How to correctly feed wild birds during the British winter
Sixty million wild birds migrate to the UK each Autumn, and as the colder winter weather arrives these birds are increasingly at risk of starvation, depleting their fat reserves simply surviving (without even taking into consideration the energy used to forage for their natural foods). Many wild birds die during a British winter, but the good news is that we can make a difference to the declining numbers of many species simply by providing them with the correct foods and fresh water on a regular basis.
Once you make the decision to feed your garden birds it is important that you continue to do so daily, never allowing the food supplies to run out. This is because once the birds come to rely on food being available, they will use up valuable energy flying to your garden in order to feed, so please remember to arrange for neighbours or family to keep your bird feeders topped up if you are planning to go away during the winter months. Fresh water is also a must, not just for drinking, but also so that the birds can bathe and then preen their feathers to insulate them against the cold.
Important Note: Do not be fooled by thinking the wild birds in your garden already look fat and healthy. During winter they fluff up their feathers to reduce heat loss from their bodies when they are extremely hungry which can give the illusion of them being already well fed.
What should I feed the birds in my garden?
Many people with good intentions simply assume that a hanging feeder full of peanuts or throwing out some stale bread will be sufficient for all types of birds in the garden, but this assumption is incorrect. Different species of bird require different types of foods, hence the wide variety of beak shapes you will see in the birds that frequent your garden. The more different types of food you can provide, the more types of bird will flock to your garden and the more endangered species will increase in numbers again, e.g. woodpeckers, blue tits, great tits etc.
Some of the ideal foods you can put out for the birds include:
Sunflower Seeds: An excellent source of energy and fat, (especially the black ones which contain 25% oil due to their thinner shells and larger hearts) plus they can be bought ready-shelled if you want to avoid the husks being left around your bird feeders, (this also conserves energy for the birds as they don't need to shell them to reach the kernels). Standard shelled sunflower kernels contain 42% oil.
Fat Products: Suet, grated mild cheese, fat balls, fat cakes etc are another fabulous source of energy, but please remove any mesh bags they are contained in to avoid the birds becoming tangled up in the mesh as the bags empty out.
Meal Worms: Dried or alive and placed in a bowl these are a popular source of food for robins, thrushes, wrens etc.
Apples: These are loved by blackbirds and are perfect if simply stamped on to crush them and then left out on your lawn or bird table.
Raisins and Sultanas: Another favourite for blackbirds.
Plain Cooked Rice (no salt): As above.
Bread: Popular with many species such as tree sparrows.
Peanuts (unsalted): Again popular with many species including goldfinches, blue tits and great tits. These are better if crushed and fed on the bird table as it saves the birds valuable energy chipping off bite size pieces with their beaks. Contain 54% oil if good quality peanuts are purchased.
Niger Seeds: Suitable for birds with thin beak tips such as goldfinches and containing 32% oil makes them ideal (look out for specialised feeders suitable for niger seeds as they have a tray to reduce spillage).
Millet: Very appealing to birds such as sparrows, robins, finches and other seed eaters. Contain 3.5% oil.
Cake Crumbs: Many species of wild bird such as thrushes love these, but only feed in fairly small amounts.
Kitchen Scraps (not spicy or salty): For example bacon rind, crushed cooked potatoes, porridge oats, pastry (cooked or raw), cooked vegetables, biscuit crumbs, any fat or rind from unsalted meats.
Hemp Seeds: Ideal with 30% oil content, but watch out for any unwanted illegal plants emerging from beneath your bird table!
What are the best ways to present the bird foods?
Obviously it is not going to work if you try to put foods suitable for blackbirds and thrushes (ground feeders by nature) into a hanging feeder, so you will want to carefully consider what the best ways are to present the foods you wish to offer your garden birds.
Bird Tables: Easy to buy or to make yourself, these consist of a sturdy wooden post, usually on a heavy wooden base or sunken well into the ground. The top is made up of a platform with a raised edge to stop food spilling over the sides. Many bird tables additionally have a sloping roof to keep food dry and make it more difficult for larger birds to steal the majority of the food before the smaller birds can get to it. The ideal foods to supply on your bird table are nuts, seeds, raisins, grated cheese, suet, boiled rice and mealworms and crumbs. The birds that will be particularly attracted to your bird table are robins, collared doves, starlings, sparrows, blue tits, great tits and wood pigeons.
Ground Feeders: Essentially a ground based bird table i.e. minus any wooden post. The same foods can be used on these as normal bird tables, but ground feeders such as blackbirds, song thrushes, dunnocks and robins will use these rather than attempting to compete with the bird species on your standard bird table.
Hanging Feeders: Ideally steel mesh, (avoid the nylon bags as birds become trapped in them) or solid plastic with a bottom tray that gradually releases food into it as more is eaten/spilled whilst the birds feed . These are suitable for peanuts, sunflower seeds and hearts, niger seeds, seed mixes, fat cakes etc. Blue tits, great tits, sparrows, greenfinches, nuthatches, goldfinches, coal tits, great spotted woodpeckers etc will readily use these feeders.
Alternative Hanging Feeders: These can include half coconut shells or pine cones filled with melted fat and seed mixtures and suspended from trees or below bird tables.
Tip: If squirrels keep raiding the nuts from your bird feeder either buy one of the feeders that includes and external cage which only allows small birds through to the main cage, or try mixing a little hot chilli powder with the nuts. The birds are not effected by the chilli, but the squirrels really hate it.
Lady Guinevere's Bird Feeder
Bird Food Cake Recipe Courtesy of Lady Guinevere
The mix that I use is
1 c. Lard,
1 c super chunky Peanut Butter,
1 c. oatmeal
Melt the lard and peanut butter in a saucepan.
Add bird seed until it is all coated--about 4-5 cups or more. To this I sometimes add raisins, chopped apples or whatever else I have.
This way it is more solid and they can't just throw it all over the place