Like most, I thought back garden bird feeding was something done in the winter months. After all, this is when we are told our garden birds struggle to find energy-rich food. But should we be feeding garden birds through the whole year? Are we interfering with nature by doing so and does a bird’s diet change through the year? I did some research and this is what I found out.
It is not harmful or wrong to feed garden birds all year round – it is encouraged. However, the type of food they need and want changes. Through the harsh winter months birds put out high energy, high fat foods such as seeds, nuts and suet. Through the spring and summer birds look for other naturally occurring food such as insects, grubs and other protein-rich food to feed themselves and their young. Consider putting out some live bird food, for example live mealworm.
When To Put Out Bird Feeders
So, when do birds eat from feeders? Garden birds use feeders all year round. As I mentioned before, food can be hard to find at any time of year for a wild bird so giving them an easy meal when they need it can help boost their survival rate. I have heard from a few people that feeding all year round has increased chick production and bird numbers in their gardens since last year. That can only be a good thing.
You can put out bird feeders at any time. It may take a little while for birds to visit, whilst they wait and watch your feeder to make sure it is a safe place. Find out more in my post about how to choose the best location for a bird feeder. It walks you through the steps for best result. Once they arrive they are likely to return throughout the year and you will need to keep it stocked up according to demand. Allowing a feeder to run empty too often will force birds to find alternatives.
The key is to provide a year-round, reliable and consistent food source.
Feeding Wild Birds Through The Seasons
Birds have quite specific dietary needs, depending on what they are doing during that season – breeding, moulting and so on. So it is a good to have an idea of what to feed wild garden birds at different times of year. Keep reading…
If you know what a bird needs you can provide them a reliable source of food. If you are able, re-charge the feeder when appropriate through the day you can almost time the visits and know when it is best to get your scope out. I have found that certain birds visit at the same time of day. Garden birds are often creatures of routine.
Feeding Birds In Spring
Something I have noticed since feeding birds in my garden is a tendency, in spring, for them to switch from seed in feeders to food from plants. It is normally around late spring when eggs are laid and soon start to hatch. Seed is no good for newly hatched chicks and most adult birds will need to provide hundreds of small bugs like caterpillars for their young.
This type of food exists in and around trees and other flowering plants. Therefore, if you have a balcony apartment with space for a plant or two, consider a balcony garden. I have written a post about how to feed birds from an apartment balcony. In it I have given some basic advice on how to attract birds to a balcony and which plants to use to encourage birds to visit.
Live Bird Food
If you want to give live bird food a try, I have found two very good suppliers in the UK. Both come highly recommended. There are two main types of live bird food supplied online – mealworms and waxworms.
Vinehouse Farm provide both mealworms and waxworms. Buying live food can be more expensive but the results are worth it.
CJ Wildlife provide a range of live bird food and starter kits. They have mealworms and waxworms, dried and live. I particularly like their Live Food Taster Pack. This is ideal to get a feel for what it is like to use live food. It will also give you an idea as to which birds like it, or not. See the latest range and prices here.
What Do Birds Eat In The Summer?
Feeding birds in summer can be fun – you get to spend more time outdoors and see way more activity than you would sheltering from bad weather.
In the summer wild birds will need protein in their diet. This is especially important when they are moulting. Suitable foods include; mealworms, black sunflower seeds, soaked raisins and any good quality seed mix. Again, a switch to live food is a good idea. It will increase the availability of suitable food for young birds, fresh out of the nest.
I have personally found that mealworms go down a treat with all the Blue Tits, Great Tits, Gold Finches and Robins in my garden – they don’t last long and it can get expensive!
Other summer bird foods can include natural fruits. You can chop up apples and pears but make sure they are soft. Some birds also enjoy grapes and bananas too.
Bird Foods To Avoid In Summer
While we want to do our best for the visitors, we often get it a bit wrong. I am guilty of throwing out scraps of bread and crusts to the garden, thinking I am helping the birds. Maybe the bigger birds like those awful Pigeons will be OK but for smaller birds, larger chunks of bread can choke their young.
For the same reason you should also avoid using whole peanuts and fat when feeding birds through the summer.
Dig Over The Soil
I recommend that from time to time you dig over any soil you may have in your garden. We have a clay soil in our garden that gets very sodden in the winter but really quite hard in the summer. This means that earth worms and other bugs are not as widely available to ground feeding birds, like Black birds and Robins.
