Sore Point!

Tree Sparrows on garden feeder 2006

Well the fact is, I don’t know Neil. He and I have similar interests and as a result he emailed me recently. It’s was a lovely email telling what he had seen lately in the Telford area and in particular on the Weald Moors. But there it was, in the very last line, he simply asked, “Do you get any Tree Sparrows round your way?”, hmmm the sore point!

Well as you know we have three species of sparrow in our English gardens, House, Tree and Hedge. But Hedge Sparrow (opposite) is Sparrow by name only, it does in fact belong to a different family all together, so I prefer to call them by their other name, Dunnock, to avoid any confusion.

I am telling you this particular story because it illustrates my keen interest in Sparrows and their rather fickle relationship with me.

It was winter 2006 and during February we had some very cold weather, hoar frost and snow covered ground for someof the time and it brought many new birds to the garden, desperate for food and water. I cleared snow from the lawn below the apple tree and started ground feeding. Ground feeding is not always to be recommended as you can get problems with rats, so it’s not something we do all year round.

As I write a large white feather has floated down past the window behind the TV. The House Sparrows are in the box. Mid Feb and they are nest building already. I watch and sure enough the cock Sparrow is now sitting on the Three Foot Hedge with a small twig in his beak. He flies up and out of view. Minutes later he has returned (well least I guess it is still him) with a small black feather. It is so small that every time he twiddles it around in his bill, he drops it. Eventually despite the interest of a hen sparrow, now in the hedge, he drops it and flies off.

Anyway, where was I? The ground feeding area attracted much interest, Fieldfares to the apples and now Reed Bunting and Yellowhammers to the mixed seed, splendid. The next day a small group of Brambling joined them and then yes, a small flock of Tree Sparrows! Now don’t think I am making this up, you know, just so I can write this story. I have the photographic meta data to prove it.

There are no Tree Sparrows around here! I would have to drive 15 miles at least to see one. They are very local, very scarce and very pretty. So needless to say I was made up and I wondered how long they would they stay? Well they did stay, all the way through March and into April. So now I am very, very pleased. So pleased that I have put up a few extra nest boxes with 32mm entrance holes. Yes I know, optimistic at this stage but hopeful!

Well the completely unbelievable happened. They started visiting the nest box on the Scots Pine. They also took to the sparrow apartment box that I put up some years earlier, high up on the gable end of my neighbours house. They came to fill up their little Sparrow tummies on the hanging bird feeders, taking millet and sunflower hearts and in the morning, on better days, they carried nest material into the boxes. Then it went it went suspiciously quiet. Was it the sort of quiet that signified that a small group of Sparrows had done an Elvis and left the building/garden? But just maybe it was the sort of quiet you get when a sparrow or two are just quietly sitting on some eggs!

Well, they were sitting. They were sitting on eggs and they hatched them in two nest boxes, fledged their young and sat on some more eggs (in two boxes) and fledged some more young. Now, from a couple of pairs or sparrows we had gone to a little wonderful cloud of my very own home grown Tree Sparrows.

Then they left!

Roman Coins and Green Sandpipers

The Sparrows are in the three foot hedge, the usual cox sparrow sings on, announcing his claim to the luxury penthouse on our house wall, somewhere up above him. He is accompanied by an array of others, sometimes two females, sometimes two males and two females. I have no idea what is going on here! Am I about to be a proud landlord and is my tenancy going to stretch to two occupied Sparrow homes? I watch and wait.

Yesterday was a good day. In the late afternoon I walked out and down the well trodden paths and across the fields. I made my way south to the edge of the Weald Moors. According to the Doomsday Book, the Weald Moors were at that time a great peat fen full of every type of water fowl. Oh to have walked this way in those days!!

I should explain that in Shropshire speak, a moor is a wetland, very confusing I know! Today these moors are drained and the dark peat soils are put to raising winter wheat, potatoes and elephant grass. This vast wetland was parcelled by name into moors, Sleap, Birch, Eyton, Rodway, Crudgington, Tibberton, Sidney, Wrockwardine and Kynnersley. Very few people locally seem to know their position or their history.  At one point near its centre you can still see the remains of an iron age marsh fort  called Wall Camp, a very unusual kind of fort with only a few other examples in the UK.

