FEEDING YOUR GARDEN BIRDS
Good for the birds, good for you!
By Jonathan Lloyd (EWG)
Feeding the birds in the garden is one of the great joys in life. Settle back with a cuppa or a nice coffee and just sit and watch. Studies have shown that those of us feeding the birds during the pandemic have been much more positive about their days. Connecting with nature by feeding birds reduces stress. There is more about this at the end of the article with some useful links.
During the winter months our gardens get new visitors, Scandinavian thrushes, Redwing and Fieldfare. They have flown south to warmer climates and now gather in great flocks to raid the berries on trees and hedges in our gardens and the wider countryside. Even the shy Mistle and Song Thrush will wander into the garden at this time. Mistle Thrushes are particularly protective of Holly trees that are covered with lots of ripe berries and will noisily fight off any unwanted visitors to their tree.
So how do you attract these birds to your garden? There is a wide range of both bird food and feeders on offer!
Unfortunately, expensive seed feeders last longer. They have metal feeding perches and have strong clear acrylic cylinders for dispensing seeds. They come in different sizes. In the picture a female Reed Bunting is feeding on a typical seed feeder. The other photos show 4 and 6 perch versions but you can buy feeders that are even bigger than this if you want to get carried away! These feeders should be easily dismantled. Good ones have a base that twists and unlocks to release for cleaning. Feeders should be hung at least 1.5 metres from the ground. A good reason to buy a well built feeder is that they are much less susceptible to squirrel damage. Cheap plastic feeders can be easily broken and are rapidly chewed through by grey squirrels. You can also buy a plate/dish that screws in the bottom of the feeder and this will allow other species to feed like Dunnocks, Blackbirds, Stock and Collared Dove.
There are special feeders for Niger (Nyer, Nyjer) seeds. In the photos above you see two Goldfinches (left) and two Siskins (right) on a Niger seed feeder. Niger seed comes from an African yellow daisy. It is rich in oil content and highly nutritious. It's perfect for treating the small birds in your garden – particularly goldfinches. The seed is very small and you need a special feeder. I recommend not bothering since all the species (and there are not many) that feed on Niger seed will also feed on your sunflower hearts. Niger seed quickly blocks the holes in the feeder and the birds seem to go through phases of eating it or not eating, so you end up wasting a lot.
Fat Balls are one the best bird foods in the garden. Fat/Suet comes as slabs, pellets or in jars and contains mixed seed. For fat balls you will need to buy a fat ball feeding cage. These are pretty cheap. Some feeders are double caged like the one above. The inner cage holds the fat balls and the outer cage deters squirrels. Fat balls are good for House Sparrows but they might take a while to get used to them. Great Spotted Woodpecker, Long Tailed Tits, Nuthatch, Goldcrest and overwintering Blackcaps like fat balls and generally will not use the seed feeders we talked about above. These are great birds to see in the garden so I recommend using fat balls, slabs, or suet pellets in some form or another. Fat balls are the cheapest way of feeding like this.
This Great Spotted Woodpecker is feeding on another type of feeder, a metal mesh basket with peanuts in it. Obviously this is good for woodpeckers but will also attract, nuthatch and all the tit family. Wait till you have generated some bird traffic in the garden before hanging out a nut feeder. The nuts get wet in the rain and tend to rot quickly. You need to make sure you buy food quality nuts because some peanuts have toxins in them. Peanuts are highly susceptible to mould during growth and storage. In particular, the fungus Asperillus Flavus which releases large quantities of aflatoxin, which is a highly toxic carcinogen when consumed by mammals and birds.
By setting up a ground feeding station/area you can get surprise visits from Tree Sparrows, Brambling (Photo above right) Yellowhammers (Photo above left), and Reed Bunting and even Bullfinches. This is rewarding because some birds really don’t understand how to use these hanging seed feeders and are not really designed for aerial feeding. However, over time, some birds in our garden have mastered feeders that they couldn’t use when they were first put out! For example our Blackbirds have leant to launch themselves at Fat balls, smash bits off. The bits fall to the floor and they pick up the crumbs. This way they also provide food on the floor for other birds like Dunnocks and Robins.
A project worksheet on the EWG web site can be found HERE and tells you about making bird tables, ground feeding and seed feeders. Download Part B Taking Action and on the reverse side of this sheet are some projects relating to feeding birds.
Always have fresh water available in the garden for birds to bathe and drink. Try to clean this out and add fresh water every day.
Keep it clean! This is what the BTO says............
Regularly clean bird baths, feeders, feeding stations and hard surfaces under feeders, and treat with a suitable disinfectant (e.g. a weak solution of domestic bleach). Carefully rinse all surfaces with clean water and air dry before using. Clean your feeders outside and maintain careful personal hygiene, including wearing gloves and making sure that brushes and buckets are not used for other purposes, as some diseases can affect human and domestic animal health. More information from
Please note: All the Photographs were taken in our Edgmond Garden and give you some idea of the variety of birds you can expect to see.
Feeding Garden Birds in the Pandemic
Here is an extract from a study of Urban Bird feeding: Connecting People with Nature.
In a world where people live increasingly urbanized lifestyles, the nature around where they live and work forms a critical component of their daily nature interaction. A major challenge in harnessing people’s interest in local and broader conservation issues is that many people simply do not notice the nature that is around them . A bird feeder has the potential to be a powerful tool for people to make this connection, because it provides a focal location where people both expect to and are able to observe birds and their behaviours. However, the avian community level impacts of bird feeding vary geographically [56–57] and as a consequence the activity is either supported or discouraged by relevant national conservation organisations (reviewed ). Whatever the position, the large number of people engaged in providing food for wild birds suggests that there is a general desire within the wider population to engage with the wildlife around them. Understanding people’s motivations behind bird feeding can open the door to public conversations about conservation management strategies at the local, national and international levels. Further, if conservation organisations and city planners can maximise the benefits that engaging with wildlife brings then the nature where people live has the potential to contribute towards increased personal and social well-being. The full study report can be found HERE.
Here is another study: What are the Benefits of Interacting with Nature? There is mounting empirical evidence that interacting with nature delivers measurable benefits to people.
You will find the full paper HERE
Note: If you are going to buy mixed wild bird seed then buy the good stuff! Some of the cheap sacks have a very high proportion of grain seed (wheat, barley). This is used to bulk up the mix! Grain is only really consumed in part by sparrows and chaffinches but more often by Wood Pigeons!
What type of food should I feed and in which type of feeder?
This is probably the best combination of bird food you could offer in the garden.
Seed Feeder with sunflower hearts
Fat Balls in a cage
Bird table for scraps and mixed wild bird seed/food/mealworms
Ground feeding station for mixed wild bird seed/food/mealworms and apples
This combination is likely to attract the greatest variety of Birds into the garden. If you supplement this with apples thrown out onto the ground/lawn during very cold winter days you can then bring in winter thrushes and that rounds things off nicely!!!