Most gardeners feed birds only in winter, when natural food is in short supply. However, by feeding birds throughout the year we can do even more to help them survive.
So what food should you provide? Just as our bodies need a balance of protein, fats and carbohydrates, so do birds. They find most of their food – such as insects, worms, slugs, snails and caterpillars – in the natural environment, but supplementary food in feeders can provide extra help. This is particularly useful when natural sources of food are in short supply, for example if there is too much rain and caterpillars are washed off leaves, or in times of drought, when worms and other grubs retreat far below the soil surface.
When buying supplementary bird food, always buy quality food from a reputable supplier. Cheaper seed mixes tend to be bulked out with cereals, which most garden birds, apart from pigeons, ignore.
More on garden birds:
- How to attract birds to your garden
- Plants that provide nesting materials for birds
- Top 10 plants for birds
- Best bird feeders
What to feed garden birds
Sunflower hearts are a great all-round option. They contain the same high calorie content as sunflower seeds, but don’t have husks and therefore don’t make a mess. If you can provide a range of foods, however, the birds will have a choice and you’re likely to attract a wider selection. For the greatest variety leave out a seed mix, a fat-based product such as fat balls, and a protein-rich source such as mealworms.
Many gardeners leave out peanuts for the birds, but these aren’t always popular. This is due to the energy required to eat a peanut – birds have to manipulate the food in their beaks before they can swallow it, whereas other foods, such as sunflower hearts, enable them to simply grab and swallow. Larger birds, like jays and woodpeckers, can manage peanuts, and tits will persevere if they’re all that’s on offer.
Dried foods are good for year-round feeding and store well for months in a sealed container. However, live or rehydrated mealworms are a good option in spring and summer, as they help to ensure chicks in the nest get the moisture they need.
Where to feed garden birds
While tits and finches are expert at clinging to feeders, blackbirds, dunnocks and robins are much happier foraging on a flat surface, such as a bird table, short grass or paving. The latter also makes it easier for you to clear up spillage if you need to. In fact, good hygiene is a must. A bird-feeding area can be a hotbed for disease, so clean your feeders weekly using a weak disinfectant solution, rinse well before allowing them to dry and then refilling. It’s also important to move the location of feeders every month, to prevent the build up of bacteria in any one area.
You can try to tailor your mixes to the season, but it’s easier to simply adjust what you feed according to what gets eaten – birds are good at telling you what they need.
Because birds need natural food, it’s vital to ensure that your garden is full of seeds, berries and particularly insects. Grow caterpillar foodplants such as native trees and shrubs, allow weeds to flourish at the back of your borders and consider letting and area of grass grow long. Ditching insecticides and digging a pond will also increase insect abundance in your garden, providing masses more food for garden birds.
How to feed garden birds in winter
Snows and hard frosts are a real killer for birds, but relentless cold rain can be just as bad, and of course winter days are so short for foraging. Garden birds are focused on survival and getting enough calories to see them through each day and night.
Your feeding regime
Put out a full spread of seeds and nuts such as sunflower seeds, hearts and peanuts, plus suet treats such as insect or fruit nibbles, and fat balls. You can also include scraps such as grated cheese and crumbled pastry, plus fat from unsalted cuts of meat.
What to feed garden birds in spring
Despite longer days, more insect activity and daffodils poking through the soil, the nights are often still freezing and all the seeds and berries that birds have been surviving on throughout winter have now been eaten. Spring can therefore be the leanest time of all for garden birds, just when they need to get into perfect condition for breeding.
Your feeding regime
As well as calorie-rich food such as sunflower seeds and suet treats, start putting out oyster shell grit (available from all good bird food suppliers), which helps females to form their eggs. Take down peanuts as there’s a small risk to baby birds if adults take peanuts to feed to them.
What to feed garden birds in summer
We never know whether we’re going to get a hot summer or a washout, but – whatever the weather – birds will have their work cut out raising their young, which in many species include second, third and even fourth broods.
Your feeding regime
With many birds seeking natural food, adjust how much you put out for them. Peanuts can be difficult for young birds to digest because of their size, so provide sunflower hearts and live food in summer. Rehydrated mealworms can be excellent for supplementing the natural invertebrate diet. Take care with fat-based foods as these can go off in the heat – it’s better to take these down and start using them again in autumn.
What to feed garden birds in autumn
Autumn is one of the most bountiful seasons, as berries, nuts and seed are ripening ahead of winter. We tend not to see many birds in our gardens in autumn as there’s so much food available naturally. Don’t worry if don’t see any for a while – they’ll be back when it gets cold.
Your feeding regime
Increase the feeding rate slowly; it may take until late November or December before your feeders are thronging again. When temperatures start to dip, add suet products to your feeding platter again.