Helping Garden Birds Survive The Winter

by Lynda White

Whilst it seems we may have seen the last of the snow (or at least – we hope), the lingering cold temperatures puts a heavy burden on our feathered friends as they struggle to survive during the winter months.

As they forage for sustenance on the frozen ground and barren trees, supplementing their natural diet can make the difference between life and death to our garden birds...

Just putting out a simple selection of nuts, fruit, seed and water will reward us with the sight of many garden visitors and a host of over-wintering birds from colder climates.
Recent press reports stated that many thousands of Field Fares, Redwings and other thrushes were flocking into Christchurch from Northern European countries ahead of the snow, in the hope of finding food. Home owners were thrilled to see these stunning birds turn up in their gardens to polish off the last of any berries still on the trees. We soon discovered that the Fieldfare, who took up temporary residence in our garden, was partial to apples and he stayed with us until the last of the snow had melted, aggressively guarding his food supply from other birds.

The following list may be useful as a guide to feeding garden birds through the winter.

  • Fat balls or blocks – always transfer fat balls from the mesh bag to a feeder or
    crumble a little each day onto the bird table or ground
  • Crushed peanuts – crushing them or buying chopped nuts allows the smaller birds to eat them easily
  • Mixed seed and grain can be bought as ‘Wild Bird mix’
  • Dried or live mealworms – most birds love either as they provide protein
  • Dried fruits such as sultanas – must be soaked or chopped into small pieces first
  • Sunflower seeds or hearts and niger seeds – a selection of these high energy foods will attract finches, blue tits, great tits and many others to your hanging feeders
  • Oats – sprinkle a few dry oats onto the bird table
  • Grated or halved apples and pears – thrushes and blackbirds will enjoy these
  • Finely chopped or grated cheese – a fatty favourite with songbirds
  • Small pieces of cooked potato – but not salty ones
  • Leftovers of cooked rice and chopped cooked pasta (without sauce)
  • Beef or vegetable suet
  • Biscuit crumbs
  • Wholemeal breadcrumbs – white bread does not provide nutrients, so wholemeal is best chopped into bite-sized pieces. Consider sprinkling water onto dry bread to soften, before feeding it to the birds.

It is essential that birds have a regular supply of water to survive. On frosty days the container must be emptied to clear the ice and topped up with fresh water. A heavy based bowl is best as heavier birds can tip over lighter plastic bowls.

Only put enough food out to feed the birds for that day as any remaining scraps may attract rats overnight or go mouldy.

Never feed mouldy or stale bread or salty food to birds.

Be very careful not to feed birds where cats can reach them.

Never hang up mesh bags to feed birds as they can break their legs on these. Always transfer the contents to a feeder.

Clean feeders and bird tables regularly to avoid spread of disease among birds.

By following these tips and putting out a few of the above foods and water, you should be rewarded (as we have been) with lots of feathery visitors to your garden. Remember to be patient as they may take a few days to find the food and get accustomed to new feeders in their territory.

pictures: Martin Tuckey (top: fieldfare, below: Pied Wagtail)


Thankyou Martin & Lynda about your article for feeding birds.
When ever I buy bird seed there is always someone else buying seed or fat balls.
So a lot of people are helping feeding the birds.

Where to put bird food

Thanks Lynda. I know very little about them but I like to see birds in the garden though I rarely think of feeding them. Your article prompted me to go out and get some wild bird seed from M&M's in Wareham Rd where it's sold by weight but now what? I put a handful in an old washing up bowl near where I usually put water for them and where they often bathe when it's not frozen but they didn't seem to notice. Later I sprinkled some on the concrete path and this did get some attention from one or two.

So where's the best place to put wild bird food? I could sprinkle it on the grass or path or put it in some container.

Advice please.