The afternoon sun had been poking around in some interesting clouds so I wondered what the sunset would be like, so before I set off, I grabbed a camera to take with me.  I crossed a field still showing the remnants of its last crop.  Each maize stalk now casting its own black shadow across the soil and together as the sun fell in the sky, they broadened lines across the field.

As I walked I kept watch downwards as well as listening for bird calls. I also kept one eye on the progress of sun and cloud, hoping for a dramatic sunset to photograph. It’s an old habit, looking down and carefully inspecting the ground in front of you, scanning left to right in the hope of finding something unusual or beautiful, something cast up by the run off of rain water after a down pour or the work of the plough share or even the casual scuff of a boot.

I don’t know how this habit started. Maybe it began with my childhood pleasure and fascination in finding glass on the beaches where we lived. Each piece perfectly smooth and every edge rounded off by the action of tide, sand and sea. Every piece to me seemed that great treasure.  But later, this fascination with careful scrutiny of the ground was developed further. When I was nine I walked the marshes on the Kent Coast, binoculars at the ready.  The walks at Reculver, across newly ploughed fields sometimes revealed roman coins. Now I was really hooked!

This habit has never left me and to this day, from every holiday, I return with small stones and shells and other objects collected from walks in the wild and beautiful places we have visited. They were small things of great beauty selected from the shores of Iona or from mountain streams or secret beaches. Some were presented as tokens of love to my wife and some as objects for discussion with children or grandchildren. Later, those objects that have not been siphoned away by small hands are placed in the ever growing collection. These collections are assembled in more than one printer’s box and attached to various walls of the cottage. They are testament to our journeys to some of Britain’s most beautiful and wildest places.

Larger stones make their way into the small rockery and alpine flower areas by our modest sunken patio. Here whilst relaxing after a long day in the garden we can sit, beer in hand, and look, at eye level, at the contrasting colour and patterns of these beauties. Anyway, I have become distracted and need to return to this winter tale.


The sun finally provided a sunset glory that the camera and photographer required. I stopped to capture it as best I could. Then standing in an open position I decided to scan the fields beyond and was lucky enough to pick up the ghostly shape of a Barn Owl quartering over a distant rough pasture. The bird was a long way off, but even so, unmistakeable.

In an effort to lessen the distance between us and to gain a slightly better view I walked field side along the edge of a small but deep stream heading straight towards the Owl. After no more than ten steps a startled bird rose noisily from the side of the stream and piped loudly, flashing white rump against dark greenish back as it flew. Within seconds it settled back stream side, fifty meters further on. I didn’t see the bird again, the drain ahead weaved its course and the bird had obviously selected a well concealed landing place. I returned to the track not wishing to cause any further disturbance and glad to have seen a Green Sandpiper. The Barn Owl by this time had long gone.

It was time to head back. On the way I walked the edge of a pool where three female Goosanders warily watched my progress. They steered the water, always maintaining the greatest distance from me, but leaving enough room for take off should the need arise.

At the Sparrow roost I was pleased to note that all birds were seemingly safely tucked up for the night but they were still busy telling tales about the day’s events before the sun finally went down.

Binoculars and Burglars

It is early, cold and dark. The Sparrows are still in their roost at 7.30 am GMT.  I say GMT because I have noticed that some of my followers are from across the Pond and I don’t want them to have any less accurate a post than anyone else! I know the Sparrows are in the roost  because I just passed the hedge where the Old School Clan like to gather and sing! Oh yes and unihemispheric slow-wave sleep (USWS), with one eye open! (see previous very scientific post ha)

 I am walking around the village this morning checking the roost sites and as I approach the sites identified by my enthusiastic village naturalists, I listen. I am sorry to say this site is not doing it for me. I am thinking one two birds maybe. Sounds to me like a cock Sparrow just letting the neighbours know that this is his patch and his nest is nearby.

Photo by Skitterphoto on

I decide to walk on to the next site. A duck flies over.  I scan quickly with the binoculars, the ones that I always carry, and its turns out to be a female Goosander, unexpected!! I must explain that the binoculars are a sort of hedged bet! I am sort of hoping that villagers seeing me out and about in the semi dark will think ‘are, there is a bird watcher with his binoculars’. Unfortunately I stop loiter about and move in random directions. So I am sure, that actually, what the villagers (staring from behind twitching curtains) are really thinking is ‘who is that weirdo with binoculars looking at the houses. Is he checking them out for burglary opportunities, houses empty or windows left open’? So now, not only am I listening to early bird calls but also listening for the sound of a siren and looking out for the distant blinking of a blue light!

