Feeding Wild Birds
Peanuts are the most popular food for garden birds and attract a wide
range of species. When feeding during the spring and summer ensure
all peanuts are fed from a mesh peanut feeder, as whole peanuts can be
harmful to young birds.
Sunflower seed is a highly nutritious and popular food for birds, especially
the tits and finches. The ‘black-shell’ variety tends to be more
popular with birds than the ‘striped shell’ type, but both will be eaten.
Nyjer seed is an extremely fine seed, very attractive to Goldfinches, Siskins and Redpolls in particular: requires a special feeder to hold the seed.
‘Mixed Wildbird Seed’ is very popular with pigeons and doves, but
other garden birds tend to avoid it as they find it hard to digest. Different mixes attract different birds.
Don’t waste any fat! It’s a nutritious food for garden birds. Lumps of
suet may be hung out, and meat trimmings, bacon rinds and table
scraps will also be eaten gratefully. The large ‘Fat Balls’ which can be
bought in pet shops often prove highly popular – remember to remove the plastic wrapping as birds can catch their toes in the mesh.
IDEA! You can make your own home-made version by pouring melted fat over bread or cake
scraps in a yogurt carton mould to make ‘bird cake’. This can be made
even more nutritious if some seeds, nuts, oatmeal, grated cheese or
dried fruits are added.
|Blackcap (c. John Fox)|
Often overlooked, fruit will attract several species of bird which may
not otherwise visit your garden. Apples and pears cut in half and
placed on the ground will attract Blackbirds and Song Thrushes, and in
particularly hard weather they might bring in Redwings and Fieldfares.
Spearing cut apples onto the ends of branches will also attract
Blackcaps. Smaller fruit such as grapes will also be taken. A coconut
sawn in half and hung upside down from the branch of a tree is
welcomed and much enjoyed by the tits.
Stale bread, biscuits and cake are often available in the kitchen and can
make great bird food, though modern processed bread is not suitable
for wild birds and should be avoided where possible. Grated wholemeal
bread should be moistened slightly, as this makes it easier for the
birds to swallow. Moist bread is also less likely to blow away or be
taken off in pieces by the larger, more aggressive birds. Maize flakes, oat
flakes and even puppy meal are other valuable food sources. In very
cold weather, cheese scattered on the ground beneath bushes should
attract wrens and help them through difficult conditions, and left-over
mashed potato is a great favourite with Blackcaps.
Tips about Feeding
1. Feed regularly: don’t put out lots of feeders and then forget to refill
them. Birds can become dependant on a food source during harsh
2. Only use fresh peanuts and seed. Do not feed mouldy, wrinkled or
wizened peanuts or seed.
3. Ensure fresh water is always available for drinking and bathing. An
upturned dustbin lid with a stone in it is often all that is required.
Be sure to remove the ice in cold weather so that birds can drink.
4. Birds often feed on the ground below a feeder. Make sure that there
is no shrubbery nearby that could conceal a cat, and try to keep all
feeders at least 2 meters above the ground.
5. Remember to wash all feeders regularly and to change the water in the bird
bath on a regular basis.
Can I feed all year round?
Although birds need our help most during winter, feeding between the
months of April and October can also be helpful, as there is a great
demand on natural resources due to the increase in hungry mouths to
feed. If feeding during the summer, only put out peanuts in a fine
mesh container so that parent birds cannot take large pieces that might
cause young chicks to choke, and avoid fats completely. Safe foods to
use at this time of year include sunflower seeds, pinhead oatmeal,
sultanas, raisins, currants and mealworms.
A great way to attract birds into your garden is to provide them with
safe places to nest. Modern houses have few holes or crevices for
nesting, and old trees, which may have suitable holes, are often felled or absent from new housing developments.
Nestboxes provide the ideal solution and make excellent substitutes for
natural nest sites for hole-nesting birds. They can be designed to suit
the requirements of a range of different species, but the most popular
are the ones which have an entrance hole suitable for the members of
the tit family.
Broadly speaking, there are 2 main catagories of box that are suitable for most gardens, though BirdWatch Ireland can supply you from a range of nearly 20 different designs.
A box with a small entrance hole will suit the following species:
Blue Tit & Coal Tit (25mm), Great Tit & Tree Sparrow
(28mm), House Sparrow (32mm), Starling (45mm).
The similar box with the upper half of the front taken away altogether is ideal
for Robins, Pied Wagtails and Wrens. Spotted Flycatchers prefer
a somewhat shallower open-fronted box.
Some other species will use specifically designed nestboxes or platforms,
including Swift, Swallow, Dipper, Grey Wagtail, Kestrel, Barn
Owl, Jackdaw and Treecreeper; for further details on purchasing or choosing a nestbox construct
When & where to put up your nestbox
Put your nestbox up well before the start of the breeding season, as
many birds begin searching out nest sites from February onwards.
Don't be too disappointed if the box isn’t used for the first year or two.
Ideally it should be located at least 2m from the ground (preferably 3 -
5m) to ensure that cats and curious people can't disturb it or look
inside. Affix it to a wall, fence or tree trunk in a quiet area, away from
your bird table if possible. It is best to angle the box forward slightly
and to keep it away from the wall or tree by using a strip of wood.