I quite often try to dig over the earth in the borders to expose anything tasty. Quite often I spot a Robin watching me from just a metre or two away. Once I move away he is straight in there to feed.
If you don’t have soil to dig over, or it is not possible for you to dig what you have, consider putting some mealworms or other bug-rich treats in your feeder.
What To Feed Wild Birds In Winter
During the winter months our bird friends need high energy foods containing a higher fat content. They need to increase and maintain their fat reserves throughout this harsh period.
At the end of Autumn and at the beginning of winter, baby birds will love mealworms and sunflower seeds. If they can find a sustained source of these, they will really flourish.
I recommend using fat balls and suet pellets when it is really cold. It is so easy to make your own and if you have children they really like getting involved then watching the result afterwards. One of the most popular feeding items in my garden is the coconut half filled with a suet-based food. The birds love these things and even birds I haven’t seen before come to investigate. The only problem I find is they are easily dominated by larger birds, such as Magpies and Starlings.
If you prefer feeding the smaller birds in your garden, consider a suet block held in a wire cage. This suet block feeder with tray, from Supa is a good start for the money. It may not be quite as convenient to hang as a coconut half but will prove just as popular.
I have had some really good results using niger seed. It is a hit through most of year, especially around the colder months. I have a family of seven Gold Finches, who regularly visit in the front garden. Interestingly, they leave the mixed seed in the other feeder in favour of the niger seed.
Sunflower hearts are also a good, protein-rich food to put out through winter and into the new year as winter comes to an end.
What Not To Feed Wild Birds
Many people assume that birds they see in their garden will hoover up most things they throw out. The Pigeons and Jackdaws we get in our garden generally do. Pigeons often remind me of our Labrador dog who’s life revolved around his stomach!
Many smaller birds may also feed on things that are not so good for them. It is important we help them to make better food choices. While they are generally quite picky about what they eat and why, here are some foods you should avoid putting out for the birds.
I have been reading recently that bread is not the thing to throw out to the ducks on the lake. Firstly, it attracts and encourages rats. Secondly, bread has very little, if any nutritional value to a bird.
Wild birds in our gardens will not be harmed by eating bread but if their little tummies feel full after eating a large quantity of bread, they will stop eating and not get the nutrients, vitamins and general goodness they need. This can lead to vitamin deficiencies.
Salt is not something that garden birds can process and digest. In larger quantities, salt is actually toxic to some birds. Only use fat from unsalted meats, like bacon and avoid salted meats or other salted foods.
Cooked Porridge Oats
Someone asked me recently if I have fed oats to the birds. To be honest, this is not something I would have considered. However, whilst researching for this post I just found out that uncooked porridge oats are OK to give to birds.
Avoid using cooked porridge oats, as these can become hard over time and prevent the bird from being able to feed properly. Actually, other cereals we eat can also be suitable but be mindful of any salt content.
Cat & Dog Food
Birds like tinned dog and cat food. I did not know this! Our dog never really had wet food; we always gave him dry dog food. I never saw any birds pecking around at any of his food left in the garden, which turns out to be a good thing.
Birds are not usually able to digest dry pet food like the kibble or biscuit type. Avoid using this. If you have any tinned pet food you want to use, go for it but in limited quantities. Oh, this is may attract less welcome, bigger winged visitors.
Probably the most popular and misused bird food is stale bread. Why do we think birds would like stale, gone off food? We need to make sure that any treats, scraps or actual bird food is fresh. Try not to offer stale food and do your best to keep your feeders clean and topped up.
I made the mistake once of leaving a feeder without paying any attention to it. The seed at the bottom of the tube had become soft, stale and compacted. Eventually it began to sprout and became a problem. No wonder the birds were not coming!
Wild garden birds are all around us and need to find food all year round. Birds could experience a food shortage at any time for whatever reason, so we should absolutely get the feeders out all year round.
If you enjoy feeding the birds where you live it is a good idea to get to know what different birds like to eat and why at different times of year. It can be useful to know when they are roosting, breeding or just pure surviving so we can help them to flourish.
It is also important not to feed birds certain foods that can be toxic to them, or just pointless and inefficient.
Do Pigeons Eat Sunflower Hearts?
Can Birds Eat Raw Pumpkin Seeds?
Can Birds Eat Eggshells?
Do Birds Eat Their Egg Shells?