Garden birds: What to feed them

Wondering about the best things to feed garden birds? Here’s some advice from the RSPB.

We’re very grateful to the RSPB for their help in compiling the information on this page.

Below is a list of just some of the many foods you can offer the birds in your garden. Whatever you choose try to make sure it is fresh as mouldy or stale food can cause health problems.

There is a great deal of choice of seed mixtures on the market – the best ones contain plenty of flaked maize, sunflower seeds and peanut granules. The following foods are good and can all be found in seed mixtures for garden birds:

  • Pinhead oatmeal is excellent for many birds.
  • Millet is a small seed that attracts mostly house sparrows, dunnocks, finches, reed buntings and collared doves.
  • Maize is popular with blackbirds.
  • Peanuts and sunflower seeds are favoured by tits and greenfinches (remember it is best to put peanuts in a steel mesh feeder).
  • Avoid mixtures with split peas, beans, dried rice or lentils as only large species can eat them dry. Beware of some cheap mixes that use these to bulk the packs out. Also, it is best to avoid any mixture containing green or pink lumps as these are dog biscuit, which can only be eaten when soaked.

Other good foods to use:

  • Black sunflower seeds are an excellent all year round food being high in oil content.
  • Nyjer seeds (sometimes spelled ‘niger’ or referred to as thistle) are also high in oil content. They need a special type of seed-feeder but are good for attracting goldfinches and siskins.
  • Peanuts are rich in fat and are popular with tits, greenfinches, house sparrows, nuthatches, great spotted woodpeckers and siskins. Salted or dry roasted peanuts should be avoided and buy from a good retailer that will guarantee they are free from aflatoxin which can be harmful.
  • Bird cake and food bars fat balls and fat-based bars make excellent winter food. You can make your own by pouring melted fat (suet or lard) onto a mixture of seeds, nuts, dried fruit, oatmeal, cheese and cake. Use 1/3 fat to 2/3 mixture, stir well and leave to set in a container e.g. an empty coconut shell or just turn it out onto your bird table once set.
  • Polyunsaturated margarines or vegetable oils are not suitable for birds as they need high levels of saturated fat to give them the energy to keep warm in the winter weather. Also, soft fats can get onto feathers and destroy waterproofing and insulation.
  • Live foods and other insect foods – mealworms are a favourite with robins and blue-tits and can even attract other insect-eating birds such as pied wagtails. These and other insect foods are available from bird food suppliers and pet shops. Offered appropriately, insect food can attract treecreepers and wrens. Make sure the mealworms you feed to the birds are fresh.
  • Dog and cat food of the meaty tinned variety can be a reasonable substitute for earthworms during the warmer part of the summer when birds cannot get to them. Dry biscuits are not advisable but soaked dog biscuits are very good in colder months. Be aware that pet food can attract larger bird species and also cats – so if this is a problem, it is best avoided.
  • Cheese – although milk should not be given to any bird, cheese can be digested. Mild grated cheese can be a good way of attracting robins, wrens and dunnocks.
  • Coconut – put out fresh coconut only, in its shell (not desiccated coconut that could swell up inside a bird). Rinse out the coconut water so it does not get a build-up of mildew on it.
  • Rice and cereals – during severe winter weather, cooked rice (brown or white, without added salt) will benefit birds and be popular with all species. Uncooked porridge oats are also good (never cook them as they become glutinous and can harden around a bird’s beak). Other breakfast cereals are also fine to use in small amounts – they are best given dry together with some drinking water close by.

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