Unless the site is very sheltered, the box should be fixed facing between
north and south-east to avoid the hot sun and the wettest winds.
In all but the largest gardens only one box of each type is likely to be
used, perhaps one by tits and one by Robins. On the other hand, two
nestboxes quite close together are sometimes occupied at the same
time if they are both at the edge of a territory. Sparrows and House Martins will nest in small colonies.
Care of your nestbox
The box can be opened from the end of October and cleaned out.
Empty out old nest material and any unhatched eggs and clean the
inside of the box with boiling water (which should kill most parasites
that may be lying in wait, ready to infest next year’s brood). In cases of
severe parasite infestation it may be necessary to use one of the less
harmful insecticides, such as pyrethrum powder, but this should be
avoided unless thought absolutely necessary.
A small handful of wood shavings placed in the box may encourage
some birds to roost in it during the cold winter nights. Don't use straw,
as this will get damp and turn mouldy in the box over the course of the
Providing a safe environment for nesting birds
If birds take up residence in your nestbox you should resist the temptation
to keep having a quick peep, as this could result in the parents
abandoning the nest. Instead, watch the comings and goings of the
birds from the safe distance of your kitchen window: they will behave
more naturally and you will enjoy and learn more this way. An alternative is to purchase a nestbox camera kit and watch the nesting season progress via your own computer. Attacks by
predators can also sometimes cause parent birds to desert their eggs or
chicks. Nestboxes can be afforded some protection against predators
by fixing a metal plate around the entrance hole. Alternatively, bundles
of gorse or thorn tied round the tree above and below the box offer protection
from most mammalian predators.
Gardening for Birds & Biodiversity
|Whitebeam (c. C Mac Lochlainn)|
)As well as putting out food for birds you can also attract them into your garden by planting suitable trees and shrubs. Plants can provide suitable nesting sites and shelter as well as offer a rich and abundant food source. Some of the more suitable of the commonly-grown garden plants which are bird friendly are listed below:
|Elder berries: an autumn favourite (c. C Mac Lochlainn)|
Cotoneasters These provide dense cover for nesting and an abundant
supply of red/orange berries in the winter months. A particular favourite
of Blackbirds and Black caps.
Pyracantha Needs to be grown against a wall. they provide an abundant supply of red/orange berries in the autumn. Thorns are cat proof.
Holly For a good crop of berries, plant female trees of the native wild form:
note that to ensure good fruiting there should be a male Holly tree nearby.
Holly Trees defended by territorial Mistle Thrushes may hold their berries until the spring. Larger Holly trees also provide good secure nesting sites. An important plant for Holly Blue butterflies which lay their eggs on holly blossom.
Ivy (the normal wild form). Climbs up trees and walls: Is particularly to wildlife because the blossoms are borne in autumn and are attractive to butterflies and other insects. The fruit is eaten inlate winter and early spring by Woodpigeons, thrushes, Robins and Blackcaps.
Ivy also provides good cover for nests, though if left unchecked can cause mechanical damage to old trees and shrubs.
Honeysuckle A range of different varieties provide a long flowering and long
fruiting season. Attracts warblers as well as thrushes and Bullfinches. The
dense growth of this climber provides ample cover for nesting.
Rowan/Mountain Ash (the normal red-berried form). The large clusters
of red berries attract winter thrushes such as Redwings and Fieldfares.
These berries are also a source of food for the rare Waxwing.
Hawthorn its berries are a great favourite with Redwings and Blackbirds. A dense hedge will provide plenty of nesting cover for a wide range of speciesand is stock proof.
Crab Apples The small fruits on these trees are welcomed by wintering
Blackcaps and thrushes.
|Guelder Rose (c. C Mac Lochlainn)|
Remember birds are natural pest controllers.
Song Thrushes love to devour snails so avoid using slug pellets,
which may harm them. Try also to avoid using
insecticides to control greenfly and other insect
pests; these are favourite foods of Blue Tits and other garden birds.
Remember that nesting birds need plenty of cover, so don't cut hedges
between 1 March and 31 August and do make sure that there will be sufficient
growth to provide cover for next year’s nests.
When should a bird table be used?
Bird tables are usually left in position all year round, but feeding birds
is most important during the winter months, as that is when birds need
it most and natural food is scarcest.
Where should it be?
Ideally you should position your bird table in a reasonably open area,
either fixed to the top of a post or hanging from a branch or bracket.
This will make it easier for you to observe and will also reduce the risk
of cats or other predators sneaking up on the feeding birds. Don’t put
your table within easy reach of a fence or tree from which a cat can
leap, but place it near a bush which gives birds somewhere to ‘queue
up’ for a place on the table, or to dash if disturbed.
By the way, a garden is not essential - a feeding tray may even attract
birds to a windowsill on a block of apartments!
Should there be a roof?
A table with a roof gives extra places for seed feeders or nut bags, and gives some protection from the elements but an open one is really just as good.
Keep it clean:
Clean the table regularly to prevent any risk of disease to the birds. Also, move it from time to time, as droppings will accumulate underneath.
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|Spindle berries (c. C Mac Lochlainn)|