Bird food - where to get it and where to put it

Good question Andrew. It is easy to take for granted that everyone knows where to put food out for garden birds. In fact, it really depends on what birds you are intending to feed or hoping to attract to your garden. There are many ground feeding birds and of course others who naturally forage on insects and seeds amongst the trees and shrubs.
Mixed seeds can be put on the ground providing there is no risk of a cat hiding nearby. A safer alternative is a bird table placed in an open area. Blackbirds are usually happy to take seeds and crumbs, fruit, cheese and fat from a bird table even though they are ground feeding birds. A seed feeder can be bought from most animal food suppliers. This can be hung from a branch of a tree or somewhere out of reach of predators for the smaller birds such as tits and finches.
Although an old washing up bowl sounds ideal for bird seed, it is probably not the safest place as bids may not be able to see over the top. Perhaps a better alternative would be to put the seed on the upturned bowl, giving the birds a platform from which to see about them, also allowing any rainwater to drain off the seed. Drinking water should be given daily in a shallow, heavy bowl such as a dog bowl. Birds will often enjoy a splash around as they drink. Mixed seed can be put into a shallow bowl but it should be emptied regularly to avoid mould growing on any uneaten food. Ensure it is not one that tips over easily.
M&Ms in Wareham Road stock low cost peanut feeders that could even be hung on a washing line. They sell sunflower seeds, peanuts and a choice of mixed seed. Other local bird food suppliers are; Horse Bits in Corfe Mullen, Pets and Petals in Dunyeats Road, Broadstone and if you don't mind a short trip, Vines Close Farm Country Store at Henbury has a large selection and also sells seeds in bulk.
Don't forget - NEVER hang up fat balls in their mesh bags. They should always be transferred to a purpose made feeder. Birds can get their legs caught in mesh bags.
I hope this answers any questions and encourages you to continue feeding your garden visitors.
Links to useful information;

Dozy creatures!

Thanks Lynda. I understand now that a washing up bowl means they can't keep watch while eating so I've given up on that. This morning I used my recycling box lid as a shallow container on the grass but so far they've ignored, or avoided or not noticed this either - dozy ungrateful creatures! I imagined the dark plastic would make the bird seed visible from a distance but maybe it looks too unnatural or the surface is too slippery for them. What I really need is a bird table with a cat defeating support.

Actually, there isn't too much danger from cats here as I always chase them away so they should know they aren't welcome - but they aren't the brightest creatures either! I really wish their owners would pet ownership seriously and take responsibility for their pets.

Cats v birds

The recycling box lid is probably ideal for seed and other foods but you must remember that birds are very wary of changes to their feeding areas and may take a day or two to get used to a new food container or even for word to get around that there is food available in your garden. They are far from 'dozy' and notice everything we do and I am certain that over the next few days, they will show you just how grateful they are by turning up to feed time and time again.
As for cats - it is their nature to catch and torment any small creature that moves. Even if you chase them out of the garden, they will still take a chance and creep back in when you are out or not looking. It is a big problem for birds, particularly for the fledglings in the spring. We have bought a sonic cat deterrent from B&Q which emits a high frequency sound that cats do not like (apparently). Cats have an aversion to water so a children's high power water pistol tends to deter them. Both of these methods of deterring cats do them no harm so can be used with a clear conscience. It is important to remember that the owners have no control over the action of their feline pets (unlike dogs). Some responsible cat owners who also appreciate garden birds, fit a safety collar with a bell. Although this is not guaranteed, it may offer a degree of protection by giving warning of an approaching cat.
Our cats live indoors only, as we value the lives of our garden visitors. The cats are happy and have the benefit of watching the birds feeding only feet from our window (a sort of cat TV)!

Not so dozy

The upturned recycling box lid worked to some extent after the first day when the birds started to pay attention. I saw a blackbird or two and the lid sank into the grass on one side with the weight of a fat pigeon sat on the edge! The problem came when it rained as the seeds got rather soggy in the recesses, and my recycling was exposed to the elements.

On Gardeners' Question Time on BBC Radio 4 today, they said that at this time of year birds are about to start nesting, so if you feed them hold back a bit on bird seed and give them more meal worms and fat. Mmmm!

I'm sure cats do visit my garden as I find they've defecated in my vegetable plot dozens of times. The owners should take steps and pay out for any equipment needed to keep then from such behaviour, not the victims! Another topic perhaps.

Well done Lynda for keeping your own felines under control.

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