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Attracting birds to your garden

There are many ways in which to make your garden a haven for birds and wildlife. By providing wildlife with a place to feed, drink, nest, roost or shelter you are not only helping birds and animals to survive the day to day threats that they face, you and your family can also gain a lot of pleasure from helping and observing them. A feeding station is also a great way to encourage children to take an interest in the natural world around them and allows you all to watch the comings and goings from the comfort of your home.

Millions of households in the UK help our birds by providing them with food, natural foods provided by selective planting of trees and shrubs which produce fruit, berries and seeds, or flowers that attract insects which in turn are fed on by the birds, or by providing food in feeders, on bird tables or simply scattered on the lawn. Our gardens make up a large area in the United Kingdom and the habitats and food they provide are very important for the survival of many of our native species.

Many of our native birds are threatened due to changes in habitat and more efficient methods of farming, this means less spilt seed and fences instead of hedgerows and in turn less food and nesting sites for our birds. Many species like Sparrows and Finches depend more than ever on food put out by humans.

Feed the birds all year round

RSPB and BTO guidelines suggest feeding the birds all year round, it is still best not to provide whole peanuts in the nesting season, as these may be to large for young birds, supply them in a wire feeder so that only small pieces can be removed. Think about providing different foods to attract different species at different times of the year. Many finches that generally feed on seeds, actually feed there young on insects in the breeding season. You can help birds at this time by providing them with mealworms or other insect foods, in dry periods natural foods like worms may be difficult for them to find, and in wet periods the same can apply to caterpillars.

Winter thrushes such as Fieldfare and Redwing come to Britain in the autumn from Scandinavia and stay until the spring, they can be attracted to gardens if you provide them with fruit such as apples, particularly towards the end of their stay, when natural food may be hard to find.

Fieldfare (Above) feeding on apple. Many species of Thrushes come to winter in Britain from Scandinavia, along with numbers of the more familiar species, Fieldfare and Redwing arrive in the autumn and will come to Gardens in search of food when natural resources are depleted or hard to find because of snow covered ground.

It is also important to feed consistently, particularly in the winter, birds may come to rely on your garden as a food source and may travel some distance to get there. Valuable energy could be wasted in travelling to a food source that isn't there.

The Winter Wren (left) is one of the most numerous birds in Britain, but due to its small size and secretive manner, it is often overlooked. Their size can also put them at risk in hard weather, so they can benefit from supplementary feeding.

Think about the location of your feeders and bird table.

Some species like Dunnocks and Wrens are shy and like to feed on the edge of cover and prefer to feed on the ground. They are less likely to feed in the open so provide them with food on the ground near or under cover. Robins and Thrushes are bolder and happier to feed on the ground in the open. Tits, Sparrows and Finches will feed from your bird table or feeders; a variety of food will attract a variety of species.

Food in several different locations may also enable more birds to feed at one time, since some birds will chase off others that are nearby. Ideally use seeds and nuts purchased as bird food, salted nuts and desiccated coconut should never be supplied.

Your feeding station can also attract predators

Be aware that a concentration of birds around your feeding station could also attract predators. Cats and Sparrow hawks are often a threat to garden birds. Think about the location of your feeders. Food or feeders placed in or near the cover of trees and bushes will give your birds a place to bolt to if the threat of a Sparrow Hawk presents itself. However, be aware that vegetation could also provide an ideal place from which a cat can conceal itself, and patiently lie in wait ready to mount an ambush. Try to get the balance right or consider the most likely threat.

Water is important

Try to have water available at all times for drinking and bathing. This can be in the form of a birdbath or pond. Keep it topped up in the summer and defrosted in winter, these may be the times when a natural source of water is most difficult to find. Use clean fresh water in a birdbath and do not add chemicals.

Hygiene is important

Avoid allowing food to rot or droppings to build up. Don't put out more food than will be eaten within a few days, and clean out and disinfect feeders regularly.


The European Goldfinch (above) is a colourful finch that is common in British gardens and will readily take Nyger seed from specially designed feeders.

Different food for different birds

Perhaps the best and easiest food to feed to wild garden birds is a seed mixture especially meant for British wild birds. Avoid cheap mixes that may be bulked out with peas or uncooked rice, personally I avoid mixes that contain a lot of oats, if these become wet they are unnecessarily messy. Many mixes also contain other seeds such as millet, oilseed rape, wheat and canary seed. Other popular foods are listed below.

Blue Tit (above) one of the most common and familiar of British birds., They will readily use feeders and take a variety of food, including peanuts and sunflower seed. They also happily take to nest boxes in gardens.


Whole peanuts are best avoided, as they are large, hard and may be hazardous to young birds. Besides that, they are one of the more expensive foods and will quickly be consumed by pigeons in large quantities. Peanuts are better fed crushed or chopped, or from within a wire mesh feeder. Plastic mesh feeders are best avoided, birds can become trapped in them by their feet or beaks.

