Feeding birds is one of the easiest and most rewarding ways to see wildlife really close up. In winter, birds may have difficulty finding natural foods such as berries, insects, seeds, worms and fruit. Any food you put out during these cold months will help birds survive until the spring.
Most kitchen leftovers can be used to feed birds. Bread can be crumbled up and scattered - moisten very dry bread first as it could cause dehydration.
Biscuits provide a rich source of fat, and cooked rice, pasta and pastry are packed with starch. Potatoes can be boiled, baked, roasted or mashed, and cheese - crumbled or grated - will be very popular with robins and wrens.
Fat is a wonderful source of energy - cut bacon rinds, fat from chops or blocks of suet into cubes.
Fruit, such as windfalls or bruised apples and pears, goes down a treat with blackbirds and thrushes. It may also attract winter visitors from Scandinavia such as fieldfares and redwings.
Beware: Grapes, sultanas, raisins and some artificial sweeteners can be very toxic to dogs and some other wild/domestic animals. These foods should be put on a raised bird table and never scattered on the ground.
Fresh coconut in the shell is a great favourite with tits. Drill two holes in one end and drain off the milk. Saw the coconut in half and hang outside. Never put out desiccated coconut as it swells up inside a bird's stomach.
Peanuts are rich in fat and attract nuthatches, siskins, great spotted woodpeckers, tits, greenfinches and house sparrows. Peanuts may be naturally contaminated with an invisible toxin so make sure you buy peanuts of guaranteed quality. Use a darning needle to thread nuts in their shells onto string or put shelled peanuts in wire mesh containers or spiral feeders. Robins and dunnocks will eat crushed or chopped nuts. Never use salted nuts.
Bird seed mixes with sunflower seeds attract greenfinches and chaffinches. Dunnocks and finches prefer smaller seeds such as millet or canary seed.
Many birds prefer to eat off the ground – robin, blackbirds, thrushes, dunnocks, wrens and certain other birds are not used to eating from a table – so remember to place some feed on the ground.*
Cats pounce from bushes and trees so don't put food nearby. Don't put food out late in the day, it might attract rats and mice overnight.
To reduce the risk of spreading disease, clean bird tables and feeders weekly and water bowls daily.
- Make a mould, a half coconut shell is ideal, and thread some string or wire through a small hole in the base.
- Mix some seeds, chopped nuts, sultanas, biscuit crumbs and rolled oats in a bowl.
- Melt the same volume of lard or suet in a pan.
- Add the fat to the dry mix and stir well.
- Pour the mixture into the mould and leave to cool.
- When the pudding is set, hang the mould upside down in the garden.
Natural food starts becoming hard to find in early winter, so October is a good time to start feeding birds. Feed them until the end of April, when they should be able to find plenty of food for themselves. Seeds are scarce in early spring. For chaffinches, greenfinches and other seed eaters keep putting food out during May.
A long dry summer hardens the ground. Blackbirds, thrushes and robins have difficulty catching worms, so put suitable food out for them until the earth is softer.
Birds need water to drink and bathe in. Try a dustbin lid or flowerpot base made of terracotta or plastic as a birdbath. Sink it into the ground, or raise it on three bricks to keep it stable. Keep it clean and only fill with clean, fresh water.
Food preferences of popular garden birds
BirdWatch Ireland have some factsheets on their website for download:
Feeding Wild Birds (PDF - 231KB)
Nestboxes (PDF - 371KB)
Bird Tables (PDF - 183KB)
Injured and Dead Birds (PDF - 182KB)
Bird Feed and Water Equipment
You can buy bird feeders, bird tables, water dishes and baths from most DIY stores. You can also order online from http://www.birdfood.ie/.
Hygiene & Safety
We all enjoy feeding the wild birds in our gardens, but it is important to follow a few simple hygiene procedures to ensure that your garden is a safe place for them.
Outbreaks of diseases such as Salmonella and E.coli are a constant threat and can quickly spread from infected birds to healthy birds sharing the same feeding areas.
These guidelines should ensure that your garden visitors remain both happy and healthy.
- Feeders, bird tables and particularly seed trays should be thoroughly cleaned on a regular basis as most diseases are transmitted via infected droppings. If an infection occurs, disinfect regularly.
- Regularly clean up areas underneath feeders, particularly when black sunflower seeds are being fed as the husks can pile up.
- Clean up any uneaten or mouldy food and dispose of it. Always use high quality foods to minimise waste.
- Make sure that food is not left out on the ground at night as rats and mice can be attracted. Rats will generally live under compost heaps, garden sheds or in areas where rubbish has been allowed to build up. If you have rats, clearing away any rubbish, (thus removing their source of food) often solves the problem.
- Move bird tables and feeders around the garden or, if possible, have several different feeding sites within the garden and keep them spread out to avoid having large numbers of birds in one location at the same time.
- Keep surfaces on which birds feed clean. Sweep bird tables daily and regularly provide ground-fed foods in a different place.
- Observe strict personal hygiene when handling bird feeders and tables, particularly if infection has occurred. Some bird diseases can be transmitted to humans so we recommend you wear gloves when cleaning and wash your hands thoroughly afterwards. Feeders should not be cleaned indoors or near food preparation areas.
- If water is provided in birdbaths or other drinking devices, change it regularly. Disinfect and rinse these containers on a regular basis and de-ice during cold weather. Don't be tempted to use anti-freeze, salt or glycerine as it can be harmful to the birds.
The first thing that you should do if you hear a loud thud on a window is to go outside and look for a bird that is clearly stunned or injured. Injured birds need specialist attention and should be handled very gently. A stunned bird, even if it appears to be dead, should be kept in something like a shoebox, preferably lined with kitchen roll or an old towel, and left somewhere warm, dark and quiet for at least 20 minutes. Take the box outside BEFORE you open it, as birds that appeared to be beyond hope will often fly past your shoulders before the lid is fully open!
Having dealt with the immediate problem the next job is to look at the window that has just been hit, and try to work out what has made the bird fly into it. Does the window show a reflection of the surroundings, or does it appear to be possible to fly through to the other side of the building? The best way to reduce the likelihood of further tragedies is to draw attention to the presence of the glass, and one of the best ways to do this is to use window stickers. More than one sticker may be required for large panes. Both stickers work best if applied to the outer surface of glass, particularly in the case of double glazed windows.
Any shape is likely to work, but for maximum effect use silhouettes of birds of prey or a spider's web - in both cases images that birds are keen to avoid. For best results they should be sited in the middle of the pane, unless the majority of impacts occur in one place, in which case the sticker should be placed there.
Window strikes happen throughout the year, but usually peak at the end of the breeding season when numbers of young, inexperienced birds are at their greatest.
In spring it is not uncommon for birds to mistake their reflection in the glass for a potential mate or rival.This usually results in the bird continually pecking at the window and fouling the windowsill with droppings. More agile species such as Great Tits will even attack door mirrors on cars! Although these cases usually only last for 2 or 3 weeks, conventional window stickers are unlikely to solve the problem. However, house windows can have a strip of newspaper, bin bag material or similar at least 10cm (4ins) high secured along the bottom of the window.