How to Help Garden Birds this Winter

Scraps or seeds? Bird feeder or table? Everything you need to know about helping garden birds this winter.

Feeding birds

What food can you leave out for birds and how can you keep your feeding station hygenic and pest-free? Here you’ll find the answers to all questions about feeding birds.

Feeding birds in the garden is a popular activity – over half of adults in the UK feed birds in their garden. That’s a lot of extra help for the birds!

During winter, it becomes harder for birds to find natural sources of food as the ground is harder and they struggle when food is covered in ice and snow. Putting out feeders and tables means they use less energy searching for food which can really help them throughout the winter months. Especially as birds can eat the equivalent of two thirds of their body weight a day!

Providing birds with supplementary food will bring them closer for you to marvel at their fascinating behaviour and wonderful colours. Putting out food and water on a regular basis, twice daily if the weather’s bad, will also encourage the birds to keep coming back to your garden.

If you provide both natural and supplementary food, your garden will be visited year-round by a host of different birds.

It is important to feed your garden birds responsibly and safely. By following a few simple guidelines, you can play a valuable role in helping your local birds overcome periods of natural food shortage, survive periods of severe winter weather and come into good breeding condition in the spring.

What food to provide (and avoid!)?

  • Bird seed mixtures 

There are different mixes for feeders and for bird tables and ground feeding. The better mixtures contain plenty of flaked maize, sunflower seeds, and peanut granules.

Small seeds, such as millet, attract mostly house sparrows, finches, reed buntings and collared doves, while flaked maize is taken readily by blackbirds. Tits and greenfinches favor peanuts and sunflower seeds. Mixes that contain chunks or whole nuts are suitable for winter feeding only. Pinhead oatmeal is excellent for many birds. Wheat and barley grains are often included in seed mixtures, but they are really only suitable for pigeons, doves and pheasants, which feed on the ground and rapidly increase in numbers, frequently deterring the smaller species.

Avoid seed mixtures that have split peas, beans, dried rice or lentils as again only the large species can eat them dry. These are added to some cheaper seed mixes to bulk them up. Any mixture containing green or pink lumps should also be avoided as these are dog biscuit, which can only be eaten when soaked. 

  • Black sunflower seeds

These are an excellent year-round food, and in many areas are even more popular than peanuts. The oil content is higher in black than striped ones, and so they are much better. Sunflower hearts (the husked kernels) are a popular no-mess food.

  • Nyjer seeds 

These are small and black with a high oil content. They need a special type of seed feeder, and are particular favorites with goldfinches and siskins.

  • Peanuts 

These are rich in fat and are popular with tits, greenfinches, house sparrows, nuthatches, great spotted woodpeckers and siskins. Crushed or grated nuts attract robins, dunnocks and even wrens. Nuthatches and coal tits may hoard peanuts. Salted or dry roasted peanuts should not be used. Peanuts can be high in a natural toxin, which can kill birds, so buy from a reputable dealer to guarantee freedom from aflatoxin.

  • Fruit

Fruits have a high water content and are energy-rich with all their simple sugars so are great for birds during the winter. You can halve fruits such as apples and leave them on bird tables or the ground. If you have fruit trees in your garden, why not collect some of the windfall fruit in the autumn and store it somewhere cool and dry, such as a garden shed, for use in the winter. Be sure to check the fruit isn’t rotten.

  • Bird cake and fat balls

Fat balls and other fat-based food bars are excellent winter food. If they are sold in nylon mesh bags, always remove the bag before putting the fat ball out – the soft mesh can trap and injure birds. You can make your own bird cake by pouring melted fat (suet or lard) onto a mixture of ingredients such as seeds, nuts, dried fruit, oatmeal, cheese and cake. Use about one-third fat to two-thirds mixture. Stir well in a bowl and allow it to set in a container of your choice. An empty coconut shell, plastic cup or tit bell makes an ideal bird cake ‘feeder’. Alternatively, you can turn it out onto your bird table when solid.

  • Live foods and other insect foods

Mealworms are relished by robins and blue tits, and may attract other insect-eating birds such as pied wagtails.

Mealworms are a natural food and can be used to feed birds throughout the year. It is very important that any mealworms fed to birds are fresh. Any dead or discoloured ones must not be used as they can cause problems such as salmonella poisoning.

Waxworms are excellent, but expensive. Proprietary foods for insect-eating birds, such as ant pupae and insectivorous and soft bill food are available from bird food suppliers and pet shops. Insect food appropriately offered can attract tree creepers and wrens.

  • Cooking fat

Fat from cooking is bad for birds. The problem with cooked fat from roasting tins and dishes is that the meat juices have blended with the fat and when allowed to set, this consistency makes it prone to smearing, not good for birds’ feathers. It is a breeding ground for bacteria, so potentially bad for birds’ health. Salt levels depend on what meat is used and if any salt is added during cooking.

