Monday, 26 February 2018

The Beast from the East - feed your garden birds!

With the 'beast from the east' on the way this week we thought we'd provide a little reminder to feed your garden birds this week:

The period from late autumn to early spring is often one of great avian activity in gardens, with birds forming flocks and seeking out sources of food to get them through the cold winter months. During periods of particularly cold weather, the food you provide in your garden might be the difference between life and death for some birds - particularly the smaller species.

With that in mind, we thought we'd offer a reminder of the different options available when it comes to feeding your garden birds. 

You know you're doing a good job of feeding the birds when they trust you this much! Photo by Brian Carruthers

What food you might want to put out will vary depending on the size and type of your garden, the birds you either expect to get or want to attract, and the severity of the weather.  In general, you can't go too far wrong with most of the bird foods out there, but the below info will help steer you in the right direction for how to best attract and feed the birds in your garden!

Some Garden Feeding Tips:

  1. Keep your feeders within a metre or so of trees and hedges where possible - this will help birds find them in the first place, and they'll feel safer when feeding too because they know shelter is just a short hop away if a hunting Sparrowhawk makes an appearance!

  2. As well as food, it's good to provide water for your garden birds, particularly on cold mornings when natural sources of water are frozen over!

  3. Clean your feeders regularly to prevent the spread of illness among your garden birds. A dilute bleach solution (5%) is perfect, and dry everything before putting them out again. It can be a good idea to just half-fill your feeders so that you can take them in for a cleaning on a weekly basis. Give your bird bath a regular clean too! The spread of trichomonosis has devestated Greenfinch numbers in Ireland and Britain, and good feeder hygeine is the best way to prevent it.

  4. Variety is key! If you want a variety of birds, then put out a variety of food-types in a variety of locations. Try a few different things until you find what works best for your garden!

  5. Don't put out any food with mould on it as it will make the birds sick, and can prove fatal! It's better to put out small amounts of food every few days, rather than filling your feeders to the brim and for some of the food to go mouldy.

    A cat eating a Garden Bird - there are a few steps you can take to prevent this! Photo by Flickr user Bad Kitten
  6. Beware of cats! You'd be shocked at the amount of birds that are lost to cats, and your local cat is probably taking a lot more birds than you realise. Don't have any bird food on the ground near hedging or flower pots that a cat can be hiding behind, and make sure your feeders are 5-6 feet off the ground as cats can be amazingly agile jumpers when they want to be! The reason you're feeding your garden birds is to help them get through the winter, so don't undo your good work by making it easy for cats to catch them!

  7. If you have problems with Rooks and Jackdaws, hang your feeders on a length of elastic - the larger birds will be too heavy to land on it without bouncing up and down, and will leave the feeder alone! Also, some of the Squirrel-proof feeders can also be crow-proof! 

Now, onto the food! Don't forget that our BirdWatch Ireland shop sells a wide variety of bird food and feeders, and your money helps fund our vital conservation efforts around the country - so you're helping birds in two ways by buying food from us!

Our BirdWatch Ireland shop is full of bird food, feeders and much more. You can shop online, over the phone, or call into us in Kilcoole.


Peanuts are incredibly popular for a number of reasons. Most species will feed on them - including most of the finches, tits and robins! There's also very little waste or spillage with peanuts, so they're both tidy and cost-effective! They're high in protein and calories, which is good news for small birds trying to get through the winter! Make sure you put them in a suitable peanut feeder (i.e. with mesh-type sides) and you can't go wrong! Beware of mouldy or shriveled-up peanuts as they can highly toxic to birds!

Blue Tit on a peanut feeder. Photo by B. Burke

Sunflower Seeds
Another popular and solid choice - excellent for species like Coal Tits, Great Tits and Blue Tits, as well as Goldfinches and other species. Chaffinches love them too, but might be more likely to take those that have spilled on the ground rather than take them straight from the feeder. With that in mind, if you're worried about cat predation then maybe stick to the peanuts!

Sunflower hearts (left) and a mix of black and striped sunflower seeds (right). Photo by ABF via Wikimedia

Sunflower seeds come in a variety of forms. Black sunflower seeds have a higher oil level and energy value than the striped-seed ones, but you'll pay more for them as a result. If you're worried about a mess, you can buy sunflower hearts (i.e. seeds without the shell!) and save your birds a bit of effort when they're trying to tuck in! When it comes to cost, sunflower hearts are one of the more expensive foods out there, but calorie-wise they do beat the peanuts!

