Feeding birds all year round

Hawthorn

Rowena Millar, Cornwall Wildlife Trust's (currently Non-Roving) Wildlife Reporter, continues to show us how to make the best of our gardens for wildlife. This week Rowena explains why it's so important to feed the birds that visit our garden and how you can make a bird feeder.

Feeding birds used to be a winter pleasure or chore. If the snow lay thick, or there was a hard frost, or the berries had gone from the trees, it was easy to see that garden birds were struggling to find something to eat. However, birds can experience food shortages and stresses at any time of year, and conservation organisations now encourage us to put food and water out all year round.

Changes in the seasons

Weather patterns that are out of the ordinary, such as the extreme dry and extreme wet we have experienced so far in 2020, can make it harder for birds to find enough natural food at times of year when it is usually abundant, particularly in springtime when they are feeding their young. Wildlife’s calendar is changing along with the climate, as milder winters affect the times of year that plants grow and aphids and caterpillars are available, and the times that predators are active.

Adapting in an unreasonably short evolutionary time is hard for any creature, and perhaps small birds with a high metabolism, bringing up voracious young on a multi-caterpillar diet, may be particularly affected. It must also affect insect-eating migratory birds dependent upon feeding patterns that have been established over countless centuries.  

How to help

Supplementing a natural diet by providing nutritious food for the adults, such as sunflower seeds or mealworms, will help parent birds that may be struggling to feed both themselves and their young families. In some cases, even if your own garden is a bountiful oasis in itself, human developments or changes to farming practises in the surrounding landscape may make the surrounding landscape less bird friendly, and so extra food is still useful to the general bird population. If you feed birds all year round, with bird-friendly plant species or by buying bird food, you will guarantee avian visitors to your garden and, let’s hope, larger and more successful broods fledging from their nests.

House sparrows perch on bird feeders - one fullf of seed, the other containing fat balls

House sparrows on commercial bird feeders

The range of commercial bird seed mixes available can be quite overwhelming, so it’s worth experimenting to see what’s popular with your own garden inhabitants and visitors. You can create your own – information on food types is available here

It is vital, however, to prevent disease, and feeding mouldy food that has become toxic, forgetting to clean bird feeders, or allowing the bird feeding area or the ground underneath to become dirty, can be much worse than not feeding at all.

Make your own bird feeder

A way of increasing the number of bird feeders in your garden – and/or make a bird feeder that is easy to clean and free to replace – is to make your own out of a pine cone, coconut husk or yoghurt pot. It is as simple as this:

Wildlife Watch - How to make your own bird feeder activity sheet

Wildlife Watch - How to make your own bird feeder activity sheet

Water

A most vital element for life is water. Birds need a clean water supply for drinking and bathing.  As well as our plastic pond for pet ducks and a wildlife pond, I have found a dedicated bird bath very worthwhile for the smaller birds such as dunnocks, house sparrows, robins and tits. Ours is made from a heavy plant dish on top of a strawberry planter. A friend of mine has a bird dish between two connected water butts, which can fill itself from an overflow pipe. Let your imagination be the limit, as long as the birds can drink and bathe in clean water.

A house sparrow perches on the edge of a plant pot dish balanced on top of a terracotta pot which forms the homemade bird bath

A home-made bird bath

Plants to help feed your garden birds

In the wild, birds have evolved to survive on whatever nature provides. You can help by growing the trees and plants that feed them naturally. The birds may return the favour to the trees and plants too: by eating nuts, seeds and fruits, they may help propagate them and spread them far and wide. Hard seed casings may be broken by beaks, gizzards and digestive systems, and the seeds are handily flown to new destinations along with a dab of fertiliser.

Fruits and berries

What can be more cheering on a cold, bleak day than a garden full of plump, glossy berries, hanging in bunches, or suspended artfully from stems, studding fences and walls with sumptuous necklaces of edible beads for the birds? Climbing plants can be an excellent source of berries in small gardens or on walls and fences. On harsh days you can view birds such as thrushes and finches eating berries from your window.

The following native species (in alphabetical order) provide berries for birds in my own garden. They all provide shelter and perches, too: blackthorn, crab apple, dog rose, guelder rose, hawthorn, holly, honeysuckle, ivy, rowan.

We have some non-native species too. As well as attracting insects in March with its orange flowers, the dense, spiny Berberis provides a mass of black berries, beloved of blackbirds. Cotoneaster attracts insects and becomes covered in red berries, but it is controversial to grow, as the seeds from the berries spread too easily. Cotoneaster can become very invasive when it escapes into the countryside. Pyracantha (firethorn) doesn’t seem to spread but it also produces numerous berries.

A male blackbird sits in a shrub and feasts on the blue berries that surround it

Blackbird on berries

A range of soft fruit bushes such as currants (Rubus and Ribes) provide fruit for us all. I have blackcurrant and raspberry bushes on the outside as well as the inside of the fruit cage, which results in greater bird/human harmony rather than competition when they ripen. Flowering currant is useful for birds, too, and fuchsias and our Cornus kousa tree produce many berries/fruit. Amelanchier is an attractive little North American tree in the rose family, with pretty flowers and pomes (a fleshy outside with seeds inside), and is popular in small gardens.

Cultivated roses can provide edible and attractive hips, although small rosehips like those of the native dog rose may suit the widest range of birds.