Photo by Dom J on

Anyway us naturalists are not easily deterred and progress needs to be made.  I walk on and this time a Cormorant flies overhead. Now these are not really birds we would expect to see flying about in the early morning in a rural village in England. We might expect Blackbird, Thrush,  Robin maybe, but it is surprising what you see and hear if you look and listen. One day, years back, an Osprey flew over my garden, its wasn’t checking the pond out for fish you understand, it was a fair way up, off on migration, I guess. Then another year the Red Arrows flew over. You just never know!

None of our roost sites this morning seem to be behaving like roost sites at all. So, I begin to wonder, have they moved or have my willing helpers not quite got the hang of the characteristics of a House Sparrow roost site. The sound from a roost is really quite loud, easily discernible to a keen ear at 100 yards. Image a miniaturised male voice choir all singing different songs over and over again. You got it loud!

I return to my roost and whilst drinking a good old fashioned hot English cuppa, I make a vow. I will get up early tomorrow and record my roost site in full choral rendering in the hope that this recording thus broadcast over our local social media will sustain my helpers further in their efforts to help me identify all of the village sparrow roost sites.

The two males, one female  sparrow are now returned to the three foot hedge. No sirens, no flashing blue lights, phew!! Have I told you about the hedge,  I must tell you about it some time.

The Sympathetic Sparrow?

So the days are getting longer and we have had some very cold nights this week. The weather has been great for walking and photography.

The Sparrows were back in the three foot hedge, in human time, at about 8.45pm. I think from my observations, it is true to say, that my sparrows tend to rise and return from the Old School Sparrow Clan roost earlier on bright sunny days. In this respect they might be similar to the humans who live in the house whose wall they use for the nest box home. This behaviour doesn’t seem to be effected by how cold it is!

The strange thing is that as I walk the country lanes, tracks and paths I often end up passing the roost early in the morning or late in the day on my way home and that got me thinking. Do sparrows sleep? Well yes they use unihemispheric slow-wave sleep (USWS). I won’t pretend, I looked it up. That basically means sleeping with one eye open and only half of the brain shut down. This is a survival characteristic; leaving themselves in at least a partial state of alert should a predator be around. It’s the sort of question my granddaughter might ask and I like to be prepared!

My cock sparrow in the three foot hedge

During the week the sparrows got me thinking on another matter. You know finches get the dreaded white foot disease as I call it, papillomatosis. Apparently this is most common in finches and the species that is most affected is the Chaffinch. A symptom of this is a bird that struggles to keep balance. I spotted just such a bird on a large branch of our old holly tree. It wasn’t perched but its breast was flattened against the branch for support since its leg or legs were now unable to support it. Every few minutes it fluttered as if trying to shift its balance slightly. It repeated this behaviour and then out the hedge a House Sparrow arrived. It perched on the branch within a few inches of the struggling Chaffinch. Now the question is why? Was it offering moral support, was it being inquisitive, did it realise the Chaffinch was in difficulties. Of course, I can’t answer the question but what I can say is that our cock sparrows are pretty much self contained and if you watch sparrows they are not particularly gregarious with any bird except their own species in fact in some ways they are very picky about a lots of things. A few minutes later a hen sparrow joined then on the same branch! Then distracted by other happenings in the garden, I looked back and they are all gone! The incident reminded me of the use of Larsen traps by game keepers. They put one crow or magpie in the trap and this attracts other birds that are then caught! The say the trapped bird is making calls in another bird’s territory and that causes the interest. Having seen stumbled over some of these traps in the past I think this could be true, but the visiting birds could also be responding to the distress calls of the already caught bird!

