Large fat cake feeder, small suet ball feeder and great tit

Dining out - in your garden

Now is the perfect time to start feeding your garden birds to help with their need for nutritious, high-energy food.

In your garden

Thousands of birds are returning to our gardens after their autumn sojourn in the countryside spent feasting on the harvest of berries, nuts and seeds. We can now all do our bit to help them through the tough times ahead by providing food and water, and doing so right through the winter when natural food becomes scarcer and harder to find.

Watching birds coming into the garden to feed is absorbing - and can become very addictive! They bring colour and endless entertainment, but also a great deal of skill. Have you ever spent time really looking closely at the way they deal with the peanuts, seeds, fat balls and other goodies we put out for them?

Robin Erithacus rubecula, perched on brocken plant pot with flowering sedum in garden. Co. Durham.

Family feeding habits

Like us humans, birds have different ways of dealing with different foods and each bird, large or small, has its way of making sure it gets its share of the bounty.

Watching a greenfinch expertly removing the husk from a sunflower seed using just its sharp beak, or a chisel-beaked nuthatch expertly chipping away at a peanut at close range gives you a privileged insight into how they go about their most important task at this time of year - eating.

Members of the same family use the same techniques because they have similar beaks, shape and size and feeding preferences, but you should spot subtle differences between the species.

There are the ‘hoarders’, such as coal tits. They are real ‘smash and grab’ merchants, dashing in, grabbing a peanut fragment or a seed and whizzing off at high speed before the other birds have even had time to notice! They carry their prize off to a secret store, creating larders to return to through the winter when becomes scarce.

Birds like house sparrows and greenfinches stay on the feeder and defend their position, showing aggression to others that try to displace them. Once in position, they are reluctant to give their place at the head of the table up, choosing instead to stock up while they can.

Fast learners

Birds are learning all the time to take advantage of the free food we are providing for them in our gardens. Long-tailed tits and great spotted woodpeckers are relative newcomers to feeders, as are siskins. If you are lucky enough to have these birds visiting your garden, you would be hard pushed to find any evidence they are novices in the art of feeder etiquette.

Clinging to a feeder is no different to dangling from branches, so it is an entirely natural affair for birds that spend most of their lives in trees and bushes to come to feeders to eat. You will notice the real acrobats in the garden bird circus, such as the tits, and also those that are somewhat lacking in finesse when they take their turn!

Marks for ingenuity go to the robin and starling. These are ground feeders by nature, but both are able to tackle many varieties of feeder with ease. There is the inevitable clumsy faux pas. Starlings can be forced into an ungraceful descent from a hanging feeder as they overbalance, and robins flutter in an imperfect hover in mid-air while attempting to seize a tasty morsel. Unorthodox, but effective! If you're still concerned, try adding a feeder tray to ensure even the clumsiest of birds don't lose their balance.

Birds are learning all the time, so take a closer look at them this winter. You could witness something truly fascinating from even the most familiar of birds.

Long-tailed tit feeding on mealworm and suet gourmet mix on mesh tray on green pole.

How you can help

Great spotted woodpecker Dendrocopus major, juvenile bird on Premium peanut feeder in garden

What food can you leave out for birds and how can you keep your feeding station hygienic and pest-free? Here you'll find the answers to all your bird feeding questions.