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9 top tips for feeding your garden birds

blue tit
The striking blue tit: a regular visitor to garden bird feeders across Ireland

During the winter short days and long nights limit the time birds have to forage, while at the same time natural food becomes more scarce. Our garden birds have increasingly come to depend on the food we provide as an essential supplement to what they can find for themselves at this challenging time of year.

According to bird conservation organisations like Birdwatch Ireland and the RSPB, it’s a good idea to feed your garden birds throughout the year, but it’s especially important to do so over the coldest, darkest months of winter. Small birds need to pack in enough calories during the few hours of daylight to see them through the long winter night ahead. Having a convenient, high-energy food source in your garden can literally mean the difference between life and death for some of them.

Great for birds… great for people

Feeding the birds isn’t just good for birds though, it’s great for us too.

It’s one of the easiest and most enjoyable ways to attract wildlife into the garden, and is a fantastic way to encourage children to engage with nature. Birds add a welcome splash of colour to dreary winter days, and generally add interest to the garden on many different levels.

Here are our top tips to help you, and your garden birds, get the most out of your bird-feeding endeavours this winter.

Robin -- feeding garden birds
The robin… a garden favourite

1. Place your feeders where you can see them

While you’ll want to situate your bird feeders / bird table in the open, where birds have an unobstructed view to detect approaching predators, you also want to be able to see the comings and goings of the various species conveniently, and without having to resort to binoculars to see what’s going on.

It’s amazing how many people think they have to hide their feeders away in a remote corner of the garden. Birds will happily visit feeders and bird tables near the house, and placing feeders near a convenient window can give you a great view without disturbing the birds. Why not choose a location like the kitchen window, where you can watch the birds while you get on with other household jobs.

2. Once you start feeding, don’t stop

It may take a while for birds to discover a new source of food when you first start putting it out, but once they do they’ll keep coming back, and before long will come to rely on that food source. So once you start feeding the birds, keep it up throughout the winter until their natural food sources become more plentiful again in spring. And remember, it won’t do any harm to keep feeding birds throughout the year if you’d like to keep encouraging them to visit your garden.

“While winter is the most important time to provide food for birds, it is not a problem to feed them throughout the rest of the year too, if you wish.  If you do, make sure that you never leave out whole nuts, as baby birds often choke on these: always use a fine wire mesh feeder that has been designed to allow birds to feed on peanuts safely.” – Birdwatch Ireland

House sparrow eating High Energy No Mess seed mix from an Appollo easy-clean bird feeder
A male house sparrow visits the seed feeder.

3. Variety = diversity

If you want to attract more species the best way is to offer more variety in the food that you offer. A high quality seed mix (see point 4) and peanuts are the standard, and will suit many bird species, but by adding specialist foods like mealworms, fat balls and suet cakes to the mix — not to mention kitchen scraps and dried and fresh fruit — you will cater for a wider range of dietary requirements and attract a more diverse range of birds to your garden feeding station. Just steer clear of kitchen scraps that have a high salt content, which can be harmful to your feathered friends.

4. Quality, not quantity

Use a high quality bird seed mix (we use the High-energy No Mess Seed Blend from CJ Wildlife) to ensure the birds get the most out of the food you put out. High quality food tends to be a little more expensive, but generally has less “filler” than cheaper food, which tends to be bulked-up with cheap grains like wheat. Many birds simply scatter this filler on the ground as they search for more nutritious morsels in the mix. That makes a mess, under feeders, and potentially attracts unwanted pests like rats. It also means that a substantial proportion of your investment is being literally thrown away.

Ultimately high-quality bird food is a better investment, both for the birds and your wallet.

Feeding garden birds: chaffinch
Incoming! A male chaffinch arrives at the feeder

5. Don’t forget the water

Water is just as important as food for survival, and fresh water can be difficult to find in the depths of winter. Providing a convenient source of fresh water for drinking and bathing in your garden will help birds conserve valuable energy as they won’t need to go searching for it elsewhere. It also offers you an opportunity to observe a greater variety of interesting bird behaviour on your doorstep.

