In winter our garden birds face a double whammy of challenges: it’s cold, so they need more food to keep up their energy and fat reserves. And at the same time, there is much less food around: plants are bare, flying insects have vanished, and worms are buried in frozen ground. The food we provide is crucial at this time of year, so let’s look at what to feed garden birds in winter.
What Foods Do Birds Need in Winter?
Unlike many of us humans, garden birds really don’t need to watch their calorie or fat intake, especially in winter. In fact calorie-rich, high-fat foods are exactly what they need to build up body fat and maintain energy reserves.
Who Eats What?
Many of our birds are quite adaptable and will readily take a wide range of foods, especially when their preferred options may be scarce. But different groups of birds definitely have preferences, and catering to these in the winter will ensure you help a wide selection of birds in your garden.
- The tit family enjoy seeds and insects but will go mad for suet products and fat ball.s
- Finches and sparrows like seeds, in the case of finches tiny seeds like nyjer or thistle seeds are especially popular.
- Robins, Blackbirds and Thrushes like fruit and worms, these birds are softbills and will struggle to get much benefit from many commercial seed mixes.
- Starlings and of course pigeons enjoy a very varied diet and will eat pretty much anything you put out – and plenty of it!
What To Feed Garden Birds In Winter: Commercial Bird Food
There is a wide selection of commercial bird food which will benefit your garden birds in winter, some mixes are specially formulated for the winter months.
If you were only going to buy one type of bird food for the winter then this would be a good choice: it has something for just about everyone who might be visiting your bird table: suet pellets for the tits, seeds including nyjer for the finches, oats for the softbills, as well as sunflower seeds and kibbled peanuts. It is specially formulated to offer exactly what our birds need in the winter and includes at least 20% essential fats.
Personally, I’d be happier if it came in a paper sack, rather than a plastic bag, but that aside, this mix is a really sound starting point for winter bird feeding.
Rich in fat and protein, sunflower seeds are a useful food at most times of the year, but in winter they are especially helpful.
These are a no-mess variety of sunflower hearts, which will not leave your lawn littered with discarded husks but more importantly, means the birds can get at all those vital nutrients without having to waste energy removing the husks.
There are a few different types of sunflower seeds available: black, black oil and striped sunflower seeds as well as sunflower hearts. They all have their merits and we’ve written a guide on which is best to feed birds here.
These tiny black seeds are also full of beneficial oils and protein, so are a top choice for feeding birds in winter. Goldfinches and Siskins especially love them.
Nyjer seeds are so small though that they fall straight out of most hanging feeders. Either buy a specialist nyjer seed feeder, sprinkle them or your bird table or mix them in with other foods.
Biodiversity is in crisis in the UK with huge numbers of species of plants, invertebrates and animals in decline or going extinct. But many of our small bird species, after having a tough time in the second half of the 20th century, are doing pretty well now. And that success owes much to their willingness to adopt our gardens as home and our commitment to feeding them.
We all know how fattening peanuts are – and if you are a wild bird in winter this is a good thing!
Peanuts will be taken by a wide range of birds including tits and finches. If you crush them they will even attract robins and wrens.
Be careful to only feed birds good quality peanuts. Some peanuts are high in aflatoxins, which are extremely dangerous for birds. Look for a brand like these which have been aflatoxin tested.
And never be tempted to offer wild birds your leftover salted or dry roasted peanuts: way too much salt for a small bird to digest.
Fat balls, suet pellets and suet blocks are all excellent options for feeding birds in winter. Obviously, they are high fat, but most also contain other added goodies from sunflower hearts to dried fruit and peanuts.
In summer there may be some concern about suet products going rancid, or even melting in the heat. During the winter months this isn’t a concern, so feel free to pile on the fat balls!
Suet products now come in such a variety of forms that you are spoilt for choice on how to serve them Pellets and be placed on bird tables for ground-feeding birds whilst blacks and balls can be offered in hanging feeders for those who prefer to perch.
If you’re feeling creative or keen to save some pennies you can even make your own fat balls.
When earthworms are buried deep under the frozen ground there is nothing a robin or a blackbird (or most garden birds, to be honest) love more than a mealworm or two.
Mealworms are the larvae of the darkling beetle, so for the many species of garden bird that eat insects and invertebrates, they are very close to being a natural food.
They are extremely high in protein, up to 50% in the dried variety, with 20 – 25% fat too – not m not much goes to waste in a mealworm.
You can buy them dried or live, or even grow your own. Use them sparingly; they are expensive, will disappear fast from your bird feeders and should only be considered as a part of the diet.
We suggest you offer them in the morning and don’t place them on the ground. In the unlikely event that any are left over by late afternoon, clear them away. They are very bad for hedgehogs.
Kitchen Scraps for Garden Birds in Winter
You don’t have to rely on commercial bird food for your garden birds in winter. There are plenty of kitchen scraps that will go down a treat too.
- Fruit, fresh or dried fruit has plenty of natural sugars and therefore energy-giving calories. If you offer dried fruit, soak it in a little warm water before you put it out.
- Nuts, Any nuts left over from Christmas baking can be added to your bird feeder. Crush them to make them easier for small birds to handle. And don’t be tempted to put out salted for dry roasted nuts.
- Cheese. Any left over grated cheese can go on the bird table, the high fat content is very useful. Nothing too salty though.
- Veg. leftover vegetables such as peas and sweetcorn make a good addition to the winter bird table as they are high in protein. Not sure that Brussel sprouts would be very much appreciated though!
- Eggs and eggshells. Eggs are nature’s perfect food – very high in protein and full of essential vitamins and minerals. And eggshells are high in calcium. So a little hard-boiled egg, including the crushed shell, will be very good for your garden birds.
We have a full guide to kitchen scraps for garden birds here.
And a guide on what not to feed wild birds here.
It’s important to feed kitchen scraps sparingly and always clean up any leftovers before the evening, to avoid attracting any unwanted visitors.
Gardening for Birds in Winter.
Though winter is a time of natural food shortages for our wild birds there are things you can do in the garden to offer greater feeding options for the birds.
- Plant trees and bushes with berries for birds. Although some will be gone in the autumn, others like holly will go on providing food right through to the end of winter. Then in early spring, many will blossom early, bringing insects into your garden for the birds to eat.
- Leave seed heads in place. Though it can be tempting to cut back those old brown seed heads in the garden, resist the urge until the spring. Seed loving birds like finches will peck over them and find food throughout the winter.
- Let leat litter lie. Don’t be too thorough on sweeping up fallen leaves. They provide a home for invertebrates and robins and blackbirds will enjoy rummaging through them for a meal. Fallen leaves are also the favourite nesting material for hibernating hedgehogs.
Don’t Forget the Water!
Garden birds need access to unfrozen water for bathing and drinking in winter. Keep your birdbath clean and topped up.
Break up the ice with a kettle full of hot water in the mornings, or try placing a ping pong ball in your birdbath to stop it from freezing.
Never add salt to the birdbath to stop it from freezing.
Winter – the Most Important Time to Feed Garden Birds.
Feeding birds throughout the years helps them to survive and thrive in an environment where their natural food sources have been depleted by humans
But in winter, when smaller birds can lose up to 10% of their body weight in just one cold night, offering a supplementary food supply is genuinely life-saving.
So whilst it may not be much fun venturing out into the garden in the cold winter months to top up your bird feeder, and defrost the bird bath, wrap up warm and think of how much good you are doing!
Thanks for reading. We hope you’ve found this post useful, and as always, we would love to hear your own thoughts and questions on how to feed birds in winter – leave us a comment below.