When to feed garden birds
You can start to feed birds at any time of the year. It is easy to create a feeding station in your back garden, whether using a tree to hang bird feeders or, making or purchasing a bird table. There are many options available.
Thoughts often turn to the perils facing garden birds during the cold winter months, but birds benefit from food supplies all year round. In the cold winter months, the struggle for survival is obviously heightened when the temperature drops. Birds use up fat reserves easily. Regular food at these times enables them to stay healthy.
A readily available food source during the spring and summer months is equally important but for different reasons. If you start to feed the birds, it is important to continue as they will soon become dependent on this new food source.
Refill food supplies each morning and top up later in the afternoon if there has been a great deal of feeding activity. You may find that the birds become increasingly used to your presence which can add to the delight of feeding them.
What to feed your birds
Before rushing to buy your supplies, consider the birds that most commonly visit your garden. This will indicate the best foods to start with. There is no need to overstock. Buy enough food to last for a month or two at the most. It takes a while for birds to trust any new food sources, so small amounts are best initially. Increase as and when needed.
The type of birds visiting regularly will depend on where you live. If you have a home in the countryside, you will have a different variety of birds coming to your garden than might be seen in a town environment. However, with regular feeding, you may spot some unexpected visitors to your garden.
There are many different types of food available:
- Seed mixes – there are different blends available which are designed to attract a wide array of birds.
- Straight seeds – contain peanuts, red and white millet and black sunflower seeds.
- Suet– these are readily available as fat balls or blocks
- Live food – mealworms are a helpful source of protein
- Husk-free seeds – these mixes are useful for a variety of birds. They do not need to crack open the husks saving them valuable energy. Some seed mixes contain suet pellets or dried mealworms.
If you opt for millet or other small seed mixes, this is likely to suit finches, dunnocks, house sparrows and collared doves. Blackbirds are very partial to flaked maize while greenfinches and tits enjoy sunflower seeds and peanuts. Whole peanuts can be used in the winter months but avoid in the spring.
In the cold months, you can add a little lard or beef suet to the bird table but avoid other fats as these are not suitable for birds. Live food in the form of mealworms is always a welcome addition to any bird table. Insect-eating birds including robins, pied wagtails and blue tits will soon fly in to take advantage of this tasty protein treat.
Mealworms must be fresh. If you are giving live mealworms for food, you may find some that have already died or, are discoloured, do not add these to the bird table. The RSPB warns that it can lead to salmonella poisoning. Mealworms should be considered a treat rather than a daily supply.
Dried mealworms are available, but they may not be as popular at first. If using, add to the table when there is a great deal of bird activity. You can also provide ready-made fat balls or blocks containing dried insects, and these can attract wrens and birds such as treecreepers into the garden.
Another favourite is half a coconut with the fresh coconut still inside. Eradicate any coconut water residue as this only encourages mildew. Hang from a tree branch or feeding station.
Do you have Bird Feeders in your garden?
If so, it’s more then likely you will encourage blue tits, great tits, goldfinches, house sparrows, siskins and robins. Mesh peanut feeders appeal to chaffinches, tits, starlings and thrushes. If you have a bird table, this will appeal to blackbirds, robins, collared doves, dunnocks and thrushes. Try to place food sources up high out of reach of predators.
Feeding in the winter months
As the autumn turns to winter, add a protein mealworm lunch to the bird table. Another valuable source of nutrients is sunflower seeds. In the same way that you consider your own nutritious needs, birds must also have quality food so only buy from reputable companies. Calories aid flight and protein assists in the production of eggs and feathers.
Some birds migrate, and so, this can add new interest to the bird table. You can do even more for these bird visitors by planting with nature in mind, providing both cover and food. Thrushes arriving from Scandinavia will enjoy berries from a holly or pyracantha bush.
Fat balls are a beneficial source of food at any time, and birds flock to them. Hang up several fat balls or add sunflower hearts.. These high-protein foods are invaluable so birds can sustain their fat reserves.
Feeding in the spring and summer months
During the spring and summer months, birds work hard to feed their brood of chicks. They also need consistent food supplies during the moulting phase. It is essential to be careful when choosing food types at this time of the year. Use sunflower seeds, raisins, currants, or soaked sultanas. You can even put out mild grated cheese on the bird table.
Some birds are partial to seeds and others will love fruit. Test their preferences by adding some grapes, bananas and soft fruits such as apples or pears to the bird table. Cut them up into small pieces ready.
