Birds in your garden

Watching birds in your garden is a wonderful way to connect with nature. We can help them by planting berrying or fruit bushes and trees, feeding all year round, providing water for drinking and bathing, and putting up nesting boxes as well.

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A bird feeder. Credit: RHS/Tim Sandall.

Quick facts

Suitable for: Attracting garden birds
Timing: All year round
Difficulty: Easy

Birds in UK gardens

Approximately 30 species of bird are regular garden visitors, although more than 140 bird species have been recorded in British gardens. Some are seasonal visitors such as house martins in summer or redwings in winter. Others such as robins and blackbirds are resident year round and can become very familiar faces in the garden or allotment. A good population of birds in the garden are part of a healthy garden, helping to keep caterpillars and aphids in check which can damage garden plants. 

When and how to feed garden 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 small niger seed, which is a favoured food of 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 must 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 logs
  • To help limit the spread of infections and diseases keep feeders clean, refill little and often (1-2 days worth of food) and, if possible, change their position in the garden to avoid fouling the ground underneath. Here's some best practise guidance from Garden Wildlife Health on feeding garden birds (pdf)

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 affect 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
  • Mealworms are a favoured food of many garden birds
Find out more about feeding garden birds from the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and RSPB

Nesting sites and bird boxes

Each bird species has different requirements for nesting sites. Many birds nest in dense vegetation including shrubs, hedgerows and trees. Holes in trees provide a natural nest site for several species. Take care if undertaking house repairs as some birds such as house sparrows, starlings, house martins and swfits can nest in the soffit boards under the eaves.

Bird boxes can provide additional nest sites in gardens and are often used. Advice on bird boxes can be found from the BTO and RSPB

Remember, it is an offence under the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 to damage or destroy the nest of any wild bird while it is in use or being built. If pruning or working close by, stop work immediately if you suspect birds are active.

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

British native plants

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

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. These structures can also affect which birds visit. 

Bird boxes can also be affected by predators so fit metal entrance surrounds to exclude these if necessary. Nest boxes can be cleaned out once a year in autumn. Sometimes bird boxes are used by tree bumblebees. 

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. Keep feeders clean, refill little and often and change position of feeders often to help reduce the risk of disease spread.

Get involved

There are several projects where you can record your garden bird visitors

Big Garden Bird Watch - RSPB
Garden Bird Watch - BTO
Garden Bird Feeding Survey - BTO

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