How To? Feed the Birds in Your Garden
Of all the things we can do to help the wildlife in our gardens, feeding the birds is probably the most rewarding. With over 1 million acres of garden in this country there is plenty of opportunity for us to make a huge difference to the survival of native birds, by making use of the area immediately available to them. Birds can be fed in a variety of different ways using the enormous range of products now on the market. Times have changed dramatically since the days when Peanuts were all that were available, and it is now possible to target specific bird species by offering their preferred bird food.
As well as helping the survival of garden birds, encouraging them to your garden with bird food has a therapeutic effect for many people. Close proximity with wildlife has been shown to reduce stress levels in some people and many people of all ages find watching the birds in their gardens relaxing and rewarding. Taken to the next level, we can now join schemes whereby garden owners monitor the bird species visiting their gardens, and scientific organisations such as the British Trust for Ornithology collect and collate these observations and use them in research to look at trends in bird population numbers. All in all, garden bird watching can be rewarding for us in many different, as well as being very beneficial to our native birds.
So does feeding our garden birds really make a difference to their survival? The answer to that is a resounding ‘yes’. The decline of many once common species such as House Sparrow and Starling has been widely researched, and there is compelling evidence that lack of natural food in our countryside for these birds has played an significant part in their loss. This is where wildlife gardeners can have a very positive input. Supplementing natural food with seeds, nuts, dried insects and fruits will provide nutrition for a wide variety of species, especially over the winter months when these foods are in short supply in the wild. At other times, for instance through the breeding period, supplementary feeding in gardens helps adult birds to keep themselves well-fed and healthy, allowing them to spend more time hunting for the high protein insects that their nestlings require. This can increase fledgling survival. Later when the young birds emerge from the nest and are able to feed themselves, they are often brought to feeders by their parents who recognise that Peanuts and Sunflower Seeds are high energy foods, just right for helping their youngsters to put on weight quickly. So feeding the right foods all through the year can have a dramatic effect on the survival of birds in your area.
If the question is “How do I attract more birds to my garden?” The answer is “JustAddBirds!”
What to feed garden birds
Many mail order companies provide a range of seed mixes as well as the traditional Peanuts that many of us fed to our garden birds in the past. Peanuts are still a valuable high energy food source for a range of birds, especially Great Spotted Woodpeckers, Nuthatches and some finches, but many other products have come into the bird-feeding market place. The most useful is the Black Sunflower Seed, with or without its seed coat or husk. This is a food source valued by a huge range of bird species including all the tits, Greenfinch, Chaffinch, Goldfinch, Siskin, House Sparrow and Robin.
How To? Feed JAB Bird Food Mixes
Peanuts and Sunflower Seeds (known as “Sunflower Hearts” without the husk) make up the bulk of many seed mixes now available. These are often known as ‘high energy’ mixtures and have a high calorific value making them very suitable as winter food for lots of different birds. If seeds of other types are added, for instance millet or corn, Collared Doves, House Sparrows and Dunnocks will also be attracted. If Raisins or Sultanas are a component of a mix then Blackbirds and thrushes will find the food especially palatable. Large quantities of grain or corn will attract Collared Doves, Wood Pigeons and even Pheasants!
How To? Feed JAB Peanuts
Peanuts can be bought as whole nuts or as Peanut Granules. The latter are usually found in seed mixtures and are the most nutritious part of the peanut. Peanuts should ideally be fed in a wire mesh feeder, to ensure that whole nuts cannot be taken. Although there is very little risk of birds choking on a large Peanut, this is still a worthwhile precaution.
How To? Feed Live Foods
Many birds, especially Robins, are partial to live foods such as meal worms or wax worms which are available from bird food companies. In fact some birds appreciate these insect larvae so much that it is even possible, with patience, to encourage robins to take them from the hand. They should be fed in small containers to prevent them from crawling away! Earthworms can also be bought for this purpose – blackbirds and thrushes are particularly fond of these.
How To? Feed JAB Nyjer Seed
In recent years it has been possible to purchase Nyjer seed which is a huge favourite with goldfinches. Often these most colourful of our finches will come to the garden if teasel, lavender or thistle seeds are available, but they are more difficult to coax to the bird feeding area.
Niger is a tiny black seed which goldfinches find irresistible. It may take a few weeks for the first birds to find it, but once they have the word will spread and others soon arrive. It is not unusual to have ‘charms’ of twenty or thirty goldfinches around a special niger feeder. Greenfinches, siskins and redpolls are also fond of niger seed.
How To? Feed JAB Fat Foods
High energy fat foods are available in the form of vegetable or animal fat with seeds incorporated. Some also include dried berries and insects. These are generally fed to your garden birds in a special hanging wire container, as if they are placed on a bird table they may disintegrate easily.
How To? Feed Scraps and Fruit
Many of us still give leftover scraps, fruit, bread or cake crumbs to our garden birds. These can be very nutritious and a valuable food source for many species, particularly house sparrows, starlings, chaffinches and blackbirds. Apples are a firm favourite with blackbirds, thrushes, redwings and fieldfares. Wrens and robins love crumbs of cheese. Many food scraps may be fed to garden birds, but never include meat products as these may attract less welcome creatures such as rats.
