We’re a nation of bird lovers, and feeding the birds is one the best ways to get close up views of some of our favourite garden species. It’s okay to feed the birds all year round, but for many people, winter is the season to dust off the bird table and stock up on their seed supplies. RSPB Scotland's Jenny Tweedie shares some things you should know about feeding the birds.
To feed or not to feed!
Stories about feeding the birds seem to be cropping up a lot in the news these days: whether it’s safe, whether it causes changes in birds’ habits. So one question you might be asking yourself this year is whether you should be feeding birds at all. Well, there’s a recent blog on that very subject on the BTO website (https://www.bto.org/community/blog/garden-birds-feed-or-not-feed) but the upshot is that from most scientific studies, it doesn’t do any harm to feed the birds, as long as you’re feeding them the right things and you’re keeping your feeders clean.
The right food to buy
When it comes to feeding, birds fall very broadly into two categories: seed eaters and insect eaters. The seed eaters (species like house sparrows, chaffinches, goldfinches etc) will pretty much all eat black sunflower seeds. The insect eaters (blackbirds, robins dunnocks etc) will pretty much all eat fat or suet. Some birds will happily eat both, blue tits and great tits, for example, but if you’re keeping things simple, black sunflower seeds and fat or suet are the two foods to start with.
Goldfinch, Lesser redpoll and Siskin feeding on nyger feeder. Credit: Jenny Tweedie (rspb-images.com)
If you want to expand your range, some other foods to try are nyjer seeds, mealworms (these are bad for hedgehogs, so feed above ground level!), seed mixes or peanuts. With peanuts, you need to make sure that they’re aflatoxin free (it should say on the packet), and avoid cheap seed mixes, particularly anything with dog biscuits, or where you don’t know what’s in the mix, as it may be poor quality. Store your food somewhere dry and cool, and in thick containers to deter pests!
Other foods to try
You can supplement bought food with scraps from your kitchen. Leftover food like cake or pastry crumbs, dried or fresh fruit (apples are always popular!), oats, cooked rice, mild cheese, or home-made fat cakes are all good to try. Avoid soft fats as they can smear on feathers, and fats from cooked meats, as they can quickly go rancid. As for bread, well, it doesn’t harm birds, but it doesn’t do them much good either. If you’re going to feed bread, feed small quantities, and keep it wholemeal.
The two most important things about feeders are that they should be safe for birds and easy for you to clean. You have to clean feeders regularly, or it’s very easy for birds to pass on diseases to each other and get sick. You can buy special cleaners, and I’d advise getting a bottle brush as well, particularly if you have one of the long feeders. Some feeders now just clip together without the need for tools, and they really make it easier and faster to clean (which is pretty important when it’s cold outside!) Don’t ever use net feeders like bags for peanuts, or fat balls with netting. Birds can get their feet trapped, and end up with injuries. If you have a problem with grey squirrels, you can get a variety of cages or baffles to exclude them, or even a feeder that shuts if something heavy lands on it!
Great tit feeding on hanging bird table. Credit: Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com)
Many birds feed on the ground and won’t visit hanging feeders at all, so don’t forget these species when putting out food. Some food always drops from feeders, where birds like dunnocks and robins will be waiting, but you could also consider a ground feeder. If larger birds, like gull or crows, make a nuisance of themselves, there are cages you can buy that exclude birds over a certain size. Don’t put out too much food on the ground, and always clear away anything that’s uneaten, or you may well attract unwanted visitors of the furry variety with whiskers and tails…
Water, water everywhere… Water is vital for birds, both for drinking and for washing in to keep feathers in tip-top condition. Any flattish container will do, and it can be beneficial to have more than one. Just keep your bird bath cleaned out, and make sure you top it up with water regularly. In very cold weather, it can be a struggle to keep them ice free, but don’t be tempted to use any sort of anti-freeze! Defrost with warm water, and you could try floating a cork or something similar in the water to keep it moving.
Great tit in hanging bird bath. Credit: Nigel Blake (rspb-images.com)
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