a disinfectant.
- Clean and wash your bird table and hanging feeders regularly and move feeding stations to a new area every month to prevent droppings accumulating underneath.
- Water containers should be rinsed out daily, especially during the warmer months. Allow to dry out before fresh water is added too.
RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) looks after more than 200 nature reserves, of which provide some of the best places for 4wildlife in the UK. From heathland to woodland, and reedbeds to farmland – all reserves are kept in ideal conditions for threatened plants, insects, birds, beasts, reptiles and amphibians. The UK-based charity tirelessly campaigns to protect species from damaging developments, and create the conditions they need to flourish.