Many households in the UK have a bird table or feeder but how many people actually know what to feed birds to keep them healthy and encourage return visits? It’s certainly worth knowing, as with food shortages occurring in both winter and summer alongside the decline of natural habitat, our garden birds could certainly do with some help!
Just like our beloved pets, garden birds need a highly nutritious diet to help them thrive and be healthy, and it’s often tricky to know whether you’re providing the right nourishment. In addition, you need to ensure their feeding stations and surroundings are kept hygienic and pest-free.
First of all, it’s best to look into whether you have the best bird feeder possible, in order to encourage your favourite birds to flock into your garden. You can also consider using bird platforms, trays or invest in one of the best squirrel-proof bird feeders. These will prevent pests scurrying off with your bird’s nuts and seeds, and also stop them from damaging the feeders.
So what types of food can you feed your feathered friends in the garden? Read our handy tips to help you choose the right food to help them thrive and survive all year round.
1. Quality bird seed mix
Quality bird seed mixes are highly nutritious, and will attract different species to your garden. The best seed mixes contain the perfect combination of oil seeds and cereal grains which will provide plenty of energy. It’s best to buy an all-purpose mix that will typically include a variety of sunflower seeds, maize, rolled oats, pinhead oatmeal, millet, kibbled peanuts, and niger seed. Poor quality seed mixes contain mainly wheat and maize which are ‘bulking’ ingredients or ‘fillers’ such as split peas or dog biscuits that have no nutritional value.
2. Suet and fat balls
Suet pellets, suet blocks and fat balls are ideal for hanging feeders. Suet provides a vital source of energy for them, particularly in the winter months. Popular amongst birds including blue tit, great spotted woodpecker, great tit, long-tailed tit, robin, starling and wren.
Mealworms are high-protein foods and can be given to insectivorous birds all year. Although experts advise that mealworms should be fed fresh, as dead mealworms can cause salmonellosis, you can buy high quality, dried mealworms. These are typically enjoyed by robins, blue tits, blackbird, dunnock, great tit, house sparrow, song thrush, starling, and wren. Mealworm is also ideal to offer during breeding season, but it’s advised to soak first to prevent baby birds from choking.
4. Sunflower hearts
These are the hulled seeds of sunflowers and are loved in particular by finches. Sunflower hearts are a great source of vitamins, fat, protein and fibre, and since they have no hard shell, these are easier for the smaller birds to eat.
Peanuts are a great source of protein, however you have to be careful what type of peanut to give. It’s important the peanuts you give birds are labelled, ‘nil detextable aflatoxin rated. Aflatoxins are toxins found in peanuts and can be harmful to birds if ingested. Ensure the peanuts you buy are tested so they have no traces of aflatoxin. Never feed them salted, dry or roasted peanuts from your pantry.
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6. Bread (in small quantities)
Although it’s not harmful to feed, white bread has no nutritional benefit, lacking in protein and fat that birds need in their diet. Try not to give large amounts of bread or if you do, brown bread is a much healthier option.
7. Household scraps from the kitchen
Leftover food can be a much more practical (and cheaper!) option to feed garden birds. Plus, nothing will ever go to waste! While you should never offer cooked food, you can provide energy-fuelled raw butter, bacon or beef suet. It’s best to avoid raw meat and vegetables, which will be hard for birds to digest and will attract rodents. Potatoes and scraps of pastry are suitable for their high fat content. Grated cheese is a popular choice of food for robins, wrens, and dunnocks, while dried fruit such as raisins and sultanas are enjoyed by blackbirds, robins, and song thrushes.
8. Fruits from the garden
Most gardens have bountiful, fruit trees and plant food sources to attract a variety of birds. Berry trees and shrubs such as holly, honeysuckle and ivy provides tasty fruit but they also provide the perfect shelter to nest and source insects. Popular fruits such as apples and pears are favoured by starlings, thrushes and tits. Bear in mind that such fruits are harmful to cats and dogs so be aware if they are around the bird feeding station.
Fresh water to keep hydrated
Don’t forget to leave out a fresh supply of water every day for your feathered friends. If you don’t have a bird bath, use a large dish or upturned bin lid. Also, it’s best to use lukewarm water on colder days.
How do you feed birds in your garden without attracting pests?
Any bird food left on the ground overnight is bound to entice rats or pests. So only leave out a small amount of what gets eaten, always sweep up any leftovers on the ground, and empty water from bird baths. Typically, seed mix that has already been husked will leave less mess, but it’s also worthwhile to get a ‘pest-proof’ bird feeder. Those with large seed ports may result in a lot of food falling to the ground when knocked so it’s better to have ones with smaller holes to create less spillages. Alternatively, fix a seed-catching tray on your bird-feeder pole to catch excess food.
Finally, make your feeding stations a ‘mission impossible’ for any unwanted visitors to get to. Squirrels and rats are good climbers, so it’s worthwhile strategically placing your bird feeders away from any branches, fences or poles that they can easily use to get to birds precious feed.
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Cynthia Lawrence is freelance lifestyle journalist. Starting off her career in national magazines, she moved to digital and e-commerce publications. When she's not reviewing exciting products, she is obsessed with home interiors and her neighbour's cat!