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Tips for Feeding Garden Birds

Below are some tips for feeding birds, supplied by our co-founder and resident vet Lesley Smith. If you have a question for Lesley, please feel free to get in touch and she’ll be happy to offer her expert opinion.

Bird Baths

A bird bath is an artificial pool or shallow basin that is filled with water, allowing birds to bathe, cool off, and (unlike humans!) drink the bath water. Bird baths provide a safe place for wild birds to bathe; birds require bathing to keep their feathers clean and flexible and their skin healthy.

A bird bath provides a reliable source of water for birds and encourages wild birds into your garden in the summer to take a bath and in the winter to drink ice-free water. Your bird bath will hopefully be safe from predators. A good-looking bird bath makes a wonderful feature in any garden and draws a variety of entertaining birds to your garden.

Several types of bird baths are available in various shapes and sizes, as well as in different materials – e.g. a cast iron bird bath, a stone bird bath, a concrete bird bath, or a plastic bird bath. Here at The Really Wild Bird Food Company, we provide a wide range of bird baths to suit almost every requirement.

A good bird bath should be simple and light enough to easily clean and refill. The surface of the bath should be rough, allowing birds to grip it with their claws without slipping. Position your bird bath in your garden where a bird can easily see any approaching predator, and near to trees so that birds can survey the area before landing to use the bird bath. In order to attract birds to your garden, a bird bath must be kept full of clean water. Cleaning your bird bath every few days is essential to the health and safety of birds that use it. Also, keep your bird bath free of unsightly stains and smells. The benefits of bird baths are well worth the effort it takes to pick the right one, place it in a good spot, and keep it clean and filled.

Helping Birds Survive & Thrive

Helping garden birds to survive and thrive means creating a garden that your birds and other wildlife can appreciate and enjoy all year ‘round. Thriving bird populations are a sure sign that we are creating a healthy and sustainable living environment. What we offer in our gardens is so important because the total acreage of gardens in the UK is huge - it actually exceeds that of all UK nature reserves put together!

The best way to provide the supplementary energy and nutrients on which your garden birds rely (and to maximise the number of different bird species visiting your garden) is to provide a variety of high-quality food types, offered in a range of different feeders, at a number of locations throughout your garden. That way, there is something for every bird to eat, and pure enjoyment for you as you support a thriving bird population right on your doorstep!

Garden birds do have preferences for where and how they feed. Birds such as chaffinches, robins, dunnocks, thrushes, blackbirds and wagtails really like to have their feet on the ground. However, new innovations such as simple perch rings for seed feeders can act as a platform for feeding birds and make it much easier for robins and chaffinches to scale the heady heights of hanging feeders! Clinging birds like the tit family and the great spotted woodpecker love to hang on to a feeder, while birds like greenfinches and sparrows are happiest perching. So providing different feeder types for your garden birds is a really good thing to do.

Choosing Your Bird Food

Premium Sunflowrer Hearts What food you offer will, to some extent, be determined by factors like the season and the climate. During the breeding season, when birds are feeding young chicks, high-protein foods such as live mealworms and wax worms will be of most benefit to the young offspring. Adults will feed their young before they feed themselves, so if live foods are in short supply, the adults tend to offer these to the chicks and they will fall back on available seeds. Sunflower hearts are a really good choice in this situation, since they are high in oil and offer an immediately available source of energy because they don't require de-husking which takes up valuable time. Maximum energy with minimum effort!

During freezing winter days, when small birds like blue tits and long tailed tits spend up to 85% of the daytime feeding just to survive, high-quality fat products like suet pellets and fat balls will offer the highest supplementary heat supply. And did you know that great tits change the shape of their beaks according to the feeding season? In summer, great tits prefer a soft, insect-based diet – which doesn't require much chewing – but in the winter, when their diet becomes predominately seed-based, their bills become thicker, shorter and stronger to cope with cracking the seeds.

