Feeding the birds is a British obsession. And quite right too – providing supplementary food for garden birds can make the difference between surviving winter and not, and can also help them raise more young each spring. Below we list the different types of food available to buy and grow, detailing which birds are attracted to them.
The number one rule of feeding garden birds is to make sure the food you provide is fresh. Never leave out mouldy food or leave food for too long in your bird feeders. keeping bird feeders clean is also vital to stopping the spread of bird diseases such as salmonella and trichomonosis.
Bird food and hedgehogs
It's important to consider hedgehogs, when feeding the birds. Some types of bird food, including peanuts and sunflower seeds but particularly mealworms, can be extremely harmful to hedgehogs, usually resulting in death. Take care to prevent food from spilling from hanging feeders and ensure mealworms and sunflower seeds are not left on ground feeders at night.
Browse our list of types of bird food, below.
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Sunflower hearts and seeds
Popular with a huge variety of birds including tits, finches, robins and blackbirds, sunflower seeds are perfect for using all year round, as both a source of protein and fat. Use them in hanging feeders, bird tables and ground feeders. Choose black sunflower seeds over striped ones, as the oil (and therefore calorie) content is higher. Sunflower hearts are pre-husked, saving the birds energy while also preventing mess around the feeder.
High in protein and fat, peanuts attract tits, woodpeckers and nuthatches at hanging feeders, while kibbled (crushed) peanuts at ground feeders and bird tables attract robins, dunnocks and wrens. Avoid salted or roasted peanuts and always buy peanuts that are certified 'aflatoxin free' as this natural toxin can kill birds. Avoid leaving out whole peanuts in spring and summer as they can pose a choking hazard for young birds.
Small, black and rich in oils, nijer seeds are popular with goldfinches and other finches, such as siskins. Suitable for use in bespoke nyjer seed hoppers, as well as ground feeders and bird tables.
Fat balls and suet treats
Perfect for using in winter, fat or suet-based products are high in calories, which small birds need to survive cold winter nights. Some contain insects, too, for added protein.
Always use bespoke fat ball or cake feeders for the birds, as bird can get their feet caught in plastic mesh and die. If fat balls and cakes are ignored in your garden, try using smaller suet pieces, instead. Birds require less time to take these from feeders and so can fly to shelter more quickly.
There's a wide variety of seed mixes available, designed to be used in hanging feeders as well as ground feeders and bird tables. Mixes can vary in quality so be careful – the cheaper options tend to be bulked out with wheat or barley grains, split peas, beans, dried rice or lentils. Only larger species such as pigeons can eat these, and the smaller birds will discard them, creating mess, which can attract rodents. The best quality seed mixes include flaked maize, sunflower seeds and kibbled peanuts, sometimes with the addition of dried mealworms and suet pieces.
Suitable for: house sparrows, dunnocks, finches, reed buntings and collared doves, blackbirds.
Insects and mealworms
Mealworms are loved by robins and blue tits, as well as house sparrows and starlings. You can buy them live or dried - ensure dried mealworms come from a reputable supplier as they can be a salmonella risk. Soaking dried mealworms for an hour can give birds valuable moisture and make them easier for young birds to digest.
Waxworms, ant pupae and live or dried insects are also available, but can be expensive.
Small amounts of bread, cereals meat, fat and things like grated cheese and cooked rice can be left out for the birds. Avoid food containing high levels of salt and sugar, and make sure items like rice are cooked as otherwise they may swell in a bird's stomach. leave small amounts at a time to avoid attracting rodents.
Halved apples are an excellent source of winter food for thrushes and blackbirds, as well as unusual winter visitors such as waxwings. Tits will also take pieces of apple. Dried fruit such as raisins and sultanas can be used, but soak them first to hydrate them. Don't use raisins and sultanas if you have a dog – even a small quantity can be highly toxic or even fatal to dogs.
Growing bushes that bear berries is one of the best long-term ways to feed garden birds, especially if those bushes are native, as they will also attract egg-laying moths in summer, whose caterpillars the birds will feed to their young. Some of the most popular berry-bearing shrubs and trees include holly, ivy, guelder rose, hawthorn, rowan (Sorbus aucuparia), cotoneaster, barberry and Pyracantha.