Feeding Frenzy

22nd October 2010

Saturday 30 October is Feed The Birds Day…

It’s a real indictment of the modern world that the RSPB needs to tell us that we should feed the birds, says Jill Glenn…

When I was a child putting out food was automatic… kitchen scraps, from bacon rind to bits of bread, or – as a real treat (for me, if not for them!) – a box of Trill from the corner shop. Today, though, we eat differently, we live differently, we garden differently, and, as a result the country’s leading bird charity has to promote the whole concept: from the reasons to the rewards we gain from encouraging wildlife into our gardens. It’s a major re-education project.

Here's a range of RSPB ideas for turning us all into bird-brains again…

Blackbird: Nigel Blake

Fruity Fun

Birds may not need their ‘five a day’, but some, such as blackbirds, robins, thrushes and blackcaps, are keen fruit eaters especially in hard times like cold winters. Try these ideas:

1. Fruit Kebabs:
A simple way to feed fruit is to use garden canes to provide several fruit feasts around your patch. Push one end firmly into the ground and spike a soft apple or pear on top. You could also thread apples, pears, plums, strawberries and cherries onto kebab skewers or string, and hang them from trees or bird tables.

2. Create A Juice Bar:
Birds will flock back time after time if you plant berry-bearing shrubs. You might even be lucky enough to attract waxwings: plump, crested birds which come to Britain in winter from Scandinavia particularly if food is short.

Hawthorn and Cotoneaster are particularly good, with over 350 species of insects having been recorded on hawthorn. The thorny nature provides excellent protection for birds and mammals, and the berries are much sought-after in autumn. Hawthorn provides food for caterpillars and aphids – in turn an important food for the birds, especially for chicks in spring.

There are many varieties of Cotoneaster (to suit the smallest or largest of gardens) and general maintenance is minimal, making them gardener-friendly as well as wildlife-friendly. The evergreen varieties provide shelter for insects over winter, and food for aphids, which are eaten by birds. Starlings and thrushes in particular also find the berries a good source of autumn/winter food. You’ll also be helping bees which find the flowers an attractive source of nectar.

3. Tree Of Life:
A wide variety of trees provide food and habitat for birds and other wildlife. By planting holly you could attract the robin, one of the few birds that sings during the winter – a lovely noise to hear in the dark days leading up to Christmas. There are over 400 varieties of holly with either prickly, spiny or smooth edged leaves. As a specimen tree, as a shrub or in a hedge, it gives shelter and protection and berries during winter. It is also the food plant for the first generation of holly blue butterflies in spring.

Rowan is also ideal, but if you’ve only seen very large rowan trees, fear not: there are smaller species that will still attract the birds, and pruning is seldom, if at all, necessary. The berries are quickly taken by blackbirds and small flocks of starlings.

Other suitable trees: bird cherry, crab apple, juniper, wild cherry.

4. Windfall Treats:
If you have fruit trees, try to store some of the autumn windfall fruit – eg in a cool shed or perhaps your freezer. Bring them out in batches and you’ll not be wasting any food and will be providing little treats for the birds all over the winter. Blackbirds and starlings will love you!

5. Fruit Cocktails
If you don’t have established fruit trees that provides windfall, why not spread a mix of sliced fruit – apples, bananas and pears on the ground or bird table.


If you have a dog, be careful about providing birds with raisins or grapes on the ground – some dogs have an adverse reaction if they eat them.

Feeding Garden Birds: Fact File

The RSPB promotes wildlife-friendly gardening through its Homes for Wildlife project. This is the most sustainable means of providing birds with a source of natural foods such as insects, seeds and berries.

Simple actions – such as leaving a small area of long grass, growing some native shrubs and nectar-rich flowers, or avoiding the use of pesticides – all benefit wildlife. Supplementary feeding, though, using artificial food sources, can help support birds especially when natural food shortages strike. It’s also a popular activity helping people to enjoy, get closer to and understand more about birds. But what should you feed?

Fats – use hard fats only when the temperatures are cool, as summer temperatures can make the fats go rancid. Commercially-produced fat bars are treated in a way that keeps the fat hard regardless of the temperature. Birds need saturated fats with high energy content such as suet and lard in order to maintain their body reserves.

Peanuts – rich in fats and a valuable food source over winter and cold months. Never use salted peanuts or place out loose nuts. Peanut feeders made of rigid mesh are widely available.

Bread – has its place as part of a varied diet. It doesn’t contain the necessary proteins, fats and minerals that birds need, though, so birds fed exclusively on bread may starve. Moist bread is better than stale dry bread, and brown bread is better than white.

Rice – leftover cooked rice is a good food source and readily eaten by most species, but do leave it unsalted. Garden birds are unable to metabolise salt which is toxic in high quantities.

Breakfast cereals – leftover breakfast cereals are another good food source. Offer crushed up and dry cereal as birds tend to avoid any that are wet and mushy. Do not mix with milk, as a bird’s gut is not designed to digest milk, and this may cause a fatal stomach upset. Only give porridge oats straight from the packet and never cooked.

Commercial bird food – the RSPB has developed a range of quality bird foods available through RSPB retail outlets, via mail order and at some good supermarkets and garden centres (http://shopping.rspb.org.uk/).

Vine fruits – grapes, sultanas, raisins and items such as fruit buns or cake are an excellent source of food.

Whatever you feed to the birds, good hygiene around feeders is important to protect not only the feeding birds but ourselves. Bird feeders should be cleaned regularly to prevent the spread of disease such as salmonella, and this should be done outside rather than at the kitchen sink. Normal household bleach, diluted 1 part bleach to 20 parts water, is suitable. Hands should always be washed after handling bird feeders with soap and water. Any soiled clothes can be washed on a normal wash cycle.

See www.rspb.org.uk/feedthebirds for more about Feed The Birds Day, and advice on creating a wildlife haven in your garden.

No garden?

You can still get involved…

Recent housing developments and apartment-style living, mean that many people in the UK that don’t have access to a garden – but there are still ways to get involved in wildlife friendly gardening activities and provide sustainable food sources for birds. Here are just a few examples from the RSPB’s Homes for Wildlife project.

Most things that can be done in a domestic garden can be done on an allotment, but check out the rules and regulations for your site first. One simple action is to encourage insects which control aphids and help pollinate plants. by growing the right flowers or by erecting bug boxes to attract ladybirds and lacewings.

Community gardens are growing in popularity especially in urban areas. Many are started voluntarily or with support from local authorities. As well as offering sanctuary to wildlife, they are havens from normal life – and getting closer to nature has been shown to have a positive effect on mental well being.

Schools or playgroups may have a small plot for wildlife friendly gardening. These secret gardens provide children (who may not have a garden at home) with the chance to enjoy fun gardening activities as well as learning more about wildlife. Many schools or playgroups are reliant on volunteers mucking in to assist.

Parks and town centre outdoor spaces can be great places to come across wildlife if they are managed with wildlife in mind.

Even if all you have is a balcony, there are still things you can do. See www.rspb.org.uk/hfw for info.

Find Your Local