Lard and beef suet on their own are fine as they re-solidify after warming and as they are pure fat, it is not as suitable for bacteria to breed on.

  • Polyunsaturated margarines or vegetable oils

These are unsuitable for birds. Unlike humans, birds need high levels of saturated fat, such as raw suet and lard. They need the high energy content to keep warm in the worst of the winter weather, since their body reserves are quickly used up, particularly on cold winter nights. The soft fats can easily be smeared onto the feathers, destroying the waterproofing and insulating qualities.

  • Milk and coconut

Never give milk to any bird. A bird’s gut is not designed to digest milk and it can result in serious stomach upsets, or even death. Birds can, however, digest fermented dairy products such as cheese. Mild grated cheese can be a good way of attracting robins and wrens.

Give fresh coconut only, in the shell. Rinse out any residues of the sweet coconut water from the middle of the coconut before hanging it out to prevent the build-up of black mildew.

Desiccated coconut should never be used as it may swell once inside a bird and cause death.

  • Rice and cereals

Cooked rice, brown or white (without salt added) is beneficial and readily accepted by all species during severe winter weather. Uncooked rice may be eaten by birds such as pigeons, doves and pheasants but is less likely to attract other species.

Porridge oats must never be cooked, since this makes them glutinous and could harden around a bird’s beak. Uncooked porridge oats are readily taken by a number of bird species.

Any breakfast cereal is acceptable bird food, although you need to be careful only to put out small quantities at a time. It is best offered dry, with a supply of drinking water nearby, since it quickly turns into pulp once wetted.

  • Moldy and stale food

Many molds are harmless, but some can cause respiratory infections in birds, so it is best to be cautious and avoid moldy food entirely.

If food turns moldy or stale on your bird table, you are probably placing out too large a quantity for the birds to eat in one day. Always remove any stale or moldy food promptly. Stale food provides a breeding ground for salmonella bacteria, which can cause food poisoning. At least one type of salmonella causes death among such species as greenfinches and house sparrows. Large quantities of food scattered on the ground may attract rats and mice. Rats can carry diseases that affect humans.

You can buy bird food from the RSPB.

How to feed birds?

By providing a variety of bird feeding stations, you can attract a wider range of birds into your garden. Some birds forage in the trees but others, such as blackbirds and robins, are ground feeders.

  • Bird tables

Bird tables are suitable for many species and most foods. They are especially useful for species such as Blackbirds who struggle to use hanging feeders. A simple tray is perfectly adequate, with or without a roof. Although a roof can help keep the food dry whilst also offering shelter. It needs a raised rim to retain the food and a gap at each corner of the rim to allow rainwater drain away and allow you to clean away droppings and uneaten food. Do not be tempted by elaborate designs that are difficult to clean.

  • Feeders

These come in all shapes and sizes to allow for different foods. One advantage of hanging feeders is that they can be placed out of reach of predators.

Nut feeders are made of steel mesh, and are the only safe method of offering nuts to wild birds. The mesh size needs to be large enough to prevent beak damage and small enough to prevent large pieces of nut from being removed – about 6 mm is a good compromise.

Seed feeders are tubular transparent containers with holes, through which birds are able to access the seed. These are designed for sunflower seeds and seed mixes labelled feeder seed. They will attract tits, siskins and greenfinches.

Nyjer seed is smaller and needs a special type of seed feeder. They are particularly popular with goldfinches and siskins. Hopper types with trays or flat surfaces are suited to general cereal based mixes, although any seed mix can be used. They will attract a similar range of birds to a bird table. Make sure that all feeders drain easily and do not allow the build-up of old food with the associated health risks.

  • Home-made devices

Half-coconuts and tit bells filled with fat, bird cake, etc can be hung from your bird table, a tree or from a bracket on a wall. They will attract greenfinches, house sparrows and tits.

  • Other ideas

Fill the holes and cracks of a post or suspended log with fatty food, such as suet, for agile birds, such as tits, nuthatches, woodpeckers, tree creepers and even wrens.

Thrushes and dunnocks prefer to feed on the ground. For these birds, scatter food on the lawn or use a ground feeding tray or hopper well clear of cover to avoid lurking cats. Remember to change the area you scatter the food over every few days, and never put out more than is eaten the same day to avoid attracting vermin.

If you put food such as apples and bread on the ground, space it out in different places in the garden. This will reduce competition between birds so that more birds can feed at any one time. If there is snow on the ground, clear small areas before putting down the food.

  • Mesh bags – a warning

Peanuts and fat balls are regularly sold in nylon mesh bags. Never put out any food in mesh bags. These may trap birds’ feet and even cause broken or torn off feet and legs. Birds with a barbed tongue, eg woodpeckers, can become trapped by their beaks.

