Attracting birds to a garden is easy. The key to success is understanding their needs, and meeting them. Like any wild creature, birds need food, water, shelter, and a place to raise their young. The various birdcare products enable one or more of those needs to be met.
Some British garden birds like robins, chaffinches, dunnocks and blackbirds tend to be ground feeders. Robins and blackbirds favour fat scraps, insect food and raisins – fat pellets are manageable and are available with some dried insects already in them. Finches prefer seed. Ground feeding birds can be fed from a low mesh bird table placed on the ground, or they can be fed from a typical raised bird table. The low mesh bird table is easier to clean under a tap, whereas cleaning a bird table is a bit more difficult.
Perching birds like the tit family, house sparrows, goldfinches and greenfinches can be fed from tube feeders. These are either hung from suitable trees or raised above ground using a tubular metal stand. A seed feeder is a vertical clear plastic tube, which is filled with seed with openings and perches for the birds to perch on and access the seed. These are well suited to seed-eating birds like house sparrows, greenfinches and goldfinches. Peanuts can be fed from a different type of tube feeder, where the tube is made from metal mesh rather than plastic. The tit family and house sparrows can use this type of feeder easily. Seed feeders need regular cleaning to prevent old seed building up and getting mouldy.
A wide variety of seed mixes are available. Some birds, like finches, tend to hull the seeds by rubbing them between the bill to remove husks which are discarded. If the site is visited by a lot of finches, providing de-husked seed such as sunflower hearts reduces mess. Cheaper mixes feature a lot of millet, which attracts pigeons, which is not always desirable.
Ground feeding should be avoided where there is the hazard of ground predators like cats and dogs; a bird table gives more chance to escape, and can be made less climbable for cats by sliding a length of plastic drainpipe over the wooden stem.
Aerial predators like sparrowhawks are a hazard for birds using tube feeders. They should not be sited in the open, but sited within 2m of trees, shrubbery or undergrowth so that feeding birds can escape.
In the breeding season some fledglings get both food and water from the insects the parents bring them. The urban landscape has become poorer in insects with the increased concreting of front gardens and eradication of hedges. Many birds can benefit from mealworms in the breeding season, where the adult birds come to a mealworm feeder and carry off the worms for their chicks. Mealworms can be fed either from straight-sided ceramic bowls (to stop the worms escaping) or from a cage-type mealworm feeder, which will exclude Starlings from accessing the worms. Mealworms are live food, and as such are not to everyone’s liking, but do help breeding garden birds if provided.
Birds need water to drink and to bathe in. Providing a pond is a good way to supply water, as it also attracts wildlife and insects for food. However, the sides of the pond should be shallow – if the sides are too steep then small birds can fall in and drown. If the garden is too small for a pond, bird baths can be used, topped up with a watering can or hose. Bird baths need occasional cleaning as there is no ecosystem like in a pond to stop waste building up. Though usually made of stone, some plastic ones feature a removable water tray at the top, which makes cleaning and filling easier.
Nest boxes can be purchased, or easily made from wood about 15mm thick. The hole size determines what birds can use the box, 25mm for blue tits to 32mm for House Sparrows. Boxes should be sited 1 – 3m above the ground, sheltered from prevailing winds, rain and from strong sunlight which could overheat the box. In areas where there are squirrels or woodpeckers a metal plate fitted over the hole helps protect the nest from these predators. There are specialised boxes, such as the open-fronted type preferred by Robins and spotted flycatchers, and larger owl boxes, but the standard hole box is the best place to start for most British gardens.
The easiest way to start bird feeding is with a tube feeder – the running costs are reasonably low because seed is cheap, and do not usually need refilling more than once a week. Providing a birdbath is the next easiest stage, where the running costs are also low, though a birdbath does need refilling more frequently than once a week in the summer months. A seed feeder should not be continually replenished, as it should be cleaned at least once a month.
In the past it was customary to only feed birds in the winter in the UK. As the urban environment has changed and far fewer insects occur in the Spring and Summer, the RSPB now recommends feeding year-round, with the proviso that whole peanuts should not be fed in the breeding season.