Feeding birds in winter

Helping our feathered friends survive the cold

Favourite garden visitor – the robin

In winter, life is tough for birds and a real cold snap can lead to death from starvation and exposure – without enough fat layers to insulate them, many will fall victim to extended low temperatures and a dearth of natural food sources.

However, we can help get our garden birds through the winter – as well as being fascinating to watch, most of them eat insect pests.

Too expensive? Well, small quantities of our leftovers can help – fruit cake, mince pies, dried fruit, unsalted nuts, apples, pears or grated mild cheese – never leave them to go rancid.

If you’d rather be on the safe side, here’s a guide of what to put out, when and which type of birds the food will attract.

Be very aware of what NOT to give wild birds – some foods are lethal or will cause their feathers to lose their insulating qualities, like sticky, runny fats.

Bird seed mixtures: The best mixtures contain plenty of flaked maize, sunflower seeds and peanut granules. Small seeds, such as millet, attract house sparrows, dunnocks, finches, reed buntings and collared doves, while flaked maize is eaten by blackbirds.

Grains: Pinhead oatmeal is excellent for many birds. Wheat and barley grains are often included in seed mixtures, but are only suitable for pigeons, doves and pheasants, which feed on the ground.

Avoid split peas, beans, dried rice or lentils (often added to cheap mixes): Only the large species can eat them dry. If there’s green or pink lumps in the mixture, avoid it – these are dog biscuits, only edible when soaked.

What NOT to give wild birds…

Black sunflower seeds: An excellent year-round food, with a higher oil content than striped ones. Sunflower hearts are a no-mess food.

Nyjer seeds: These are small and black with a high oil content but need a special type of feeder – loved by goldfinches and siskins.

Peanuts: Tits and greenfinches like chunks or whole nuts, but are suitable for winter feeding only. Rich in fat, they are also popular with house sparrows, nuthatches, great spotted woodpeckers and siskins. Crushed or grated nuts attract robins, dunnocks and wrens. Nuthatches and coal tits may hoard them. Peanuts can be high in the natural toxin aflatoxin, which can kill birds, so buy from a reputable source.

Bird cake and food bars: Fat balls and other fat-based food bars are excellent winter food. Always remove the mesh bag before putting the fat ball out – the soft mesh can trap and injure birds.

Make your own (for use only in winter as it will quickly go rancid in summer) by pouring melted fat (suet or lard) on to seeds, nuts, dried fruit, oatmeal, cheese and cake. Use about one-third fat to two-thirds mixture. Stir well and allow it to set in a an empty coconut shell or plastic cup, or turn it out on to a birdtable when solid.

Live foods: Mealworms are loved by robins, blue tits and pied wagtails and can be used throughout the year. Proprietary foods for insect-eating birds, such as ant pupae and insectivorous and softbill food are available from bird food suppliers and pet shops.

Cooking fat: Fat from cooking is bad for birds, as the meat juices blend with the fat, making the fat sticky and bad for feathers. It is also a breeding ground for bacteria and high in salt. Lard and beef suet on their own are fine and as they are pure fat, are not as suitable for bacteria to breed on.

Polyunsaturated margarines or vegetable oils: Unsuitable for birds, as they need high levels of saturated fat, such as raw suet and lard, to keep warm.

Dog and cat food: Meaty tinned dog and cat food are a substitute for earthworms in summer, when worms are beyond the birds’ reach. Blackbirds like dog food. Dry biscuits can choke birds. However, pet food can attract larger birds and cats.

Milk and coconut: Never give milk – it can result in serious stomach upsets, or even death. Birds can digest fermented dairy products such as cheese, liked by robins, wrens and dunnocks. Give fresh coconut only, in the shell. Rinse out any residues of the sweet coconut water. Never give desiccated coconut as it may swell once inside a bird and cause death.

Rice and cereals: Cooked rice, brown or white (without salt added) is eaten by all species during severe winter weather. Porridge oats must never be cooked, as they could harden around a bird’s beak. Any breakfast cereal is acceptable, but only put out small quantities. Offer it dry, with a supply of drinking water nearby.

Mouldy and stale food: Avoid mouldy food entirely, as some cause respiratory infections. Always remove stale food promptly, to avoid salmonella bacteria and food poisoning. Large quantities of food on the ground may attract rats and mice.

Keep water in bird baths and ponds unfrozen: Birds need to drink and bathe every day. If you don’t have a pond or bird bath, try an upturned bin lid or plant saucer. Place a small ball on the surface to keep a small area ice-free. Never add salt or chemicals.

Keep it clean: Dirty feeders and tables can spread diseases. Make sure you clean them regularly and always wash your hands after feeding birds.

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