Thistle or Nyger seed

Tiny black seeds that are sold under various names, often called Thistle seed it is not the seed from thistles at all, it is in fact higher in calories and oil and a favoured food of finches like Goldfinch, Siskin and Redpolls. Tits and other British birds will also readily take Nyger seed. It can be scattered on the ground or bird table, or fed from specifically designed feeders, normally a plastic tube with tiny slots for the birds to extract the seed.

Sunflower seed, black sunflower seeds and sunflower hearts

Sunflower seeds are popular with a wide variety of birds, they are rich in protein and oils, finches and tits will readily remove the husk or kernel from whole seeds. Black sunflower seeds are better since they are higher in oil than the stripped ones. Sunflower hearts are popular with almost all birds and because the shell has been removed there will be a lot less mess under your feeder. Sunflower hearts are often the most popular food at my bird table.


Greenfinch (above), another common garden bird in Britain. The majority of a Greenfinches diet is made up of seeds. The picture shows a Greenfinch skilfully removing the kernel from a black sunflower seed using its beak and tongue.
Fat balls and suit feeds

High in energy and fat these specially prepared foods can be a favourite food for Tits and Woodpeckers particularly in the winter, bird need to keep there fat (energy) levels high to keep warm through the cold of the winter. Remove the plastic mesh netting that fat balls are often supplied in.


Live foods, Mealworms and wax worms


Hi in fat and protein live insect larva of this sort are a popular life food, and will be relished by many birds particularly in the spring, when they make an easy food source for young birds and are often collected by adult birds with hungry chicks to feed. Mealworms are often available dried.


Raisins, sultanas and other fruits like apples are popular with Robins and Thrushes, particularly in the autumn and winter. Blackcaps can also be attracted to garden to feed on fruit in winter.

The familiar Blackbird (above) can be easily attracted to most gardens to feed and even nest. They love mealworms, but will happily take most other foods if they are available to them on the ground or bird table. Female and young Blackbirds are brown only the males are black.
Bird Tables and feeders

There are many varieties and elaborate bird table designs available, some more attractive than others. Appearance is a matter for personal taste but a practical design is more important. Anything to complicated will be difficult to keep clean; a bird table with a roof can be useful to keep food dry but is not essential, a simple tray will do. A ridge round the edge will keep food inside, but will also hold water, so either make or buy a bird table with the corners missing for drainage or holes drilled in the bottom. Feeding trays are available these days, which are a simple wooden frame with a wire mesh bottom, the mesh keeps the seed in but water goes straight out.

Many types of hanging feeders are also available, and will be slightly different in design depending on what sort of seeds or other foods they are designed to make available to your birds. A steal mesh feeder is best for peanuts. Plastic tube type feeders with holes and perches mounted on the sides are popular for dispensing sunflowers seeds and seed mixes. A similar feeder with tiny holes is used to allow tiny nyger seeds to be pulled out by the finches that are likely to feed on them.

Lesser Redpoll (right) sometimes found in large flocks in the winter they natural feed on the seeds of birch and alder trees, but will take to using feeders stocked with Nyger (sometimes called Thistle seed) seed.

A typical home made nest box designed
to attacked nesting Tits.
Providing Nesting and roosting sites

There are many designs of nest boxes and roosting pockets available to buy or even make yourself, providing these can be very helpful to the birds in your garden throughout the year. Nest boxes used for breeding in the spring and summer may also be used for roosting in the winter. It is advisable to clean out nestboxes at the end of the breeding season, as they may contain parasites, faeces or even dead birds.

Nest boxes come in different designs depending on what species you are hoping to attracted to them.

Tits naturally look for holes to nest in, perhaps an old woodpecker hole or crevice that has opened up in a rotting tree, but most species will readily take to nest boxes. The size of the hole will determine which species can fit through, a hole around 28mm in diameter is about right, or smaller around 25mm if you want to exclude Great Tits and only make your box available to Blue Tits. Sparrow will use nest boxes, but probably won't get through a hole smaller than 32mm. Why not have a few nest boxes with different diameter holes if space allows. Sparrows need nest sites too, and traditionally would find a hole under the eaves or tiles on the roofs of houses. Modern building practices tend to use plastic fascia and soffits which do not rot, House Sparrows can struggle for nest sites on model housing estates and this may have contributed to there decline, where they may be absent unless provided with artificial nest sites. Other hole nesting species that may use a special designed box of different sizes and different size holes, include, Starling, Jackdaws, Stock Dove and in larger boxes Tawny Owls, Barn Owls and Mandarin Ducks.


Birds like Blackbirds, Robins, Pied Wagtails and even Spotted Flycatchers can be attracted to use open fronted nest boxes. These boxes also come in different designs but basically have the top half of the front missing, leaving a large opening. Roosting pockets are also available from garden centres and alike, these are designed to be used as a winter roost for birds like Wrens, sometimes several will roost together for warmth in the winter.

The location of your nest box or roosting pocket

Nest boxes should normally be positioned above six feet and should not be south facing to avoid the heat on summer days, but they should also be somewhere sheltered to avoid the wind and rain as much as possible, and ideally in a position inaccessible to cats. Roosting pockets should be placed in a secluded spot out of direct sunlight.

Richard Ford -