How To? Feed Garden Birds
There is now a huge variety of foodstuffs available for garden birds, but we need to know the safest way of feeding them. The traditional bird table is still a favourite with many people but is becoming less popular.
Smaller birds may find it difficult to compete with larger more aggressive species such as starlings. If this is the case in your garden, hanging feeders are an excellent alternative. These can also be easily moved from one location to another in the garden helping to prevent the build up of harmful diseases. Some seeds, especially niger where the individual seeds are very small, are best fed from a specially designed feeder. Peanuts should always be in a hanging mesh container to prevent whole nuts from being taken.
Some common garden visitors such as chaffinches, house sparrows, dunnocks and collared doves, are happiest feeding on the ground. This can put them at risk from predation by local cats, so a low table, with a fine mesh top to allow drainage, is a useful addition. If cats are not a problem in your area, seeds scattered onto the lawn will bring a range of birds to the garden.
Problems with Garden Feeding
Cats: It is impossible to estimate the numbers of birds, reptiles and small mammals that domestic cats kill in this country every year. Estimates are made from time to time, but based as they are on ‘average’ cats these numbers can never be accurate. Some cats hardly ever hunt, or are unsuccessful hunters. Others are proficient hunters, but may either eat their catch or may not bring it to a place where it can be counted. But however inaccurate the estimates, there is no doubt that the impact is tremendous. So by feeding the birds are we putting them at unnecessary risk? Observations suggest that this is not the case. Where food is provided, especially in hanging feeders, birds spend less time foraging and are therefore thought to be less at risk. If feeders are well positioned, away from places where cats can lurk unseen, then the risk to garden birds is thought to be minimal. The benefits of good quality readily available food, probably outweighs the negative aspects of living in an area with a high cat population. If you feel the birds in your garden do suffer as a result of a high density of cats, you may want to invest in an electronic cat scarer, which emits a high frequency noise that cats dislike.
Many people dislike sparrowhawks in their garden, for obvious reasons. But a sparrowhawk swooping through the garden and taking a bird is a completely natural occurrence and has no impact on the bird population of your area. If you would rather not witness a bird of prey making a meal of one of your birds, make sure your bird feeding area is within two meters of dense cover, such as an evergreen shrub. Feeders designed to deter squirrels will also prevent sparrowhawks grabbing a small bird, or a few bamboo canes around a bird table will help to put a sparrowhawk off its stride, and give the birds a chance to escape.
Grey squirrels can be an absolute nightmare in some gardens, completely destroying hanging feeders to get at the food within. Many ‘squirrel proof’ feeders are available, but it doesn’t take these intelligent mammals long to work out a way to get to the peanuts inside them. One option is actually to provide a squirrel feeder specifically for them – they generally leave the bird feeders alone if they have easy access to another source of food. An alternative is to treat the bird food with a squirrel deterrent which generally incorporates chilli pepper in one form or another. Only mammals have the necessary taste buds to detect chilli, so birds will happily consume the treated food with not ill effects. Squirrels an the other hand, take one bite and retreat hastily! It is not certain how successful this deterrent is in the long term.
It is very important to ensure that the birds that you encourage to your garden do not encounter hazards of any kind, and a variety of diseases can be present around bird feeding areas. Salmonella and E. coli can both affect birds, making it very important to ensure that bird feeders are cleaned regularly. Moving hanging feeders from time to time also helps to prevent disease spreading, as there is less likely to be a build-up of bird droppings in one place. Both conventional bird tables and low tables should be thoroughly cleaned from time to time. A range of disinfectants are available for this purpose.
A further hazard is the effect of aflatoxins in peanuts. This is a poisonous toxin that develops from the growth of a fungus or mould in peanuts that have not been stored in appropriate conditions. If this contamination occurs it is generally while the nuts are being transported via container from their country of origin. It is vital to ensure that any peanuts you buy carry the ‘safe nuts’ logo, which will tell you that they have been scientifically tested and are guaranteed free of this potentially fatal toxin.
All mixes and nuts should be stored in cool dry conditions, where they are inaccessible to small mammals. Lidded plastic containers in a garage or cool out-house are perfect for the job.
What can you expect?
If you go to the trouble of feeding the birds in your garden, what species can you expect to see? To a large extent that depends on where in the country you live. People who live in the Chilterns can now expect to see red kites in their gardens if appropriate food is put out for them. Siskins are more common in the north, and in some gardens in the London area, parakeets are now common visitors. Most of us can expect to see a minimum of ten different bird species around our feeders at different times of year, and many of us will see a great many more. If natural food in the form of berries and seeds is also available, thirty or forty different bird species is a possibility. Blackbirds, starlings and house sparrows may be your commonest garden visitors, but even these species will give you hours of hours of enjoyment and you will greatly assisting their survival by providing food for them.