Attracting garden birds and feeding

Birds will turn to garden bird feeders to meet their nutritional needs when they cannot find natural food sources.

Does feeding birds help them? 

Research has shown that birds can make decisions about the best foods to use to maximise their survival. In years when natural seed crops are poor, we see increased use of garden bird feeders, meaning that birds are using feeders to make up deficiencies in their natural diet.

Many bird populations are limited by food supplies, and providing suitable foods has been shown to increase over-winter survival and improve nesting success in a number of different species.

For most British garden birds we don’t know for sure how feeding affects survival and nesting success, and how this might, in turn, affect their overall population sizes. In a few cases, such as wintering Blackcaps, research has shown that their population changes have been driven by increased garden feeding, but in most cases more work is needed to understand exactly what effect feeding wild birds has on their wider populations.

Summer feeding?

Garden birds can struggle to find enough food to feed both themselves and their nestlings, suggesting that summer feeding could be beneficial. The chicks of most garden birds are fed caterpillars and other invertebrates, which they need in order to develop properly. Adult birds, however, can eat energy-rich foods such as nuts, seeds and fats themselves, freeing up insect food for their chicks.

In general, adult birds will select appropriate insect food for their young, but if they can’t find suitable food they may turn to food from bird feeders. This is why it is generally recommended that peanuts are provided in wire mesh feeders during the breeding season, as whole peanuts are not suitable food for nestlings.

Attracting Garden Birds - Which foods attract which birds?

Finches such as Greenfinches, Goldfinches, Siskins, Bramblings and Chaffinches prefer to feed on seeds. Great Tits, Blue Tits, Coal Tits, Long-tailed Tits and Great Spotted Woodpeckers particularly like hanging peanuts and fats, and these will also attract garden birds such as House Sparrows and Starlings. Mainly ground-feeding, insecteating birds such as Robins, Dunnocks, Wrens and Blackbirds are less attracted to hanging seed feeders, and generally prefer fat pellets, mealworms or fruits, though they may take small seeds from the ground or bird tables.

Woodpigeons and Collared Doves mainly feed on the ground and are likely to be attracted to seed mixes high in wheat; if you prefer not to attract pigeons to your garden, avoid excess seed falling to the ground and keep hanging seed feeders away from places pigeons can perch.

Bird friendly feeding guide... Where and how to feed birds

You can put out food in hanging feeders, on bird tables or on the ground. Providing a range of foods is the best way to attract many different birds to your garden.

Hanging feeders and bird tables

Seed mixes are normally provided in hanging tube feeders with large feeding ports and individual perches. The exception is nyger seed, which should be provided in a specialised feeder with small holes. Peanuts are normally put out in wire mesh feeders, while fat blocks and balls can be hung up in metal frames (not netting).

All seed feeders should keep the seed inside clean and dry, and all types of feeders should be easily taken apart for regular cleaning. Many garden birds find it easier to use feeders with large perches. Plastic feeders are easily damaged by squirrels, so if you have squirrels in your garden you should select feeders with metal parts; you may also prefer those with surrounding cages that stop larger animals, such as squirrels, reaching the food. Bird tables should have a roof and adequate drainage in order to keep food dry, should be high enough to be out of reach of cats, and should be easy to keep clean.

Placement and cover

Space your feeders out as much as possible, and aim for more smaller feeders rather than fewer large ones. If possible, put different foods in different parts of the garden. This will mean less competition between species and between individual birds, and a lower risk of disease transmission. Clean up spilled food and droppings under feeders; if you regularly move your feeders around to different areas this will reduce build-up of waste seed and droppings in any once place. Try to place feeders near vegetation, as birds will feel safer near cover, but if you have cats in the garden you should avoid placing feeders near low cover where cats might hide. Do not put feeders very close to windows (in order to avoid birds flying into glass) or close to nest boxes.

Ground feeding

Some birds, including Robins, Blackbirds and Dunnocks, are generally more comfortable feeding on the ground than hanging feeders, and will take small seeds, fruits and mealworms. Food on the ground may attract large numbers of larger birds such as Woodpigeons, so you may prefer to put food under a cage. Putting food on the ground also increases the risk of disease transmission from droppings at the feeding site, and may attract rats; try to avoid build-up of excess food and droppings by moving the feeding sites around the garden and cleaning up any waste.

Water in the garden

Birds need access to clean water, which can be provided in a bird bath or garden pond. Bird baths should be cleaned regularly.

General good practice

Do not put out more food than can be eaten in a few days, regularly clean and disinfect all feeders, and avoid any build-up of waste food and droppings. If you see any signs of sickness in your garden birds we recommend stopping feeding for a few weeks.

Bird-friendly garden guide... Which foods to provide for birds

Staple foods include sunflower hearts, mixed seeds, peanuts and fat products, and these are well used by sparrows, tits and finches. Other recommended foods include fruit, such as sultanas and apples, which appeal to ground feeders such as Blackbirds. If you can, provide natural foods such as berries and caterpillars by creating a wildlife-friendly garden habitat.

Seeds: provide in hanging feeders or on bird tables 

Black sunflowers
Birds need to crack open the shell, so they are mainly eaten by strong-billed Greenfinches and tits.

Sunflower hearts
A favourite with garden birds, particularly Goldfinches, because there is no shell to break open.

Seed mixes
Normally contain sunflower seeds, millet, oatmeal and maize. Look for lowwheat mixes.

Nyger seed
Suited to small-billed Goldfinches and Siskins, these small seeds need a specific kind of feeder.

Peanuts are high in the oils and proteins needed by birds and appeal to tits and House Sparrows. Always buy good quality peanuts from a reputable source. They are best provided in a mesh feeder and put out in small quantities, so that they are not left out uneaten for too long.

Fats are energy rich and can be provided as balls or blocks, or as pellets scattered on tables or mixed with seeds. Always hang fat balls or blocks in dedicated feeders, not in mesh bags, as birds can get their feet or tongues tangled in plastic mesh.

Insect foods

Many birds naturally feed on protein-rich insect foods during the summer months. Insect foods, mainly in the form of mealworms (the larval stage of a beetle), are increasingly put out for birds, and can be provided alive or dried, normally on bird tables or small dishes. Mealworms are a particular favourite with Robins, Wrens, Starlings and Blackbirds.