Food for thought


As autumn draws in and food in the wider countryside is depleted, birds will start to flock to garden feeders. Here the BTO provides a masterclass on what you can do to help.

Last winter taught us many lessons: travel chaos dilutes the romance of a white Christmas; Frosty the Snowman can begin to feel like a permanent guest; and when it gets really cold, huge numbers of birds settle in our gardens. As thousands of hungry beaks feasted on tasty morsels in UK gardens last winter, participants in the year-round BTO Garden BirdWatch recorded their comings and goings.

Goldfinch, Morfa Nefyn, Gwynedd (Photo: Shirley Roulston)

As we gear up for another winter, now is a great time to think about our garden visitors again. For them, our patch can mean the difference between life and death and the BTO has issued guidelines on how householders can help.

Top foods

  • Oil-rich seeds, such as sunflower hearts and nyjer;
  • Ground-up peanuts;
  • Finely grated cheese, beef or vegetable suet;
  • Chunks of windfall (especially) or fresh fruit;
  • Dried fruit (that has been soaked first) — note, can be toxic to dogs;
  • Mealworms and other live-foods (alive or dried);
  • Beef or vegetable suet-based 'cakes';
  • Pinhead oatmeal or uncooked porridge oats.

Greenfinch, Weir Wood Reservoir, East Sussex (Photo: Derek Washington)

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Foods to avoid

  • Soft fats and oils (can soil feathers);
  • Dried foods e.g. coconut, uncooked rice (could swell after ingestion);
  • Bread (nutritionally lacking compared with other foods);
  • Milk (birds are not adapted to digest milk);
  • Cooked porridge (can stick to beak).

More general guidelines include:

  • Provide clean fresh water: to drink and to keep feathers in good condition for insulation;
  • Don't provide too much! Ensure that food does not go mouldy and clean feeders regularly. Excess food can attract vermin;
  • Avoid substantial trimming of berry-producing plants such as holly and ivy that will continue to hold fruit long into winter;
  • Record what you see through the BTO Garden BirdWatch so that we can monitor garden birds every week of the year.

Blue Tit
Blue Tit, Youghal, Cork (Photo: Tom Kennedy)

Dr Tim Harrison, from BTO Garden BirdWatch, commented: "Research shows that providing food during winter improves the survival prospects of many species and can even boost breeding success in the following spring. Cold winters often occur in flurries and if last winter is anything to go by then thousands of birds will race to our handouts during the next few months."

He added: "Huge numbers of birds that are normally scarce garden visitors, such as Redwing, Fieldfare and Brambling, can pour into our towns and cities during cold weather — so autumn and winter is a great time to be an armchair birdwatcher! Research shows that interactions with nature can reduce levels of stress, so feeding birds can be a positive activity all round."

For a free guide on feeding garden birds, or for more information about BTO Garden BirdWatch, email gbw@bto.org, phone 01842 750050 or write to BTO, The Nunnery, Thetford, Norfolk, IP24 2PU.

The BTO Garden BirdWatch is the only nationwide survey of garden birds to run weekly throughout the year, providing important information on how birds use gardens, and how this use changes over time. Currently, some 15,000 people take part in the project. The project is funded by participants' contributions and is the largest year-round survey of garden birds in the world.

Written by: BTO