Bird tables & feeders are available from the RSPB.

When to feed wild birds?

Although winter feeding benefits birds most, food shortages can occur at any time of the year. By feeding the birds year round, you’ll give them a better chance to survive the periods of food shortage whenever they may occur.

During autumn and winter, put out food and water on a regular basis. In severe weather, feed twice daily if you can: in the morning and in the early afternoon.

Birds require high energy (high fat) foods during the cold winter weather to maintain their fat reserves to survive the frosty nights. Use only good quality food and scraps.

Always adjust the quantity given to the demand, and never allow uneaten foods to accumulate around the feeders. Once you establish a feeding routine, try not to change it as the birds will become used to it and time their visits to your garden accordingly.

What about water?

Many people put food out for birds, but fewer think to provide clean water for them so whatever you can do will help. Water is essential for birds as they need to drink and bathe in order to keep their feathers in good condition. It is important to make sure you leave water out for them during the winter months as natural sources may freeze.

A simple plant saucer with textured finish and a stone in the middle makes a good bird bath, as does a dustbin lid providing it has a rough surface. If the surface of the bird bath is too smooth the birds may not be able to grip it with their claws and they may slip. You can also buy bird baths in most garden centers or on the RSPB website.

Whichever bird bath you choose it should have shallow sloping sides allowing a shallow approach to water. This means species of all sizes will be able to bathe without risk.

Place bird baths in the open, away from cover where cats and other predators may hide. If possible near a tree where the birds can go for shelter if they get scared.

During the winter months, it is vital to make sure the water doesn’t freeze. Placing small objects, such as twigs or table tennis balls, in the bird baths can help with this. You can also buy bird baths, like the Solar Sipper, that uses solar energy to prevent the water from freezing.

However if the water in your bird bath does freeze, you can either pour warm water onto the ice to melt it, insuring no birds will be able to get to the water while it cools, or empty the ice and refill.

Anti-freeze products should NEVER be used as they can poison the birds or remove the waterproof coating of their feathers.

You should clean the bath every week or so. Scrub the sides and bottom to remove algae and other dirt.

Nest boxes

Nest boxes are best put up during the autumn so that non-migratory birds can use them for shelter during the colder months. If the birds feel safe during the winter they may return to the same boxes for nesting in the spring.

When possible place the next boxes somewhere they will be sheltered by a tree, a building or dense hedging. Tilting the box forward slightly will help keep the box dry as rain will bounce off the roof.

Placing boxes at different heights will attract a variety of species. Robins for example like open-fronted boxes no more than 2m high and hidden in vegetation to protect them from predators, whilst tits or starlings prefer higher boxes, up to 4m high.

It is also important to keep the entrance of the nest box clear to allow the birds to come and go easily.

You can buy nest boxes of all sizes at most garden centers and pet shops. Or why not make your own with this easy RSPB guide!

Avoid looking inside nest boxes that you think are in use as this may scare away the birds. Just watch and enjoy from a distance!

Hygiene – vital precautions

When a large number of birds are attracted into an area to feed, the danger of disease increases. Prevention is always better than a cure, and is the best thing you can do to help the birds.

Most diseases are transmitted by droppings. If contaminated droppings mix with food, the birds run a risk of picking up the infection. Since the contamination can originate either from other birds or from animals (such as rats), it’s important to guard against infection from both sources in your garden.

Good hygiene is particularly important during the summer months. The warmer weather can make food go off quicker, and can provide ideal conditions for harmful bacteria. However, you should still make sure your feeders and bird baths stay clean throughout the winter.

  • Monitor your food supply carefully. If the food takes days to clear, reduce the amount of food you’re offering.
  • Store your bird food in a clean, dry and cool environment inaccessible to pests.
  • Use a bird table or hanging feeders. A ground feeding tray is preferable to putting food directly on the ground because it ‘s easier to keep clean. Food on the ground should all be eaten before nightfall. Rats are attracted to leftover food and often carry diseases, which can affect birds or humans.
  • Clean and wash your bird table and hanging feeders regularly (ideally, using a 5% disinfectant solution), and move feeding stations to a new area every month to prevent droppings accumulating underneath. Double-up on feeding equipment, so that one set can air-dry after cleaning while the other is in use.
  • Water containers should be rinsed out daily and allowed to dry out before fresh water is added. Droppings can accumulate in bird baths.
  • Personal hygiene is also important. Don’t bring your feeders into your house to clean them – do it outside, using separate utensils. Wear gloves when cleaning feeders and bird tables, and particularly if you need to handle a sick or a dead bird in your garden. Always wash your hands when you’ve finished.