For much of the year, the feathered visitors to our gardens and balconies find plenty to eat between plants and insects. And they do a valuable job for us gardeners, too. Smaller birds will enjoy helping to control your greenfly and aphid population whilst slightly larger ones (like thrushes and blackbirds) can be tempted by your slugs and snails! It’s worth showing them that your garden is bird-friendly to enjoy that reciprocal relationship.
However, research has shown that there has been a steady decline in our bird populations since the 1970s, largely due to changes in a range of farming practices. It is clear that our feathered friends could do with our help more than ever. Every year, the RSPB organises the Big Garden Birdwatch to help monitor bird numbers. Ignoring the ‘greedy’ birds (like starling, woodpigeons and magpies, who probably don’t need our help to find food!), we’ve taken the top five most populous smaller garden birds and looked at what they like to eat best so you can help encourage them into your garden.
Naturally, house sparrows will eat grains and seeds but will also peck at ripe fruit and young plants as well as earthworms and small insects. As such, they will happily eat almost anywhere; no specialist feeders required! When their natural foods are in short supply, they will gladly munch on birdseed mixtures (preferably with a good mix of smaller grains), as well as sunflower hearts or peanut chips. Some sparrows have even learnt to tackle the metal mesh on peanut feeders!
Blue tits, like their cousins coal tits and great tits, love to eat insects. They like aphids, beetles, spiders and insect larvae, in particular winter moth caterpillars (so are great for helping to protect your fruit trees!). They will also eat seeds and nuts. You will no doubt have seen how agile Blue Tits are in seeking out their next meal – hanging from branches or perching in hedges. When insects are in shorter supply, blue tits will eat almost any bird food you care to put out for them. They go crazy for peanuts and sunflower hearts, will peck through suet blocks and munch on most bird seed mixes designed for hanging feeders.
Like many familiar garden birds, blackbirds are fairly unfussy feeders, eating insects, seeds or plant matter depending on what they can find. And we’ve all seen that blackbird tugging on a juicy earthworm after a shower of rain! They do prefer to eat from the ground rather than from any type of hanging feeder. When offered, blackbirds will eat almost anything you put out; they don’t often eat peanuts but that could simply be because we usually put peanuts in hanging feeders. Blackbirds will eat fruit, like apples, pears and soft banana and, for extra protein in cold weather, love a little grated cheese!
Robins seem to hold a particular place in our hearts as gardeners, perhaps because of their associations with Christmas and how apparently tame they can sometimes become. If you are digging your garden and a robin appears, no doubt he is looking for a meaty little worm or beetle that you might have unearthed! Robins are also omnivores, eating anything from insects to fruit, depending on what is in season. They, too, tend to be ground feeders, although may venture on to a hanging bird table if tempted. Robins will eat most of the common bird foods, from sunflower hearts to seed mixes, but they are particular fans of a mealworm. Whether dried, live or rehydrated in a little warm water, your resident robin will love them (you just have to stop the starlings getting to them first!).
Goldfinches are predominantly seed eaters; their beaks were designed to get into small places like dried teasels, lavender flowers and dandelion heads. When there are less seeds around, they may eat smaller insects too. The traditional food to attract goldfinches are nyjer seeds, in a specialist feeder so that the fine seeds don’t just spill out. Chaffinches and greenfinches will also eat nyjer, too. The goldfinches in my garden seem to have fads; sometimes they like the nyjer seeds but sometimes they will fill up on sunflower hearts (although I haven’t worked out why they change their minds!). I have also seen mine trying seed mix from my hanging feeders.
It’s great that you’re thinking about feeding the birds which visit your garden but don’t forget that they need water too. In dry weather, they will love to drink and bathe in a bird bath, the shallow edge of a pond or even a small tray with a few pebbles in it. In winter, it’s really important to check that their water hasn’t frozen; I have been known to defrost my bird bath several times a day in really cold weather.
It’s also essential that you keep your feeders and bird baths clean. At least once a month, empty them out and give them a wash in warm, soapy water. If you want to ensure they are really clean, spray them with a disinfectant solution and leave them to dry thoroughly. Sadly, disease is a factor in the decline of garden bird species so please do take care of them. As you would expect, the RSPB have great advice on feeding birds safely.
You don’t have to splash out on every kind of bird food or feeder to encourage small garden birds to your garden or balcony. Perhaps a seed mix and – especially in the winter – a high energy suet pellet food will suit most of them. Just don’t forget that they don’t all like hanging feeders; serve the same foods at ground level if you can too.
Now is a great time to stock up on your pantry, not only to keep them going through the winter but also so that you will have lots to see during the Big Garden Birdwatch this year! From 27th to 29th January, the RSPB’s annual bird count will take place; just sit back, relax and watch your garden birds for an hour. For more details and how to log your count results, visit https://www.rspb.org.uk/get-involved/activities/birdwatch/