This year something remarkable happened in our garden. A Robin crashed into the kitchen window when a Sparrowhawk charged through the garden. Birds panic and bang, a robin drops to floor, stunned after its rather violent smash into the glass. My wife witnessed this. She was in the kitchen at the time. She went immediately to investigate and found the adult Robin on the floor, still, but breathing, stunned. She picked it up and made a gently hollow in the dry soil in the raised border just outside the window. We have learnt from experience that some birds left and kept warm will recover? It was beautiful sunny day. The Robin lay on its back legs up in the air (not a pretty sight) and my wife retired to continue with her work in the kitchen but at the same time she kept a close watch on the robin to see if it would recover. The Robin, lying on its back, eventually came round. It recovered enough to turn over. Within a few minutes another robin appeared and presented food to it. The injured bird didn’t take the offered food but the new bird dropped the food nearby and flew off. This was repeated three times. Eventually the injured bird came round and flew off. Was this the bird’s partner. Did it realise that this injured bird was in difficulty? There are so many questions!

Anyway the three foot hedge is empty now and my sparrow is with the rest of the clan, at the roost just up the road. They are grabbing a bit of shuteye or USWS to be precise!

Sparrows Don’t Like Snow….

It was 6 am, dark. I leapt out of bed and looked through the window, no snow! I go back to a warm bed disappointed like a child expecting a day off school but not getting it. I could have stamped my feet but its difficult when you’re in bed and it causes a serious draft! They promised snow, not just snow, but heavy snow!! I checked my phone and find that snow is not forecast until 8.00am. I obviously hadn’t read the forecast very carefully yesterday!   I laughed to myself, how boring things would be, if weather forecasts were that accurate. What would we British have to talk about? I set an alarm clock in my head for 8.00am and drifted back to sleep.

the garden at dawn

I am awake now it 8.05 am. I suddenly remember why my brain alarm clock has woken me up. I leap from bed and look through the window, it’s snowing. I make a mental note to apologise to the met office regarding my early morning cursing of their inaccurate predictions. I’m happy, I like snow. Armed with binoculars, camera and recorder and stout walking boots, thick socks, I dash from House.

I want to know what the village looks like before the virgin snow is spoiled by foot, paw and tyre. I also want to know, what do sparrows think of this snow? The snow is now falling in large 50 pence flakes and melting into the fibres of my woolly hat. My task is to wander the village and listen, take photographs and check out anything that might be of interest.

I say listen because listening is one of the much underrated skills of the naturalist. I walk to the roost site of the Old School Sparrow Clan. I pass the three foot hedge (Have I told you about this? later later!) on route from the back door. The hedge is empty, well actually only empty of sparrows. A male blackbird sits quietly on top and a robin rests inside. They too,  visit the 3 foot hedge, after all, its not the sole property of the sparrows

 I hear that satisfying crunch of fresh snow under walking boot. It’s like the first bite into a crunchie. The sparrows are at home, still roosting, but they a little subdued. They are not full of their usual muddled joyous twittering.

So I am now walking the village street. The matched tracks, small paw and big foot, cross my path here and there. Dog walkers round here are keen! Having checked a hedge or two for activity I make my way to the roost site of the Bayley Hills (that is Bayley not Beverly!) clan. They too are not committed to their early morning choral service but sit resigned in their mixed hedge and small tree roost.

The Blind Corner Clan is relatively quiet. I walk on. The Village Hall Clan, despite access to a wonderful village hall conservation area, are not in the best of Christmas spirits either.  So that leaves the Mac Clan (aptly named because my friend Mac lives nearby. Both he and his good lady wife love the birds in their garden). This particular sparrow roost is the noisiest of them all, but given the relative performances of sparrows at roost this morning, that is not saying much! So it seems,  that from this morning’s investigations, Sparrows, unlike me,  just don’t like snow!

Moving House

It’s Christmas day and it’s much like any other cold winters day as far as the sparrows are concerned. But the sun is up early and ready to play and it is now casting beautiful red and orange waves of light across the dawn sky. The cock sparrow arrives back. If the sun is out the sparrow comes early.

He sings, so I guess it’s time for another sparrow story. My friend Ashley made me a beautiful three hole sparrow apartment many years ago. Yes, a much appreciated Christmas present and that’s why this observation on sparrow life is so interesting. Well at least I think so and hope you will to.

The old sparrow apartment nestbox – far left occupied!