Sunflower seeds are great for a variety of birds - including Greenfinch and House Sparrow. Photo by Brian Carruthers

Seed Mixes
Seed mixes can very much vary in ingredients and quality - the cheaper ones in general will have a high proportion of cereal than the others, though these are enjoyed by House Sparrows and Pigeons. The better ones tend to have more sunflower seeds/hearts and other small seeds, and will attract Finches and Tits. You're likely to get a a lot the smaller seeds falling on the ground, but that's not a bad thing in itself as birds like Collared Doves and Pigeons prefer to feed on the ground, and a lot of the finches will happily drop down too. Again, if cats are a concern, you can just spread some seed out on a bird table or dish on a stand and those same species will happily avail of it there instead.

A Robin taking seed from a tray, rather than a hanging feeder. Photo by B Burke

Nyger Seed
You might have heard of this, but it's still only provided in a minority of gardens. Nyger seed is a very fine thistle-like seed that is incredibly popular with Goldfinches - so much so that it's been implicated in their rise up the garden bird rankings in the last twenty years. So if you're looking to get a bit more gold in your garden, this might just do the trick.

A Goldfinch feeding from a special Nyger Seed Feeder. Photo by D Coombes

Drawbacks with Nyger Seed include a lot of the seed falling in the ground, and the fact that you'll have to get a specialised feeder for it, though that might be a small price to pay for an abundance of Golfinches! With a bit of luck, it'll attract some of their smaller finch cousins too - the Siskin and the Redpoll.

Fatballs and Suet Pellets
You can buy ready-made fatballs made from lard with some seeds mixed in, or there's an increasing variety of suet pellets that can be bought that will do the same job. Some people find that the local Rooks and Jackdaws take the lions share of their fatballs, but this can be solved by chopping them up a bit and putting them in a peanut feeder, meaning only the small birds can reach it with their bills! Some fatballs come covered in netting but this is best removed as it can get stuck around the feet of birds and cause them to get cut or trapped!

Long-tailed Tits and a Blue Tits tuck into the last remaining fatball! (Photo by Flickr user Airwolfhound)

There's plenty of fatball/suet pellets to buy, but you can just as easily make your own at home with lard and suet. Feel free to mix in seeds, dried fruit, raisins, oatmeal, grated cheese, meat trimmings, bacon rinds and bits of cake and other scraps! A good ratio is half a pound of fat per pound of dry ingredients, and you can hang it up in a coconut shell or yoghurt pot (or get creative with something else!). The one thing to avoid is turkey-fat, it only causes problems for the birds you're trying to help such as greasing their feathers and preventing them from flying.

Robin with a Mealworm. Photo by Philip Heron
High in protein, and popular with Robins and the various Tit species. You can put these on a bird table, in a feeder, or get creative and put them in various cracks and crevices for Robins, Wrens and Dunnocks to find! For birds that naturally feed on caterpillars and insects these are a real winner! You can mix them in with seed or add them to your home-made fatballs for some nutritious variety! Cost-wise they're on the upper end of the scale, so it's best to not put a huge amount out at once in case a hungry rook or Magpie finishes the lot!

Anyone with apple trees in their garden will no doubt be used to Blackbirds and Thrushes as regular visitors. Apples and pears sliced in half and left on the ground will attract them too, and if you're lucky you might get one of our migrant thrushes - a Redwing or Fieldfare. You can place these half-apples/pears in trees too, and on a cold day these can prove very popular with Blackcaps when speared on the end of a branch.

A male Blackbird availing of an apple left out on a tree.

So there you have it, some tips for feeding garden birds this winter and some of the pro's and con's of the various foods that are out there. Why don't you let us know what foods you find work best in your garden? We'd also love to see photos of the birds on your bird feeders, so please do post them on our page throughout the winter!

Don't forget that by buying your food from us - in the shop, online or over the phone - your money will go that extra mile in helping to protect Ireland's birds and biodiversity! 

 Place an order over the phone: 01-2819878

Or drop into us at: Bullford Business Campus, Kilcoole, Co. Wicklow


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