So which foods should you put out? There are 6 main food types which make up the basic staple offering for garden birds:
  • A high-quality seed mix
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Peanuts
  • Suet products
  • Live mealworms
  • Niger seed
Please remember that a fresh, clean supply of drinking water is absolutely essential.

It is also essential that the seeds you offer are of the highest quality and cleanliness. This will make them more palatable. Here, on our own farm, we grow as many of the seeds as we can, and we double-clean our seed to minimise dust and debris and maximise palatability. Supplying fresh seed is also really important. Birds won't want to eat stale seed that has been in a bag, on a shelf, or inside a feeder for months on end. Here on our farm, we can guarantee that the seed you purchase from us has been prepared and bagged within a couple of weeks of you receiving it – beautifully fresh and straight from our farm. Not many other bird food companies can make that statement!

It is also important to bear in mind that not all bird seed mixes are the same. When selecting a seed mix, be sure to choose one with high-quality ingredients. Seeds fall into two categories: high-oil seeds and cereal grains. Some wild birds, such as house sparrows, yellowhammers, chaffinches and reed buntings, are lovers of the cereal grains. Cereal grains include wheat, barley, naked oats, millet, canary seed and maize. In years gone by, when sparrows existed in huge numbers in the UK, they could decimate large areas of wheat fields on farms by stripping the wheat. Nowadays, it is large pigeon numbers we have to contend with as sparrow populations have dwindled. Pinhead oatmeal (which is finely chopped groats – the kernel of an ordinary oat) has a high fibre and vitamin content and is extremely popular with many garden birds.

You shouldn't really expect to find barley grains in the seed mixes you buy; however yellowhammers and chaffinches do love barley, and we have superb flocks of them here on the farm when there is barley lying in the fields. There are very many poor-quality wild bird seed mixes available, especially those supplied by shops and garden centres. These have a high percentage of wheat and maize in them – maize often being used as relatively cheap bulking agent. If you do feed a mixed seed which contains a lot of wheat or maize, you will find that you will be inundated with larger birds such as pigeons, doves, pheasant (if you are near open countryside), jays, rooks and jackdaws. These bigger birds will dominate feeding areas and prevent your smaller garden birds from feeding. Other cheap 'filler' ingredients such as split peas, beans, and even bits of dog biscuit are also found in cheaper bird seed mixes. None of these should be fed to garden birds, so avoid purchasing these mixes.

High-quality seed mixes will contain a good percentage of nutritious, high-oil seeds like black sunflower seeds, sunflower hearts, peanut granules, oil seed rape and niger seed. Interestingly, although naked oats are a cereal grain, they do have a very high oil content –this probably explains why they are so popular. For general day-to-day feeding, seed mixes which contain a good blend of oil seeds and cereal grains will provide a good deal of sustenance. During periods of high stress, such as extremely cold periods or when feeding youngsters, garden birds will benefit from being offered a diet that’s higher in oil seeds (whether served straight or within a high energy seed mix).

Types of Bird Feeder

The type of feeders you use will to some extent be determined by the food you are offering. Sunflower seeds and seed mixes are most commonly offered in hanging tube feeders. The garden birds that use this type of feeder are greenfinches, goldfinches, chaffinches, sparrows, blue tits, great tits, coal tits and siskin. Finches will typically stay at a feeder perch while feeding, whereas tits tend to repeatedly visit the feeder and take away individual seeds to eat them in a nearby tree or bush.

Niger seeds and thistle seeds are two small, fine feeds loved by goldfinches and siskin. Thistle seed comes from the teasel plant, which grows wild in the UK. It is a biennial plant and therefore difficult to cultivate and harvest in large quantities, making the teasel/thistle seed incredibly expensive to buy. You can often spot goldfinches feeding on wild teasel plants at roadsides. Niger seed is a more affordable alternative. It is a tiny black seed (related to the sunflower seed) that comes from the ramtil plant, which grows in Ethiopia. Niger seeds have to be fed from a special niger feeder, which has tiny 'slit' feeding holes instead of normal seed ports. Seed ports would allow the niger seeds to pour out onto the ground. Goldfinches and siskin have extremely pointed bills which allows them to access the niger seed in the special feeders. While other finches (like greenfinches, bullfinches, etc.) do enjoy the taste of niger seed, the size and shape of their bills makes accessing the niger feeders nigh-impossible!