Any nestbox is best placed in view. It must be seen without too much effort, from the house window or easily watched as you go about your gardening tasks. The old box was screwed to the wall on the gable end of my neighbours house and about twenty foot up. Do you know, I just can’t remember if I asked permission! Oh well, this wall just happens to be about a third of the way down our garden and visible from the house, shed and other garden locations.

After the first 9 years it began to look a little sad, unloved and the roofing felt was coming away. It had, however, not only served the nesting needs of a pair of house sparrows in recent years but also seen several successful broods of Great tit and three broods of Tree Sparrow (be impressed because that is very uncommon in my garden and unheard of  here about.)

So I built another, with much love and care. I took the old box down. It was no easy task, up a ladder with a screw driver in one hand and box in the other! Anyway, down it came and up went the new box which was practically the same size and I put it back in the same position.

I must tell you at this point (because it is vital to my tale) that the sparrows, until then had been making their home in apartment 1 (far left). I must also tell you a few well know scientific facts about sparrows. Firstly they mate for life, not necessarily a very long one, but for life. Secondly sparrow nest boxes are visited by their owners all year round and often birds will roost in their box at various times in the year. Finally sparrows are very and I say very faithful to their nest sites. The same pair will use the same nest site year after year. We have lived here for 28 years and the sparrows have used the same nest sites both in the eaves of our house and our neighbours every year.

So having removed the old box I contemplated its fate. Should I knock it apart and burn it on the fire, not a very dignified end for a faithful servant! Then I thought, it’s not in that much of a bad state, I will repair it. So I did. I decided that the rejuvenated box once finished would fit nicely on the gable end of our house. I would carefully position it to avoid ‘anything’ falling on the windows as the birds went about their business, raising a family, courting, feeding each other etc.

In spring, hazel leaves appearing, the cock sparrow sits here to claim his nest site in the box on the wall above his head.

Out comes the ladder. Drill in one hand and box in the other. A precarious process at the best of times because you really need an extra hand to hold on with!!! I was to position it at the same height off the ground because the old sparrows obviously had become acclimatised to this height and it was deemed suitable.

So I watched and I waited. The new box in all its nicely finished glory lay empty! The old box, newly positioned had new residents and where were they? Well, the sparrows had moved into apartment 1 on the left hand side! Maybe the faithfulness of sparrows to their nest sites goes well beyond our initial understanding. jOn

The Sparrow sings loudest when the church bells ring?

It’s nearly 10 am now and I am watching the news and eating some fresh bread rolls. The bread bit is irrelevant I know, but we love to make bread in our house and have done so for the last 37 years. Now the funny thing is, the three foot hedge is directly behind the TV and clearly visible through the window . So you see this is how it all began. We sit down to eat breakfast, have coffee or lunch and next minute you find yourself watching Channel Sparrow and not the TV 😄and to be frank (Jon normally) sometimes it’s a lot more interesting. I don’t want you to think this is all we do, watch daytime TV, because nothing is further from the truth. We may do this a little bit more often on wet days in winter months and that’s all, I promise!

The cock House Sparrow is back in the 3 foot hedge. It’s miserable, the weather is miserable and he is miserable, sitting in the middle, about a foot down from the top. He is rather half heartedly chirruping, not preening, not tail flicking, not spinning his head from side to side or tilting it up or down to check for possible predators or interested hen sparrows, just pathetic uninterested chirruping.

It is now 10 am. The church clock strikes 10 bells for the hour.  It seems like this is all the Sparrow needs to get seriously on the job, at last, a little encouragement. He launches into the full show, moves up to the top of hedge, checks to make sure there are no hawks about and lets us have it all at full throttle, full volume, nothing held back!

Now you might say that there was something else that triggered this sudden burst of enthusiasm. Perhaps a hen sparrow was sat out of my sight on the corner of the roof? Perhaps a neighbouring cock sparrow had just burst into competitive song in the hedge next door. But for me, the sparrow sings loudest when the church bells ring?

Sunset Heaven

It’s 8.24am and just getting light. The cock House Sparrow is back in the 3 foot hedge. In my head I am saying “your early this morning boy”. Quietly though, because after yesterday, people are already wondering why I am photographing apparently empty hedges! He isn’t bothered anyway and sits a respectable 2 foot down and chirrups repeatedly. I say respectable because no self respecting Sparrow is going to sit on the top of the hedge and offer our local Sparrowhawk a takeaway. A sparrow did that, on my neighbours hedge, a few weeks ago and it WAS taken away! Did I mention the three foot hedge. One of these days I must explain.

