What do birds eat
You're always asking about what and how to feed your garden birds - such as which is the best type of food to provide or whether there's anything to avoid. Whatever food you use, always make sure it's fresh!
Bird seed mixtures
There are different mixes for feeders, for bird tables and for ground feeding. The better mixtures contain plenty of flaked maize, sunflower seeds and peanut granules.
Small seeds, such as millet, attract mostly house sparrows, dunnocks, finches, reed buntings and collared doves, while flaked maize is taken readily by blackbirds. Tits and greenfinches favour peanuts and sunflower seeds. Mixes that contain chunks or whole nuts are suitable for winter feeding only. Pinhead oatmeal is excellent for many birds. Wheat and barley grains are often included in seed mixtures, but they're really only suitable for pigeons, doves and pheasants, which feed on the ground and rapidly increase in numbers, frequently deterring the smaller species.
Warning: Avoid seed mixtures that have split peas, beans, dried rice or lentils as again only the large species can eat them dry. These are added to some cheaper seed mixes to bulk them up. Also avoid any mixture containing green or pink lumps as these are dog biscuit, which can only be eaten when soaked.
Other seeds and nuts
Black sunflower seeds
These are an excellent year-round food, and in many areas are even more popular than peanuts. The oil content is higher in black than striped ones, and so they are much better. Sunflower hearts (the husked kernels) are a popular no-mess food.
These are small and black, rich in fat and with a high oil content. They do need a special type of seed feeder however. They're a particular favourites with goldfinches and siskins and are popular with tits, greenfinches, house sparrows, nuthatches and great spotted woodpeckers too.
Warning: Don't use salted or dry roasted peanuts. Remember, peanuts can be high in a natural toxin, which can kill birds, so always buy from a reputable dealer, such as our online shop, to guarantee freedom from aflatoxin.
Never put out loose peanuts, during spring or summer, as these pose a choking hazard if they are fed to chicks, place whole peanuts in a suitable mesh feeder.
Bird cake and food bars
Fat balls and other fat-based food bars are excellent winter food.
If they are sold in nylon mesh bags, always remove the bag before putting the fat ball out – the soft mesh can trap and injure birds.
You can make your own bird cake by:
- Pouring melted fat (suet or lard) onto a mixture of ingredients such as seeds, nuts, dried fruit, oatmeal, cheese and cake
- Use about one-third fat to two-thirds mixture. Stir well in a bowl and allow it to set in a container of your choice
- An empty coconut shell, plastic cup or tit bell makes an ideal bird cake ‘feeder’
- Or, you can turn it out onto your bird table when solid
Warning: Home-made fat balls can go soft and rancid in warm summer weather, and should be avoided.
Live foods and other insect foods
Mealworms are a natural food and you can feed them to birds throughout the year. It can be quite expensive to constantly buy them, so why not try growing your own mealworms? Don't worry, you can still buy your mealworms from the professionals, consoling yourself with the thought that successful mealworm breeding is even more difficult than it sounds.
Warning: as with most foods, there can be a risk of salmonella poisoning. If you're using dried mealworms, make sure you're confident in the supplier's food hygiene practices and if uncertain, ask for their food safety certifications. Further reduce any risk by only providing small amounts that get eaten quickly. You can also store dried mealworms in the fridge. Tip: Soak dried mealworms in warm water for 20-60 minutes before putting out to provide valuable moisture content and make it easier for younger birds to digest.
Waxworms are excellent, but expensive. Foods for insect-eating birds, such as ant pupae and insectivorous and softbill food are available from bird food suppliers and pet shops. Insect food appropriately offered can attract treecreepers and wrens.
Dog and cat food
Did you know meaty tinned dog and cat food are a good substitute to earthworms during the warm, dry part of the summer when worms are beyond the birds' reach? Blackbirds readily take dog food, and even feed it to their chicks.
Warning: don't use dry biscuits as birds may choke on the hard lumps. It is sometimes added to cheaper seed mixtures for bulk. Soaked dog biscuit is excellent, except in hot weather as it quickly dries out. Petfood can attract larger birds such as magpies and gulls, but also neighbourhood cats. So if this is likely to be a problem, best avoid.
Rice and cereals
Cooked rice, brown or white (without salt added) benefits all sorts of birds during severe winter weather. Pigeons, doves and pheasants may eat uncooked rice but it's less likely to attract other species.
Any dry breakfast cereal makes for useful bird food, although you need to be careful only to put out small amounts at a time. And make sure there's a supply of drinking water nearby, since it quickly turns into pulp once wet.
Uncooked porridge oats are also fine for a number of birds.
Warning: never cook porridge oats, this makes them glutinous and could harden around a bird's beak.
Fats, margarines and oils
Lard and beef suet on their own are fine as they re-solidify after warming. And as they are pure fat, it's not as suitable for bacteria to breed on.
Warning: fat from cooking is bad for birds. The problem with cooked fat from roasting for example, is that the meat juices have blended with the fat and when set, this consistency makes it prone to smearing, not good for birds' feathers. It's a breeding ground for bacteria, so potentially bad for birds' health. Salt levels depend on what meat is used and if any salt is added during cooking.
Polyunsaturated margarines or vegetable oils
Warning: these are also unsuitable for birds. Unlike humans, birds need high levels of saturated fat, such as raw suet and lard. They need the high energy content to keep warm in the the winter weather, since their body reserves are quickly used up, particularly on cold winter nights. The soft fats can easily be smeared onto the feathers, destroying the waterproofing and insulating qualities.
Milk and coconut
Birds can digest fermented dairy products, such as cheese. Mild grated cheese can be a good way of attracting robins, wrens and dunnocks.
Warning: never give milk to any bird. A bird's gut is not designed to digest milk and it can give them serious stomach upsets or even kill them.
Give fresh coconut only, in the shell. Rinse out any residues of the sweet coconut water from the middle of the coconut before hanging it out to stop the build-up of black mildew.
Warning: never use desiccated coconut as it may swell once inside a bird and cause death.
Count the birds that are counting on you
Take part in the Big Garden Birdwatch and help build a picture of how our garden birds are faring across the UK. Sign up for everything you need to know, from how to get the birds flocking to your patch to top tips on identifying what you see.
Household scraps for birds
Feeding garden birds doesn't need to be expensive - many of the things you throw away provide suitable food for birds!
Breed your own mealworms
Mealworms are a great natural food for birds and can be used to feed them throughout the year.