Feeding Birds in Winter

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, just sit and watch.  Studies have shown that those of us feeding the birds during the pandemic feel 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

Special Feeders

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.

Ground Feeding

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!

Summary.

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! 

  • 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
    https://www.bto.org/how-you-can-help/providing-birds/feeding-garden-birds/hygiene
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.