Now I am walking through country and around the village, I began to think? Should I go to see my daughter at Christmas and our newly arrived grandson. I was trying to think through it logically, pros and cons, but worrying, like millions of others. What are the risks and what potential changes will there be to Covid rules between now and then. What Boris decisions are on the way or not! Then I spot a bird dropping out of Holly tree and it flys down to the ground. Was that a Fieldfare or Mistle thrush?  Mistle thrush, excellent, I don’t see many of these! I crossed the field and entered a small copse with a pool in the middle and here I found the remains of a fish on the bank. Now I am thinking otter, mink? Big fish, a Carp I would guess.  A female Goosander comes from cover and heads off across the pool. The light is closing and the last remnants of cloud on the horizon is doing a very good job of the sunset. Out comes the camera as a wonderful orange glow spreads across the sky in the direction of the Wrekin. The moon had already climbed and shadows and reflections began to charm me. Out comes the camera. After taking far too many photographs I begin walking home.

Sunset across the Weald Moors

Back home the House Sparrow has sung until its hoarse and decided that enough is enough. Everyone should know by now that this is his spot, keep out, though I guess the Sparrowhawk won’t pay any attention to his boundaries! Two Blackcaps arrive on MY homemade fat balls. This makes me feel good. Male and female and they are feeding side by side (how romantic), Blackcap and brown cap! You start to wonder don’t you? Are these middle European migrants coming here for winter or are they are local birds that breed here and love us so much that they just can’t  leave (my fat balls)?

Well, we often say, ‘I am going for a walk to clear my head’. I don’t think a walk in the country does clear your head.  I think we reorganise our thoughts, clear some things out maybe but that is only half the story. We also refocus and reconnect with the natural world around us and take a rest from this crazy  man made world we live in. The sparrows are off to bed, they are not bothered!

Dawn and its pouring with rain again!!

Its not long after sunrise and the House Sparrows are still in there roost in the hedge up the road. But soon the birds will be back in the garden. The wintering Blackcaps are visiting the fat feeders. I would like to think that’s because I have gone to the trouble of making some extra special ‘home grown’ fat slabs for them. This is a speciality of the house, well actually the garden! But realIy we all know that they back because the weather has been wet and cold. By 10am there are three House Sparrows in the three foot hedge, two males and a female. Typically noisy, one of the males sits and chirrups, just reminding everybody that this is his patch and its in my patch!

The female (hen) found a feather, colour, white. This is very fortunate because I have been telling people who are engaged in our House Sparrow project, that sparrows love white feathers. I sneak to the fireplace and lean out slowly, just far enough to poke my camera round the brickwork and point it optimistically at the Sparrow with feather. The postman walking past thinks I have lost the plot! Several shots later I realise I have nothing to share with my followers but I am beginning to understand why sparrows like Hawthorn hedges, even 3 foot of them. Why? Well because House Sparrows are practically Hawthorn twig colour and very well camouflaged when sitting amongst their branches.

The female drops it and the male picks it up, considers it for a minute or two, twirls it round in his beak as if not sure which way it should be held to best effect. Then the hen takes it back before he has time to decide. So the enthusiasm and interest in this object goes on for a few more minutes before the male drops it and then carries on announcing to the world that this is his territory. So is the nest box on my wall above him and it has has been his for some time.

Winter Bird Feeding

Good for them – Good for you!

Feeding the birds in the garden is one of the great joys in life.  Settle back with a cuppa or a nice coffee and just sit and watch.  Studies have shown that those of us feeding the birds during the pandemic have been much more positive about their days but more on this later. During the winter months our gardens get new visitors, Scandinavian thrushes, Redwing and Fieldfare. They have flown south to warmer climates and now gather in great flocks to raid the berries on our hedgerows and garden trees. Even the shy Mistle and Song Thrush will wander into the garden at this time. Mistle Thrushes are particularly protective of Holly trees covered in lots of ripe berries and will noisily fight off any unwanted visitors to their tree.

Seed Feeders.