6. Clean your feeders regularly

Keeping your bird feeders and bird table clean is important. With so many birds visiting the same feeding stations day-in-day-out there’s a very real risk of spreading disease. By cleaning your feeders with warm soapy water on a regular basis you can minimise that risk and ensure your garden birds stay fit and healthy.

Relocate your feeders periodically (once a month or so) to prevent the accumulation of bird droppings in one place.

7. Little and often

It’s better to provide just enough food, and top up your feeders often, than to provide too much food. Food left in feeders for too long can go mouldy, particularly in the damp Irish climate, which is bad for the birds. Try to estimate the food you need for a day at a time, and make filling the feeders / putting food out part of your daily routine to ensure the birds get fresh food.

The Birds of Ireland: A Field Guide8. Invest in a bird book or wall ID chart

It’s always good when you can put a name to the birds that you see, and enhances the enjoyment of watching your garden birds, particularly for children. A field guide like “Birds of Ireland: A Field Guide” is ideal, and covers more than just your garden birds, so can be used to identify birds when you’re out and about too. Alternatively you’ll find a selection of garden bird books here on Amazon.

9. Take part in the nationwide Garden Bird Survey

Every winter Birdwatch Ireland runs a nationwide garden bird survey that helps it assess the health of Ireland’s garden birds through the contributions of households, schools and organisations across the country. It runs from December to February, and participation is really easy and great fun. All you have to do is make a note of the highest number of each bird species visiting your garden each week, and submit your answers at the end of the survey via a convenient online form, or through the post.

You’ll find full details of how you can take part on the Birdwatch Ireland website here.

High quality food and feeders from our bird food partner

Ireland's WIldlife Official Bird Food Partner

Ireland’s Wildlife has been using food and feeders provided by our bird food partner, CJ Wildlife, since November 2013. We’ve been genuinely impressed with the quality and variety of both food and feeders available, as well as the excellent customer service and prompt delivery, and our garden birds have never been happier.

You can find out more about the CJ Wildlife range, and request your free catalogue, over on the birdfood.ie website.

What are your top tips for feeding your garden birds? Share them in the comments below — or let us know via facebook or twitter.

23 comments

  • The answer is they will eat all day, but most birds would intentionally look for food as early as sunrise to late morning, then come back later in the afternoon. Take a look below at the major and minor feeding times of birds.

  • Jessica wiliam

    Thanks a lot. But I wonder that what time of day do birds feed most.

    • Avatar photo
      A

      Birds will feed throughout the day, but are particularly active early in the morning, when they are eager to replenish the reserves they’ve used up overnight, and again in late afternoon/evening, when they are packing in the calories to see them through the next night. During the breeding season adult birds are actively foraging all day, usually for invertebrate prey, to feed to their brood of hungry youngsters.

  • Thanks for sharing this. It sure will help me feed the birds in my area better.

  • Karen Mckechnie

    What can be eating my fat balls at night from my bird feeder here in ireland what ever it is it doesn’t seem to eat the seeds

  • Patricia

    Hi
    Just wondering what I’m doing wrong, bought a range of high quality bird feed from a pet shop, I’ve 6 or 7 feeders located all over the garden & all I get are starlings, I’m currently looking out at my neighbours feeder & there’s another 20 different types of tits feeding there, I’m so sad ???? what’s worse, I’ve a little bird house & they’re in & out of it constantly but never go near the feeders, I even hung a feeder near the bird house & they ignored it. HELP please

  • Anthony, perhaps someone near by has started using something they like better?! I have discovered that grated mild cheese is very popular and I changed to a more expensive bird seed instead of Tesco stuff, which they prefer. Although it costs more you use less as there is less wastage. Also peanuts in a nut feeder brings the little ones in.
    Good luck.

    • Charlie

      Yes that mixed stuff is a waste of money. They don’t like the grain that bulks it out. I feed sunflower hearts, peanuts, dried mealworm and fat balls (the cheaper ones are a waste) good quality ones with loads of seeds and peanuts in them. Also grated cheese, a little mash potato (no butter or milk or salt just plain) left over fruit but nothing with big seeds. Robins won’t go on hangers so hanging open trays or floor if its safe. I have non stop birds.

