Tips for Feeding Garden BirdsBelow 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.
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!
Should I provide one type of food, or more? The best way to attract a wide range of birds and provide all the nutrients they need is by offering a variety of high-quality food types, in a range of different feeders around 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!
Do garden birds have feeding preferences? 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
What should I feed birds during breeding season? 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.
What should I feed birds during winter? 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.
DID YOU KNOW? 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 their bills become thicker, shorter and stronger to cope with cracking the hard seeds.
Bird food essentials 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
- Suet products
- Live mealworms
- Niger seed
Is the bird food quality important? It is also essential that the seeds you offer are of the highest quality and cleanliness. This will make them more palatable. 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.
Learn how we grow & clean our bird seeds>
Are all bird seed mixes the same? 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:
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.
- High-oil seeds
- Cereal grains
DID YOU KNOW? 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.
What’s in a high-quality bird seed mix? High-quality seed mixes will contain a good percentage of nutritious, high-oil seeds like black sunflower seeds, sunflower hearts, peanuts, peanut granules, oil seed rape and niger seed.
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 a diet that’s higher in oil seeds.
What to expect from poor quality bird seed? 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.
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.
Which feeder can I use for niger seeds?Niger seed is an affordable alternative to thistle seed, both of which are seeds favoured by goldfinches and siskin. Niger seed 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!
What type of bird feeder is best for feeding wild birds peanuts? If you want to feed your garden birds peanuts, you will 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 optimal, because it’s large enough to prevent beak damage, yet small enough to hold the peanuts back.
DID YOU KNOW? 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!
Peanuts for birds should be ‘nil detextable 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.
What kind of feeder should i use for soft bird foods?Soft 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.
What feeder should i use for suet and fat balls?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!
Should i offer mealworms? 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.
What do ground feeding birds eat? 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: You can simply scatter food on the ground for them, although a range of low-level table-type ground feeders are available.
How to stop unwanted creatures eating from ground feeders? With 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.
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. For tips on how to manage feeding birds in the present of problematic squirrels, please see our page on deterring squirrels. We also have lots of information about providing water for birds. Remember, if you have any further questions about feeding garden birds, you’re welcome to contact us.