A good reason to buy a well built feeder is that they are much less susceptible to squirrel damage. Cheap plastic feeders can be easily broken and are rapidly chewed through by grey squirrels.

 You can also buy a plate/dish that screws in the bottom of the feeder and this will allow other species to feed like Dunnocks, Blackbirds, Stock and Collared Dove.

Photo: female Reed Bunting

There are special feeders for Niger (Nyer, Nyjer) seeds. Here are two Goldfinches and two Siskins on a niger seed feeder. Niger seed comes from an African yellow daisy. It is rich in oil content and highly nutritious. It’s perfect for treating the small birds in your garden – particularly goldfinches. The seed is very small and you need a special feeder. I recommend not bothering since all the species (and there are not many) that feed on Niger seed will also feed on your sunflower hearts. Niger seed quickly blocks the holes in the feeder and the birds seem to go through phases of eating it or not, so you end up wasting a lot.

Fat Balls

Fat balls are one the best bird foods in the garden. Fat/Suet comes as slabs, pellets or in jars and contains mixed seed. For fat balls you will need to buy a fat ball feeding cage. These are pretty cheap.  Some feeders are double caged like the one below. The inner cage holds the fat balls and the outer cage deters squirrels. Fat balls are good for House Sparrows but they might take a while to get used to them. Great Spotted Woodpecker, Long Tailed Tits, Goldcrest and overwintering Blackcaps like fat balls and generally will not use the seed feeders we talked about above. These are great birds to see in the garden so I recommend using fat balls, slabs, or suet pellets in some form or another. Fat balls are the cheapest way of feeding like this.

Peanut Feeders

This Great Spotted Woodpecker is feeding on another type of feeder, a metal mesh basket with peanuts in it. Obviously, this is good for woodpeckers but will also attract, nuthatch and all the tit family. Wait till you have generated some bird traffic in the garden before hanging out a nut feeder. The nuts get wet in the rain and tend to rot quickly. You need to make sure you buy food quality nuts because some peanuts have toxins in them. Peanuts are highly susceptible to mould during growth and storage. In particular, the fungus Asperillus Flavus which releases large quantities of aflatoxin, which is a highly toxic carcinogen when consumed by mammals and birds.


By setting up a ground feeding station/area you can get surprise visits from Tree Sparrows, Brambling (see Photo) Yellowhammers, Reed Bunting and even Bullfinches. It is rewarding because some birds really don’t understand how to use  hanging seed feeders and are not really designed for aerial feeding. However, over time, some birds in our garden have mastered feeders that they couldn’t use when they were first put out! For example our Blackbirds have leant to launch themselves at Fat balls, smash bits off. The bits fall to the floor and they pick up the crumbs. This way they also provide food on the floor for other birds like Dunnocks and Robins.

Note: If you are going to buy mixed wild bird seed then buy the good stuff. Some of the cheap sacks have a very high proportion of grain seed (wheat, barley). This is used to bulk up the mix! Grain is only really consumed in part by sparrows and chaffinches but more often by Wood Pigeons!


What type of food should I feed and in which type of feeder?

This is probably the best combination of bird food you could offer in the garden.

  • Seed Feeder with sunflower hearts
  • Fat Balls in a cage
  • Bird table for scraps and mixed wild bird seed/food/mealworms
  • Ground feeding station for mixed wild bird seed/food/mealworms and apples

This combination is likely to attract the greatest variety of Birds into the garden. If you supplement this with apples thrown out onto the ground/lawn during very cold winter days you can then bring in winter thrushes and that rounds things off nicely!!!

Keep it clean! 

This is what the BTO says…………

  • Regularly clean bird baths, feeders, feeding stations and hard surfaces under feeders, and treat with a suitable disinfectant (e.g. a weak solution of domestic bleach). Carefully rinse all surfaces with clean water and air dry before using. Clean your feeders outside and maintain careful personal hygiene, including wearing gloves and making sure that brushes and buckets are not used for other purposes, as some diseases can affect human and domestic animal health. More information from

Male House Sparrow at the fat ball cage feeder

Here is a table you can refer to. It gives you a list of garden birds and tells you which type of feeder they will use when it has bird certain food in it. Of course it doesn’t cover every type of  feeder and all bird food but it is a good guide.