‘What can I feed birds?’ It’s a question many gardeners and birdwatchers ask themselves at some point. When our gardens are void of cheerful chirps and tweets, something just doesn’t feel right! And leaving out wild bird food in your garden can have a bigger impact than you may realise. According to the latest figures from the Avian Population Estimates Panel, there are now 83 million breeding pairs of native birds in the UK; 19 million pairs fewer than when monitoring began in the 1960s[i].
But, if done correctly, feeding wild birds can help maintain populations in need and boost biodiversity conservation[ii]. So, to help you boost your local bird populations, here’s a complete guide to feeding wild birds, including what to feed garden birds and the answer to an important question – should you feed birds all year long?
How To Feed Wild Birds
When done responsibly, feeding wild birds is an incredible hobby, with plenty of educational benefits. But, before you set out your food, you’ll need somewhere to put it! There are plenty of feeding options for wild birds, but some are more suited for certain species than others.
Fortunately, bird tables are suitable for almost all bird species and most foods, though robins and starlings favour them. On the other hand, regular hanging feeders will attract many birds, including many species of finches, sparrows, tits and siskin[iii]. Or you can choose solely suet feeders, which will draw the attention of woodpeckers, nuthatches, jays and chickadees[iv]. And make sure that you put your bird feeders in the right location to keep birds coming back!
Whichever feeder you choose, it’s vital that you keep it clean. By cleaning your feeders once every two weeks, ideally with a 5% disinfectant solution, you can keep your feeding station disease-free[v].
Find out what to do if birds aren’t coming to your feeders.
What To Feed Garden Birds
There are plenty of general bird food options that make great all-rounders no matter the time of year, including:
You’ll attract a varying selection of birds if you provide a range of food for them to choose from. Therefore, for a wide variety of visitors, leave out a combination of seed mixes, fat-based produce (such as fat balls) and a vital source of protein (like mealworms).
Birds can also eat several kitchen staples that you may like to leave out. Foods we often keep in our kitchen, including seedless fruits, cooked rice, roasted or mashed potatoes, and porridge oats[vi], can provide birds with good nutrients when combined with a healthy diet.
What Not to Put Out When Feeding Wild Birds – Although there are plenty of foods that birds will gladly snack on, there are several things that you should never put in a feeder. Some of our kitchen leftovers are toxic to birds, others are too hard for them to digest, and some they just refuse to touch! Here are some foods that you shouldn’t feed to garden birds:
- Fruit seeds
A bird’s dietary requirements change throughout the year. Depending on the season, birds will require different foods to guarantee their survival through the differing conditions. For more on what to feed garden birds in each season, read on!
If you’re new to bird feeding – see our bird feeding starter guide.
Should You Feed Birds All Year Long?
It is more than okay to feed wild birds all year long – in fact, many experts recommend it. Although, indeed, birds are often in desperate need of an easy food source during winter, when their natural food is in short supply.
However, providing them food all year long can support their survival even more. Food shortages can occur at any time of the year, not just in winter, and having a regularly stocked source that they can feed on all year round will guarantee their endurance.
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See more details below
What To Feed Garden Birds in Spring
- Seed mixes
- Soft fruits
- Dried mealworms
Although the weather starts getting warmer for us in the spring, the nights are still cold enough to kill. Plus, birds have been surviving on their natural food sources through winter, including seeds and berries, which they have now devoured. Finally, the breeding season is on the horizon, so birds need to be in peak condition with their energy reserves full and ready.
Birds will need foods rich in calories and fat throughout spring, like suet balls and sunflower seeds. Also, leaving out soft fruits like bananas and grapes will provide plenty of additional nutrients and potentially even entice some new bird species to your feeders. However, ensure that you regularly clean your feeders and tables to stop the food from going off on warmer days.
Also, although peanuts are high energy, avoid them as the breeding season kicks in as they can be difficult for young birds to digest. Officially, the bird nesting season is between February – August, although the busiest time for nesting birds is usually from early March to late July[ix].
Find out more about the bird nesting season.
What To Feed Garden Birds in Summer
- Sunflower hearts
- Apples (with seeds removed)
Once the breeding season is over, birds will be looking for food to feed their young while working to maintain their own energy levels. Although natural food sources are more common during summer, birds will have plenty of extra mouths to feed, and ready-to-go food will make their lives easier. In addition, many bird species produce second, third and even fourth broods, so replenishing your feeders is essential to keeping chicks well fed.
Since many birds will be looking for natural food in summer, you should adjust how much you provide based on how many regular visitors you spot in your garden. Also, their young will need strength, so leave out high-calorie foods such as sunflower hearts to provide energy to both the young and their parents.
Read more: Feeding Birds in Summer
What To Feed Garden Birds In Autumn
- Split peanuts
- Sunflower seeds
- Seed mixes
Although autumn is one of the most plentiful seasons for ripening seeds, nuts and berries, it’s unfortunately scarce of birds. Fortunately, this is a good thing! Usually, birds don’t frequent our gardens through autumn because plenty of natural food sources are available. So, don’t worry if your garden isn’t as busy as usual. However, it’s still best to leave out a mix of their favourites to support any birds who are having trouble.
During autumn, you’ll want to increase your feeding rate slowly. Although it can take until early December for birds to start crowding your feeders again, you’ll likely begin to see a few more visitors as winter draws closer. As the temperatures begin to drop – usually towards the end of October or beginning of November – you can begin to add suet sources to your feeders in preparation for winter.
What To Feed Garden Birds in Winter
- Sunflower hearts
- Sunflower seeds
- Niger seeds
- Seed mixes
Usually, winter is the hardest season for birds. The days are shorter, leaving them with less time for foraging, plus frosts and cold rains can be deadly. To survive, birds require high energy and high-calorie foods to help maintain their fat reserves and keep warm. So, for an increased chance of survival, ensure that you leave out the best quality food you can. Also, never leave uneaten foods to gather around the feeders – ensure that these are cleaned regularly throughout the season, or you could increase the risk of disease spreading among the birds.
Throughout winter, you should try to provide a full spread of various seeds and nuts, combined with suet-rich products like insects or fruit and fat balls. Try and establish a regular feeding routine and stick to it through winter, since birds will become accustomed to your feeding times and visit your garden at just the right time.
Feeding Wild Birds
Not only does feeding wild birds help conserve their population and boost our ecosystem, but it can also make you happier too! Studies have suggested that seeing more birds in your garden can lower depression and increase our happiness[xiii]. So what are you waiting for? Gather some bird seed, invest in a feeder and open your garden gate to some new visitors!
Do you have any advice for feeding wild birds? Let us know!
Gemma Sharp is the resident writer for Love Garden Birds, a supplier of premium bird food and accessories. She has had a genuine love for our feathered friends from a young age, and has dedicated a lot of her time to learning all there is to know about them. If you’re struggling to pick the right bird feed for your garden, need help identifying a type of wild bird, or can’t decide where to put a nesting box, Gemma is the person to go to! She is passionate about sharing her years of learnt knowledge with the public. In her free time, she can be found feeding birds at home with her three young boys.