Garden birds: When to feed them

Wondering about the best time 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.

Feeding garden birds is a really popular activity in the UK and provides a supplementary source of food when there might be periods of natural food shortage. It’s something everyone can do and it’s a great way to bring birds closer so you can enjoy watching them and perhaps teach children about wildlife.

By following a few of these tips and guidelines, you can play a valuable role in helping the birds that visit your garden or look for food in your area.

Bird tables are a really simple way to feed many garden birds. They don’t need a roof or fancy design, just a rim to keep the food on the table and a gap in each corner to allow rainwater to drain away and the table to be cleaned.

Nut feeders should be made of steel mesh to safely provide nuts to wild birds. The mesh size should be about 6mm – large enough not to damage birds’ beaks but small enough to stop large pieces of nut from being removed. Beware of mesh bags – peanuts are often sold in such bags. They are dangerous for birds as they can become trapped in the nylon

Seed feeders are transparent containers with holes that allow birds to access the seed. You can buy feeder seed such as sunflower seeds and other seed mixes to attract tits, siskins and greenfinches. Nyjer seed is popular with siskins and goldfinches but it is smaller and needs a special type of seed feeder.

Remember to make sure your feeders can drain easily and don’t allow them to build up with old food as this can cause health problems for birds.

You can also feed the birds in your garden without any special equipment. Thrushes and dunnocks actually prefer to feed on the ground so you can simply scatter food on the lawn away from cover for lurking cats.

Change the area you scatter food in regularly and don’t put too much out, just enough to feed the birds on one day. You can also try filling holes and cracks in posts with fatty food such as suet – this can attract more agile birds such as tits, nuthatches, treecreepers and woodpeckers.

In the winter, if there is snow on the ground, clear small areas before putting the food down.

When best to feed wild birds

Winter feeding does benefit birds most but natural food shortages can occur throughout the year so it’s best to keep putting food out regularly to help them survive food shortages whenever they might occur.

Spring and Summer

Birds need high-protein foods in the summer such as black sunflower seeds, pinhead oatmeal, soaked sultanas, raisins and currants, mild grated cheese, mealworms, waxworms and good seed mixes without loose peanuts (peanuts should only be put out in suitable mesh feeders so that large pieces aren’t taken to nestlings).

Soft apples and pears cut in half, bananas and grapes are also good but fat balls can go soft and rancid in warm weather so are best avoided in the summer months.

During the breeding period of spring and summer the availability of natural food for birds is very important. If the weather turns cold or wet at this time, there can be a severe shortage of insect food, affecting tits and chaffinches in particular. If it’s very dry the hard soil will make earthworms unavailable to ground feeders such as blackbirds and song thrushes.

Extra food on the bird table can make a big difference to the survival of young birds during such natural food shortages but it’s important to be aware that some food offered on bird tables can be harmful, even lethal, to young chicks. To avoid this, never put out loose peanuts, dry hard foods, large chunks of bread, or fats during the spring or summer months.

Autumn and Winter

A regular supply of food and water is recommended during the autumn and winter months and, if possible, twice a day during severe weather. Birds need high energy, high fat, foods during the cold winter weather to get them through the frosty nights. Try to keep to a feeding routine and use good quality food and scraps, just enough to match demand and don’t let uneaten food build up on bird tables or around feeders.

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