In winter, food is naturally more challenging to obtain. The ground is frozen, berries have been eaten, and there are reduced insects. But food shortages can occur at any time, which is why it is crucial to feed your local population continuously.
Sudden weather changes can limit food supplies. At these times, again, mealworms provide a useful source of protein. A freshly dug area of the garden will be popular for blackbirds and robins, especially when the ground is frozen as they are unable to access worms.
You may notice fewer birds coming to the feeders in the summer months if there is an abundance of insects about but continue to sustain food supplies. Always keep feeders topped up. You can try a mixture of different seeds, along with fresh fruit and suet.
Adult birds feed caterpillars or insects to the young birds. You can help this steady source of food by planning your garden carefully. Opt for plants that encourage butterflies and insects, ensuring that there is a natural source of food too.
Birds begin their annual moult in the summer months so that they have their new feathers in time for winter. The moulting process takes much energy, and by sustaining their food sources, this keeps them healthy when they are highly vulnerable. Moulting lasts up to five weeks. Extra protein at this time is useful as feathers are 85% protein.
Birds use water for drinking as well as bathing so place a shallow dish of water or a birdbath near to the food supply. A freshwater supply will be useful for other wildlife visiting your garden too. It is worth providing some protection against natural predators which includes cats and birds of prey by planting trees and shrubs nearby.
Remember to top up the water regularly, especially in the winter months when the water is likely to freeze. If you are considering creating a garden pond, this can be useful for birds, just make sure the sides are shallow so birds can bathe safely at the edges.
Hygiene is very crucial. When you encourage a variety of birds into a small area, certain diseases can spread quite quickly through the population.
- Avian pox
These diseases are easily spread through direct contact, through coming into contact with contaminated surfaces or, when food is contaminated. Bird droppings that contain bacterial infections are a risk to other birds when coming to feeding stations. Trichomoniasis is a parasite that creates sores in the throats or mouths of birds, so they are unable to swallow. This often leads to other birds picking up dropped food, and this increases the risk of infection. Keep feeders and bird tables clean.
Food types to avoid
It can be tempting to throw out all sorts of scraps for the birds to eat. It is important to avoid any salted meat as birds are unable to process salt. Cooking fats should also be avoided as it is often blended with meat juices, and this encourages bacteria and is not good for feathers.
It is essential to avoid using whole peanuts at this time of the year as they can be easily fed to the young birds. This has dangerous consequences. You can buy chopped peanuts as an alternative. Never add roasted or salted nuts to the bird table.
Avoid using mixtures containing dried rice, split peas, beans or lentils. These are often added to bulk out the mixtures. They tend to encourage the larger bird species such as pheasants, doves or pigeons, but smaller birds cannot eat them.
Milk should never be given as it causes upset stomachs and could kill these birds. They cannot digest milk. A mild, grated cheese can be added to the bird table as this will attract species such as dunnocks, robins and wrens.
Do not use desiccated coconut as it swells inside the birds. Fresh coconut is a tasty treat. Uncooked porridge oats are appropriate but do not put out cooked oats.
Tinned dog food or cat food can be used when there is a shortage of food or if the weather turns bad. Do not give dry dog or cat biscuits as it is easy for them to choke on the lumps. It is possible to soak dog biscuits and to add to the bird table but once, dried, remove. When adding pet food to the feeding station, note that it is likely to attract gulls and magpies.
Feeding birds is a wonderful way to encourage nature into the garden.
Feeding all year round is beneficial to the birds and can be a fun way to connect with nature. It provides unique insight into the characters of these birds too, and you will get to know their favourite foods.
Buy smaller amounts of bird food initially. There is no need to buy in bulk. Trial and error will soon determine the types of food that is enjoyed the most. Buy from reputable companies and replace food as is necessary.
Keep feeding stations and bird tables as clean as possible and remove old or stale food. This will help to reduce the risk of disease which is important.
In addition to buying ready-made bird food, you can also try to make your own bird food and this can lead to the whole family being involved with nature protection. It is not difficult to do. Why not consider doing both?
Do you have any questions about attracting birds into your garden? Please do contact us.
When you commit to feeding birds throughout the year, you invest in the health of these local flocks. You make it easier for them to survive during those times when they are at their most vulnerable. By adding a variety of foods, it is likely that you will receive some surprising visitors to your bird table.