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Chaffinches on a bird feeder

Feeding wild birds

Making your garden as wildlife-friendly as possible is the best way to help wild birds in autumn and winter, but providing food is important too

Now that the days are growing shorter, it's a good time to think about how your garden can help wildlife throughout the colder months.


Our gardens and community green spaces are increasingly becoming havens for wildlife – and providing food for bees, butterflies and birds is a brilliant way to boost biodiversity.


There is some debate about whether birds should be fed year-round, or just during the colder months. It's true that wild birds are most in need of extra help during winter and early spring – at this time of year, natural food sources such as berries, seeds and insects may be in short supply.

Blue tit and great tit on a bord feeder

Blue tit and great tit by Lidia Stawinska on Unsplash

But food shortages can occur at any time, and keeping feeders topped up all year can give birds a better chance of survival during unexpected times of need.


If you usually feed wild birds during winter, now is the time to stock up on bird food and check that your feeders are clean and ready to fill.


When lots of birds visit one area to feed, the chance of disease increases. So good feeder hygiene is essential to keep wild bird populations healthy.

To clean bird feeders, start by putting on some rubber gloves and disposing of any old food.


Then fill a bucket with hot, soapy water. Unfortunately, many washing-up liquids contain toxic chemicals that then end up in our waterways, harming aquatic life. So try to use an eco-friendly, plant-based washing-up liquid such as Ecover or Ecozone – these are made with natural, biodegradable ingredients that are more nature-friendly.


Clean the feeder in the soapy water then then rinse off thoroughly. Allow to dry completely before refilling with fresh food.


Recent reports have suggested that some of our garden bird species – such as blue tits and great tits – can become dominant when food is provided for them. This could create problems for other species that may be in decline, as there is more competition for natural food sources and nesting sites.

Robin

Putting out different types of feeders and offering a wide range of foods will help support different species – and if you want to go one step further, finding out which species are in decline on your area, and offering foods specific to those birds, is one way to help.


Many farmland birds are in decline, for example – so if you live adjacent to farmland, offer foods such as a quality wild bird seed mix to attract finches and buntings.


Seed mixes will also attract garden birds such as long-tailed tits, dunnocks and house sparrows.


Seed feeders – for sunflower seeds or wild bird seed mixes – are usually made from transparent tubes of sturdy plastic punched with holes. Nyger seed needs to be served up in a special type of feeder, though, as the seed is very small and will just fall through the holes on a standard seed feeder. It's worth investing in a nyger seed feeder if you want to attract siskins and goldfinches to your garden.

Greenfinch on a bird feeder

Peanuts are favoured by blue tits, great tits and greenfinches – and may also attract nuthatches and woodpeckers. Peanuts should always be offered in a rigid mesh feeder – never loose, or in nylon netting.


Look for peanut feeders with holes that are about 6mm wide – wide enough to prevent damage to beaks, but small enough to stop large pieces of nut (which can choke baby birds) being removed.


Suet ball or block holders, and suet-filled coconut shells, will also attract many different species – including robins and wrens. This type of fat-based food is excellent during very cold weather, as it provides a quick energy boost.

As with peanuts, if suet balls are sold in nylon mesh bags always transfer them to a suitable container first, as nylon mesh can trap and injure birds.


Once you start feeding the birds, they will come to rely on the food you provide – so try to keep up the feeding routine throughout autumn, winter and early spring.


It's also important to check water sources – birds need to drink too! In very cold conditions check that natural water sources such as ponds haven't frozen over – and if they have, put out some fresh water for birds to drink and bathe in.

Blue tit
Great tit
Icy pond

One of the best ways to help wild birds, though, is to garden in a wildlife-friendly way. Increasing natural sources of insects, seeds, nuts, fruit and berries through careful garden design and management can help offset losses caused by climate change, development and changes in farming practices.


Planting plenty of nectar-rich plants will increase insect populations, and so benefit insect-eating birds such as robins and wagtails. Summer visitors such as swifts, swallows and house martins will also benefit.

Pink cosmos flower

Grow seed-bearing plants – and, importantly, keep seed heads in situ throughout autumn and winter – to help seed-eating birds such as goldfinches and bullfinches. Teasels, sunflowers, honesty and cosmos are good choices. Wildflowers such as meadow cranesbill, dandelions and yarrow also provide plenty of seeds.

Dandelion seed head

Plants and trees that produce berries can produce a source of food well into winter – and are especially useful when the ground is frozen and worms and insects aren't accessible or available.


Blackbirds, thrushes, fieldfares and red wings use berries as a major food source, so grow rowan, holly, ivy, blackthorn and hawthorn to help feed them. Berry-producing shrubs such as cotoneaster, berberis and pyracantha are also good choices.

Rowan berries

Blackbirds and members of the thrush family also like to feed on apples, so – if you have space – planting an apple tree is a good idea. Leave any windfalls on the ground to attract these species.


As an added bonus, an apple tree provides nectar-rich blossoms in spring that are much-loved by bumblebees.


Avoid cutting back berry-laden branches in autumn – wait until late winter or early spring to trim hedges, shrubs and trees (and avoid cutting from March to August, which is the main breeding season for nesting birds). This will maximise the wildlife benefits of these plants throughout the colder months.

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Little Green Space October 2021