Birds: encouraging into the garden

Garden birds benefit  from feeding all year round but winter is a particularly valuable time to provide additional food. However, don't forget to provide water for drinking and bathing as well. Approximately 30 species of bird are regular garden visitors, although more than 140 bird species have been recorded in British gardens.

A bird feeder. Credit: RHS/Tim Sandall.

Quick facts

Suitable for Attracting garden birds
Timing All year round, but particularly winter
Difficulty Easy

Suitable for...

The advice given here is for encouraging garden birds, it will also help birds to survive the winter months.

When to feed birds

Garden birds benefit most from feeding all year round, but winter is a time to provide foodstuffs with a high fat content, to supplement their diet.

How to feed birds

Choosing feeders and providing water

  • Use wire mesh feeders for peanuts and seed feeders for other seed
  • Specially designed feeders are required for the tiny niger seed, which is loved by goldfinches
  • Food placed on wire mesh held just off the ground will entice ground-feeding birds such as robins and dunnocks
  • Place fat blocks in wire cages. Plastic nets around fat balls should be removed as birds, such as woodpeckers, can get caught up in the mesh. Create your own fat blocks by melting suet into moulds such as coconut shells or into holes drilled into loggs
  • Keep feeders clean and, if possible, change their position in the garden to avoid fouling the ground underneath and to limit the spread of diseases

Water is essential for bathing and drinking throughout the year. Provide water in a shallow container, preferably with sloping sides and no more than 5cm (2in) deep. During frosty weather, remove the ice so birds can continue to have access to water.

Preferred foods

Use different foods and recipes to entice a range of birds. Although fat is important, particularly in winter also provide a grain mix or nuts to maintain a balanced diet. No-mess seed mixes are more expensive but the inclusion of de-husked sunflower hearts means there is less waste and debris under the feeder. Inferior mixes are often padded out with lentils and wheat.

Many birds have ‘favourite’ foods, so choosing certain types can effect what you see feeding in the garden. These are just some of the preferences:

  • Insect cakes for tits
  • Berry cakes for finches
  • Finely chopped animal fat and grated cheese are welcomed by small birds, such as wrens
  • Sparrows, finches and nuthatches enjoy prising the seeds out of sunflower heads. Also, leave seed heads on herbaceous plants overwinter
  • Niger seed is liked by goldfinches
  • Peanut cakes for starlings
  • Fruit is favoured by thrushes and blackbirds. Scatter over-ripe apples, raisins and song-bird mixes on the ground for them. Consider planting berrying shrubs and trees, including favourites such as Malus, Sorbus, Cotoneaster and Pyracantha

    A selection of birdboxes. Credit: RHS/Advisory.

    Problems

    It is difficult to exclude bigger visitors such as magpies, pigeons and squirrels from a traditional bird table. Feeders give more control over what you attract and most designs can be fitted with squirrel guards or have the feeder enclosed by an outer cage that keeps out larger animals.

    Dead and diseased birds in gardens

    Like all animals birds suffer from debilitating diseases and can become injured. Occasionally a dead bird may be found in a garden. These can be reported to the Garden Wildlife Health (GWH) project. The project aims to monitor and assess diseases in British wildlife.

    Plants for encouraging birds

    There are many garden plants that provide food in the form of berries (B) or seeds (S) a selection are listed below:

    Cultivated plants 

    Berberis spp. (B); Cotoneaster spp. (B); eating and crab apples, Malus spp. (B); firethorn, Pyracantha spp. (B); mountain ash and whitebeams, Sorbus spp. (B); holly – female cultivars, Ilex spp. (B); privet, Ligustrum ovalifolium (B); Daphne mezereum (B); honeysuckles, Lonicera spp. (B); some single-flowered ornamental cherries, e.g. Prunus avium, P. cerasus (B); some rose species, e.g. Rosa rugosa, R. moyesii (B); Viburnum betulifolium (B); Oregon grape, Mahonia spp. (B); Photinia davidiana (B); thorns, Crataegus spp. (B); sunflower, Helianthus annuus (S)

    Native plants

    Blackberry, Rubus fruticosus (B); elderberry, Sambucus nigra (B); hawthorn, Crataegus monogyna (B); alder, Alnus glutinosa (S); birch, Betula pendula (S); holly – female plants of Ilex aquifolium (B); ivy, Hedera helix (B);  yew, Taxus baccata (B); guelder rose, Viburnum opulus (B); wayfaring tree, Viburnum lantana (B); purging buckthorn, Rhamnus catharticus (B); alder buckthorn, Frangula alnus (B); wild roses, e.g. Rosa canina, R. rubiginosa (B); mountain ash, Sorbus aucuparia (B); whitebeam, Sorbus aria (B); musk thistle, Carduus nutans (S);  field scabious, Knautia arvensis (S); devil's bit scabious, Succisa pratensis (S); greater knapweed, Centaurea scabiosa (S);  teasel, Dipsacus fullonum (S).

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    • Peter Redmayne avatar

      By Peter Redmayne on 28/01/2015

      regarding advice p22 the garden Feb 2015 "avoid food such as whole peanuts and bread" In my experience all tits and finches feed their nestlings on insects not bread or peanuts. The local House Sparrows act as an effective greenfly/aphid control as do the Blue/Great and Coal tits, and wasps. Garden feeders are important to the adult birds as well, as they have a readily available food source to use when they have young.