Peanuts, on the other hand, require a steel mesh feeder – the mesh prevents garden birds such as nuthatches and coal tits taking whole peanuts and hoarding them! The mesh offers a clinging area that allows birds like nuthatches, great spotted woodpeckers, house sparrows, tits and siskins to cling on and peck at the peanuts. A 6mm mesh size is optima, as this is large enough to prevent beak damage, yet small enough to hold the peanuts back.

Peanuts are rich in fat, and must be 'nil detectable aflatoxin’ rated. Aflatoxins are toxins produced by the fungus aspergillus flavus that can affect peanuts and will be harmful for garden birds if ingested. The fungus develops if peanuts are transported or stored in hot and humid conditions. All the peanuts we supply here at Street End Farm have been rigorously tested to ensure they are 'nil detectable aflatoxin' rated. Please note that salted or dry roasted peanuts are also not suitable for your garden birds.

Deluxe Robin Crumble with MealwormsSoft food feeders, for seed mixes with a high percentage of peanut granules and mealworms (like our Deluxe Robin Crumble), are mainly used by cheeky robins, but you may find that blackbirds and some tits will recognise something tasty in the dish too. Very occasionally, a brave wren or a pied wagtail may hop up onto a soft food feeder for some mealworms. These feeders usually have a 'roof' element to keep the rain off and prevent the peanut granules from becoming soggy.

These types of foods cannot be used in tube feeders for the reason that they get clogged up. Live mealworms – which are the larvae of the flour beetle (tenebrio molitor) – are 48% protein and 40% fat, and they can be used to feed birds throughout the year. However, it is important that any mealworms fed to birds are fresh. Dead or discoloured mealworms should not be fed since they can cause problems such as salmonellosis. Feed live mealworms from a shallow, steep-sided dish, such as a ramekin dish, if you don't have a bespoke mealworm feeder to use.

Hanging feeders for suet pellets, suet blocks and fatballs are becoming ever more popular. It is mainly the tit family that visits fat feeders, and long tailed tits in particular will arrive in families to feed on tasty fat products.

Again, it is important to supply really good-quality fat for maximum energy. We recommend that you remove any nylon mesh from fat balls or peanuts, since they can trap tits by their legs and woodpeckers by their barbed tongues. Although we do still sell fat balls with mesh (for customers without fat ball feeders), our sales ratio of un-netted to netted balls is nearly 10:1, so most customers now chose the safer option for their birds.

Another great way to help feed garden birds like treecreepers, firecrests and great spotted woodpeckers is to fill the bark holes in tree trunks with softened suet containing insects, mealworm and peanut granules – delicious!

For those birds that prefer to feed on the ground (such as dunnocks, blackbirds, thrushes, Robins and Wrens), there are a variety of options available. The foods they love include black sunflower seeds, pinhead oatmeal, rolled naked oats, soaked sultanas and raisins, mild grated cheese, mealworms, soft apples, pears, bananas and even grapes. You can simply scatter food on the ground for them, although a range of low level table-type ground feeders are available.

Ground Feeder GuardiansWith both these methods, ground feeder guardians are effective in preventing larger (and sometimes less welcome) birds like pigeons, jays, magpies and crows from hogging the feeder and eating all the food! It is important when ground feeding to 'feed to demand' – don’t leave uneaten food out since this will attract rats. To reduce disease build-up, try also to move the feeding area from place to place.

A note of caution: raisins and sultanas are nephrotoxic to dogs and cats (i.e. they can damage their kidneys), so please don't allow them to 'hoover' up the ground feed. And finally, of course, many ground feeding birds will happily land on a bird table they feel safe on.

For tips on how to manage feeding birds in the present of problematic squirrels, please see our page on deterring squirrels. Remember, if you have any further questions about feeding garden birds, you’re welcome to contact us.
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