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20 Tips on Feeding British Wild Birds in Your Garden

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20 Tips on Feeding British Wild Birds in Your Garden

Whether you’re a wildlife enthusiast, a keen gardener, or you have young children who are learning about the environment, it’s a joy and a pleasure to feed our feathered friends a decent meal.

But what exactly is a decent meal for British birds? And when should you provide food? In this bird feeding guide, we’ll unravel all of the dos and don’ts of wild bird feeding so that you’re equipped to feed with confidence.

What to feed wild birds

Perhaps the most pertinent question is just what to put out. There are a number of different foods that will provide great nutritional value:

1. Bird seed mixtures. These contain a range of different seeds, but the best ones include lots of flaked maize, peanut granules and sunflower seeds, so look out for those. Avoid ones which contain beans, dried rice or lentils as only large birds can eat these, which may deter smaller birds from your garden.

2. Nyjer seeds, black sunflower seeds and peanuts are all also great choices, as they all contain lots of fats or oils so will help birds to fuel up well. However, don’t make the mistake of putting out salted or dry roasted peanuts, and make sure you get your nuts from a reputable bird seed dealer to avoid getting nuts which are high in aflatoxin.

3. Food bars, ‘bird cake’ or fat balls are great for birds, especially in the winter months when they need extra fat. Make your own at home by using a mixture of melted fat (lard or suet), nuts, oatmeal, cheese, dried fruit and seeds, and set until hard. This detailed tutorial explains how to make fat balls. However, if you buy any of these treats, remember to remove any mesh bags before putting the balls out, as these can injure birds.

4. Dog & cat food (wet only, and in small quantities). During the summer, blackbirds will appreciate a little meaty dog or cat food, when earthworms are difficult to find.

5. Cooked rice is great for birds during the winter, and pigeons, pheasants and doves will enjoy uncooked rice all year round.

6. Breakfast cereal. Living up to its nickname as ‘bird food’, breakfast cereal makes a great meal for our feathered friends! Only put out a little bit at any one time, and offer lots of drinking water nearby.

Two Greenfinches on a bird feeder

 Image Credit: CarolineCCB

Can you feed wild birds kitchen scraps?

Kitchen scraps can also be offered to birds as an occasional treat, as long as you know what to put out for them and what to throw in the bin or on the compost heap.

7. Leftover vegetables will always be more than welcome to birds – however, if offering frozen veg, remember to thaw it first!

8. Stale cheese will happily be accepted by birds – though only offer hard cheese, as soft cheese is not suitable.

9. Crushed eggshells, believe it or not, can be a great source of calcium for birds when they’re nesting, and can also help with their digestion.

10. Bruised fruit. Birds won’t turn their beaks up at bruised or overripe fruit as we might do. Chop the fruit up into small, manageable pieces before putting out onto the bird table.

11. Baked goods, such as dry or stale bread crusts, cookies, crackers and even doughnuts are all a good source of food for birds. If the items are very stale, soak them in water first, and always break the food up into small pieces.

However, putting kitchen scraps out for birds can create problems. As well as birds, your offering may well be tempting to pests such as mice and rats, and any leftover food can end up rotting and creating an unpleasant smell.

Avoid this problem by only putting out small amounts of food at a time, and try to put the scraps into hanging cage feeders that are harder for pests to get to.

Also, remember that kitchen scraps often don’t offer as much nutritional value as nuts and seeds do, so don’t put them out too often.

What not to feed wild birds

There are also a few foods that you should never put out for birds:

12. Cooking fats. Lard and suet are suitable, but cooked fat from a roasting tin will also probably contain meat juices, which changes its consistency and means that it can smear onto birds’ feathers, which can cause problems with waterproofing and insulation. It can also often contain bad bacteria.

13. Polyunsaturated margarines and vegetable oils. As well as potentially smearing onto birds’ feathers, these don’t contain the saturated fats that birds require for energy.

14. Dry cat and dog food. If not soaked beforehand, these foods can cause birds to choke. As well as that, they can attract predators such as cats and large birds like gulls.

15. While hard cheese is fine for birds, milk is really bad for them and can cause severe stomach upsets, and even ultimately kill them. The same goes for desiccated coconut, which can swell inside the bird’s stomach.

16. Cooked porridge can harden around a bird’s beak, but uncooked oats are fine.

17. Mouldy food should always be thrown away, as some types of mould can be dangerous for birds.

Greenfinch protecting it's food

 Image Credit: Keith Ellwood

How to feed wild birds - bird feeding tables, poles and stations

Bird feeding tables will be most needed during the colder months, so you may wish to keep yours in the shed during the spring and summer when there is a wealth of other food available to birds. However, you can leave your station out throughout the year if you wish to.

Place your bird table or feeding station in a position where it is clearly visible from the house, but also reasonably safe from predators – for instance, ensuring that it is at a decent height will help to keep birds safe from neighbourhood cats.

But which type of station should you choose? Here are the main options:

18. Bird tables. These consist of a basic tray, and sometimes also include a roof. Make sure yours has a raised rim, with a gap at each corner. This will mean that the food stays in place, but that rainwater can drain away.

19. Bird Feeders. You can choose from either nut or seed feeders, and it’s a good idea to get at least one of each so that you can offer the birds a varied diet. Nut feeders should be made from a steel mesh with holes of around 6mm; and seed feeders are transparent cylinders with holes in.

Clean your feeding station or table regularly, and ensure that any old food is disposed of to avoid any health risk to birds. If you feel like getting crafty, this article offers lots of unusual ideas for DIY bird feeders that you can make at home.

Three birds protecting food in a bird feeder

 Image Credit: Nic McPhee

When to Feed wild birds

20. Birds need most help finding food sources during the winter, when there is a shortage of meals available to them. However, giving birds a helping hand throughout the year isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Focus on offering good quality foods with plenty of saturated fats in the autumn and winter months, and offer high protein foods such as seeds in spring and summer. Avoid providing peanuts, bread and fat during the spring and summer, as these may be fed to chicks, and these foods aren't suitable for them.

At all times, a good water source is appreciated by birds, so remember to keep your bird bath topped up with fresh water and rinse it daily. Also, try to get into a feeding routine – birds will visit your garden at the same time each day if they know they can expect food then.

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