Birds in your garden

Watching birds in your garden is a wonderful way to connect with nature. We can help them by planting berrying or fruit bushes and trees, feeding all year round, providing water for drinking and bathing, and putting up nesting boxes as well.

Approximately 30 species of bird are regular garden visitors, although more than 140 bird species have been recorded in British and Irish gardens. Some are seasonal visitors such as house martins in summer or redwings in winter. Others such as robins and blackbirds are resident year round and can become very familiar faces in the garden or allotment. A good population of birds in the garden are part of a healthy garden, helping to keep caterpillars and aphids in check which can damage garden plants.

When and how to feed garden birds
Choosing feeders and providing water

Use wire mesh feeders for peanuts and seed feeders for other seed
Specially designed feeders are required for the small niger seed, which is a favoured food of goldfinches
Food placed on wire mesh held just off the ground will entice ground-feeding birds such as robins and dunnocks
Place fat blocks in wire cages. Plastic nets around fat balls must be removed as birds, such as woodpeckers, can get caught up in the mesh. Create your own fat blocks by melting suet into moulds such as coconut shells or into holes drilled into logs
To help limit the spread of infections and diseases keep feeders clean, refill little and often (1-2 days worth of food) and, if possible, change their position in the garden to avoid fouling the ground underneath.
Water is essential for bathing and drinking throughout the year. Provide water in a shallow container, preferably with sloping sides and no more than 5cm (2in) deep. During frosty weather, remove the ice so birds can continue to have access to water.

Preferred foods
Use different foods and recipes to entice a range of birds. Although fat is important, particularly in winter, also provide a grain mix or nuts to maintain a balanced diet. No-mess seed mixes are more expensive but the inclusion of de-husked sunflower hearts means there is less waste and debris under the feeder. Inferior mixes are often padded out with lentils and wheat.

Many birds have ‘favourite’ foods, so choosing certain types can affect what you see feeding in the garden. These are just some of the preferences:

Insect cakes for tits
Berry cakes for finches
Finely chopped animal fat and grated cheese are welcomed by small birds, such as wrens
Sparrows, finches and nuthatches enjoy prising the seeds out of sunflower heads. Also, leave seed heads on herbaceous plants overwinter
Niger seed is liked by goldfinches
Peanut cakes for starlings
Fruit is favoured by thrushes and blackbirds. Scatter over-ripe apples, raisins and song-bird mixes on the ground for them. Consider planting berrying shrubs and trees, including favourites such as Malus, Sorbus, Cotoneaster and Pyracantha
Mealworms are a favoured food of many garden birds

Nesting sites and bird boxes
Each bird species has different requirements for nesting sites. Many birds nest in dense vegetation including shrubs, hedgerows and trees. Holes in trees provide a natural nest site for several species. Take care if undertaking house repairs as some birds such as house sparrows, starlings, house martins and swfits can nest in the soffit boards under the eaves.

Plants for encouraging birds
There are many garden plants that provide food in the form of berries (B) or seeds (S) a selection are listed below:

Cultivated plants
Berberis (B)
Cotoneaster (B)
Crataegus (thorns) (B)
Daphne mezereum (B)
Helianthus annuus (sunflower) (S)
Ilex (holly – female cultivars) (B)
Ligustrum ovalifolium (privet) (B)
Lonicera (honeysuckle) (B)
Mahonia (Oregon grape) (B)
Malus (single-flowered eating and crab apples) (B)
Photinia davidiana (B)
Prunus avium, P. cerasus (single-flowered cherries) (B)
​Pyracantha (firethorn) (B)
Rosa rugosa, R. moyesii (rose) (B)
Sorbus (mountain ash and whitebeams) (B)
Viburnum betulifolium (B)

Wild plants
Alnus glutinosa (alder) (S)
Betula pendula (birch) (S)
Carduus nutans (musk thistle) (S)
Centaurea scabiosa (greater knapweed) (S)
Crataegus monogyna (hawthorn) (B)
Dipsacus fullonum (teasel) (S)
Frangula alnus (alder buckthorn) (B)
Hedera helix (ivy) (B)
Ilex aquifolium (holly – female plants ) (B)
Knautia arvensis (field scabious) (S)
Rhamnus cathartica (purging buckthorn) (B)
Rosa canina, R. rubiginosa (wild roses) (B)
Rubus fruticosus (blackberry) (B)
Sambucus nigra (elderberry) (B)
Sorbus aucuparia (mountain ash) (B)
Sorbus aria (whitebeam) (B)
Succisa pratensis (devil’s bit scabious) (S)
Taxus baccata (yew) (B)
Viburnum opulus (guelder rose) (B)
Viburnum lantana (wayfaring tree) (B)

It is difficult to exclude bigger visitors such as magpies, pigeons and squirrels from a traditional bird table. Feeders give more control over what you attract and most designs can be fitted with squirrel guards or have the feeder enclosed by an outer cage that keeps out larger animals. These structures can also affect which birds visit.

Bird boxes can also be affected by predators so fit metal entrance surrounds to exclude these if necessary. Nest boxes can be cleaned out once a year in autumn. Sometimes bird boxes are used by tree bumblebees.

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