Feed the birds

How to make sure you give the birds what they like (and need) to eat

Words & Pictures: Vivian Russell

Winter is coming and our birds need us. Up here, on the rural Cumbrian coast where I live, the fruits, berries and seeds may be plentiful in the hedgerows and trees in October, but come November when the gales, driving rain and cold arrive, I can have as many as 100 birds looking for food in my garden.

I never cut plants down until late spring, when the teasels, thistles, cerinthe, lythrums etc. have been stripped of their seed. They also help break the terrific winds we get here, and provide cover. Cover is important in a garden frequented by sparrowhawks and without it, the birds are just sitting ducks, and never more so than on feeders in open situations.

Having fortified my garden boundaries against cats as best I can, I’ve set up my feeding station under the cherry tree next to the hedgerow which gives them protection from their greater enemy, the sparrowhawk. Even if I can’t see it, I know this powerful predator is near when there’s a sudden whoosh as all the birds dive into the hedgerow & evergreen shrubs for cover and the garden is so silent you could hear a pin drop.

With so many wild bird seed companies around, and so many birds dependent on me, I have experimented with different seed mixes and suets from all the main players. I know lots of people make their own fat balls, and this definitely the cheaper option, but as a vegetarian, I would find this distressing.

What I’ve learned is to go for quality – invest in robust feeders that will last, and don’t be tempted by that 50 for a tenner bag of fat balls well known garden centres offer – no bird in my garden or my neighbour’s would touch them. Seeds and suet are vital to help birds survive the winter and resist disease. In early spring when the breeding season begins, protein rich mealworms are lifesavers. The emergence of insects, grubs and caterpillars depend entirely on the weather, and when the birds are laying their eggs and struggling to feed their chicks, knowing they have a steady and secure supply of seed for themselves makes all the difference. Clean water is also essential, and I’m lucky to have a small pond the birds use for drinking and bathing. It rarely freezes over, but when it does I fill up the bird bath every day.

Every garden is different, birds have different tastes, and experienced bird feeders will have worked out formulas that work best for their birds. For the novice though, confused by the bewildering array of bird food for sale, these are just a few tried and tested tips to get you started. Remember too, that no matter how hard the wind is blowing or how much it’s raining, or snowing, the birds will be on your feeders so keep them topped up all the time.

Blue tit reaching into a suet ball ring

These suet balls disappear so quickly that by mid afternoon there isn’t much left for this little blue tit. Most suet ball feeders have lids but this is the one my birds like best as they often feed from the top. The balls don’t last long enough to need protection from rain, and are so much easier to fill every morning as you just pop them in.

Having tried lots of different kinds, the ones they love best are the Super Suet Balls from Vine Farm which combine fat with dried mealworms and peanut flour. Never use the ones that come in plastic nets as they trap and entangle feet and beaks.

Goldfinches go for niger seed

The surest way to attract goldfinches to the garden in winter is to buy a purpose built niger seed feeder – and this one, which has a yellow lid and base, is supposed to attract them even more.

Their fine pointed beaks are adapted to winkle out tiny seeds like the niger and their light body weight enables them to forage on thistles and teasels. I see them in the fields in March, feeding on dandelions and then they are off for the breeding season. I know they are back in the garden when the niger seed level suddenly drops in September.

Greenfinch prefer black sunflower seeds

Black sunflower seeds aren’t as sought after as sunflower hearts, but the greenfinch seems to like them as it’s sizeable beak separates the husks by rotating them in its mouth.

Some seed mixes bulk up with black sunflower seed which goes to waste in this garden, so I buy them separately and add them sparingly to the mix.

Sunflower hearts are much easier for the birds to eat and are the highest energy food available and will help keep them warm. I also have feeders with kibbled sunflower hearts which tiny beaked siskins and redpolls adore.

This blackbird’s mad for suet

Although blackbirds are supposed to be ground feeders, these very clever characters will readily use bird tables, and when a suet block is on offer, a branch will do.

Suet is so much in demand over winter that I have trialled them in all their various incarnations. These energy rich suet blocks which come with insects, or mealworms, or berry and bugs mixed in, are great, and although the fat balls are the most popular, there is always suet on tap for everyone with the blocks and cakes. Given a choice, these are preferred over suet logs and coconut halves.

If you want robins bake them a mealworm cake

When the garden is covered in snow and ice, garden birds need to maintain body fat to insulate themselves against the cold and I sometimes get as many as 50 plus birds all looking for suet at the same time.

The bigger birds will hog the suet balls, but for smaller birds like the robin, these free hanging suet cakes that contain mealworms and insects are very handy as all I have to do is tie them to the branches.

To attract starlings hang up suet rings and peanut butter jars

Starlings are voracious birds all year round. They adore suet and will descend en masse on the fat balls and hoover up the mealworms before anyone else gets a look in. So when I saw these large juicy suet rings in the CJ Wildlife catalogue, along with the peanut butter jars, I thought I might be able to divert them away from the suet balls to give the smaller birds a chance. They’ve been great, and when the starlings aren’t around the robins and blue tits spend ages on the rings which disappear completely within a week. The peanut butter jars are loved too, but are usually monopolized by starlings, whose long beaks can reach all the way to the bottom.

Tree sparrows love millet and suet

Hedge/House Sparrows and Tree sparrows live in my garden all year round, and use the many nest boxes, often producing two broods over the summer.

A local bird ranger who manages a reserve for tree sparrows at Rockcliffe, told me to give them red millet, white millet to the hedge/house sparrows and to hang the feeders next to a hedge as they like the security of cover. These seeds are dispensed from niger feeders which need filling every other day.

In winter, they love suet like every other bird.

Chaffinch meal deals

Having trialled a variety of all-purpose seed mixes, the one the birds here love best is the VHF Ultimate Energy mix from Vine House Farm. It contains sunflower heart chips (best for small beaks), chopped peanuts, pinhead oats and kibbled maize. One mix comes with mealworms, the other with insect rich suet pellets, so I buy both and let the birds choose what they need. This lovely chaffinch has gone for the suet pellet mix.

Recommended bird food suppliers

  1. Vine House Farm
  2. CJ Wildlife