Birds may not be uppermost in your mind when first planning a vegetable garden, but the truth is, they play an essential role in every garden. Many bird species are important predators of crop pests, while birds of prey will deal with any rodents. A wide range of birds can become regular visitors to your garden if their needs are met.
I’m no expert twitcher, but I’ve learned to recognise the more common avian visitors to my garden: sparrows, tits, wrens, blackbirds, robins, chaffinches, bullfinches and yellowhammers are all regulars. Sometimes I’m lucky enough to play host to a woodpecker, or even a sparrowhawk, which can provide a real nail-biting, life-or-death spectacle as it swoops into shrubbery to ambush its unsuspecting prey. And I’ve twice managed to charm a barn owl into close quarters using my dog’s squeaky ball!
These encounters enrich my time spent in the garden and assure me that my feathered pest control squad is working hard. But that simply wouldn’t be the case if my garden didn’t provide the food and habitat they need.
Feeding Garden Birds in Winter
Putting out purchased bird food year-round is often recommended, but I prefer to feed only from late autumn to spring. Not only does this help reduce the amount of bird food that needs to be farmed commercially, it minimises my bird food bill too. With my garden birds easily scoffing their way through five fat balls a day in cold weather, cost can definitely become an issue!
Peanuts, sunflower seeds and mixed seed will all be appreciated by small birds in winter, but my go-to choice is fat balls or suet cakes. They’re high in saturated fat, which gives birds the energy they need to survive freezing winter temperatures. Avoid using fat balls that are sold in nylon mesh bags, as birds’ delicate feet and legs can become trapped. You can often buy fat balls loose in tubs or boxes of 50 or more, which works out much cheaper than buying half a dozen at a time.
Once winter is over, don’t suddenly stop feeding birds; instead, taper off gradually, putting out less and less food each day. Your birds will soon twig that they can’t rely on full feeders during summer, and start looking to natural food sources instead.
Plants for Attracting Birds
Only providing supplementary food during the colder months doesn’t mean that birds will go hungry the rest of the year. A sack of bird food may feed a few birds for a few weeks, but a garden full of berry- or seed-producing plants will provide them with habitat and a reliable source of seasonal food for decades to come. Guess what I’d rather spend my hard-earned cash on?
Make sure to grow a variety of trees, shrubs, herbaceous perennials and annuals that flower at different times. This will help support insects year-round, which will in turn attract insect-eating birds that will snap up plenty of pests.
Berry-producing plants are essential food sources for many birds. Red fruits seem to be a favourite. From holly to hawthorn, rowan to roses, those little splashes of scarlet are an irresistible beacon for many birds. Cotoneaster, berberis, honeysuckle and pyracantha all make excellent berrying bird plants. Just make sure you net your raspberries, or they may be taken too!
Small birds love dense shrubs and hedges where they can hide from predators. Thorny brambles, prickly roses, berberis and hawthorn provide a safe haven for them to escape into, while ivy and other dense evergreens make great secluded nesting spots.
Birds of prey are harder to attract. A lookout post such as a tall tree is usually a must for them. Work on providing habitat for a wide range of smaller birds, however, and birds of prey are more likely to see your garden as a potential hunting ground.
And forget the autumn tidy-up – wait until late winter to clear away dead flowerheads and stems, or to prune berrying shrubs. This will ensure that birds have a variety of natural food sources to turn to. A prime example of an excellent all-round plant for birds is teasel. As well as providing seeds for birds such as finches to eat, the standing stems of this statuesque plant make a natural winter home for insects (next year’s bird fodder!), while the distinctive cone-like seedheads are beautiful when etched with frost. There’s simply no good reason to cut these down before late winter.
Feeding Birds on Scraps
Another way to reduce your need to buy in food is to share your scraps with the birds. Leftover cooked rice, cooked or uncooked pastry, cold cooked potato and mild grated cheese will all be enjoyed, and are better in the birds than in the bin!
Put any bruised or soft apples or pears onto your bird table or on the ground. Cut them into chunks to make it easy for birds to get at the flesh.
Bread is not particularly nutritious for birds, so it’s best fed in small quantities along with plenty of other more nourishing foods. Break it up into bite-size morsels – particularly during the breeding season, as chicks could choke on large pieces – and make sure that birds have access to water.
High-energy fats such as suet or lard can be offered, though not fat from cooking, which can stick to birds’ feathers and affect their waterproofing and insulation.
What are your favourite ways to feed wild garden birds? Drop us a comment below and share your tips!