  • Anthony Connolly

    maybe Aldi feed does’nt cut the mustard?

  • Anthony Connolly

    garden still without my feathery friends. this has never happened before. loads of berries in the adjacent woodlands and my garden. Anthony Connolly

  • I have done a couple of these before! I plan to have a few feeders and baths in my developing garden.

  • Exact same here, I’ve 5 feeders filled with all different feeds, water too but there are no birds, my neighbours garden is full of birds, what am I doing wrong.

  • Anthony Connolly

    i filled new feeders last sunday 3rd nov 2019. i have’nt seen a bird feeding only rooks and jackdaws. not one small garden bird to be seen. every year for years i’ve have had all the tits, finches, sparrows and resident blackcaps. now and then gold finches forayed in for an early bird feast. i’m concerned that something awful is happening . Anthony Connolly Celbridge

  • Unfortunately I have to stop feeding, the birds in my own private back garden as I was issued with a section 110 of the public health (Ireland) Act 1878.
    Has anyone been ever been issued with one, and as far as I understand I can’t feed the birds in my front garden either. Surely it’s my civil right !

    • Avatar photo
      A

      I’ve never heard of a local authority stopping anyone from feeding the birds in their own garden… and it would strike me as a somewhat draconian measure… and I’m not sure how enforceable it would be. I’m no expert on the law in this area, but it if I were you I’d seek some definitive advice on the topic. Section 110 of the Public Health Act is to do with “causing a nuisance” — but as long as your feeders are clean, and you’re not over-feeding to the extent that your feeders attract vermin I can’t see how feeding the birds would be classed as a public nuisance or public health issue.

  • Martha Cashman

    Check out my project on Facebook
    MORE CLAY LESS PLASTIC CORK city Ireland I offer Creative Clay workshops on Making Bird Feeders
    Book your group to be involved ..

  • carmelegan

    i feed the birds all year round until end of april i had lots of birds this year because of the bad weather

  • Well I’m disappointed with your neighbors. The sight of a flock of sparrows in my garden on the feeders is wonderful. Once fed they are gone as quickly as they arrived.

    I’d say keep feeding them. There are so many of what were once UK common garden birds on the endangered list including the starling.

    I currently have a flock of sparrows and a flock of gold finches visit my garden daily to feed, drink and bath. I also have a pair of wood pigeons, a family of starlings, a variety of tits, lots of collared doves, a year round robin, wrens, finches, the odd woodpecker and a sparrow hawk too.

    We have lots of trees some very tall and a pond which attract bats. The feeders suspended from tree branches are filled with sunflower kernels. We also have a suspended plate type feeder filled with sunflower kernels for the larger birds such as collared doves and wood pigeons.

    We feed and put fresh water out all year round with no breaks. We only feed sunflower kernels, except for the occasional fat balls in the winter.

    The next thing I need to find is a starling nest box and I like to find the best bat box, then possibly an Owl box.

  • Hi, I have been feeding birds the last two months and have established a healthy flock that rely on this including a lot of young sparrows. However my neighbors have complained and said that I have to stop as it’s interfering with they’re garden any advice?

  • Rosarie O’Toolr

    I have been feeding about 20 little birds in my garden up until this year when a Hawk discovered them and now there are only 5 or 6 left. What can I do?

    • Gary deary

      Hi i built a fence around my garden front back and sides and on top food in the middle on a table the holes in the fence are only small for small birds to come in and eat large birds and cats can not get in when i set it up i had no luck for over 4 days but on the fought Day one little bird came in and they all followed as they eat and drink they are safe i only go out and clean and top water and food at midnight while they sleep ?

  • Siobhan mc cormack

    I feed the birds every day n ilove watchin them go from feeder to feeder.i buy meal worms fat balls n peanuts but find they leave the peanuts.i would like a good quality bird seed as some ive bought they dont eat it.

    • Charlie

      Mine love the peanuts. Its fat balls they leave, I think I will get better quality ones.

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