Dear Readers, last week my friend J and are were in the bird food aisle at our local garden centre. How confusing it all is! There is food for finches, food for robins, food for sparrows and food for tits. I didn’t notice any food for pigeons or squirrels, so maybe I am the only person in the world who is happy to have them come to visit. What did strike me was how cynical a lot of this is, and how much money people might spend to keep all their avian charges happy. Don’t do this, people! Let me share with you the food that I normally have available in the garden, and who benefits from each kind.
Firstly, seeds. Cheap seed is full of filler and husks. The birds don’t mind it, but probably half to two-thirds of it goes to waste. It’s worth paying out for the best seed that you can afford. My preference (or rather the birds preference) is for sunflower hearts. These are eye-wateringly expensive, but are taken by all the finches, the woodpigeons, the collared doves and the house sparrows. And also the squirrels, of course. I hope you’ll enjoy this short film, taken during Storm Doris yesterday.
My second food is whole peanuts, but only from August through to the end of January – there is evidence that if fed to baby birds, the nuts can choke them. If I have peanuts, I can watch the acrobatics of the squirrels, but even more delightfully, I can expect visits from the jays. How the word gets round that the nuts are out, I have no idea, but there we go.
My third food is some form of suet, normally suet pellets. RSPB do a nifty variety called buggy nibbles, which apparently contain the remains of insects as well. The starlings adore this stuff, and many of the other birds will also take it, particularly the blue, great and coal tits that are regular visitors, and the long-tailed tits that occasionally breeze past. Another seasonal visitor is the greater spotted woodpecker who hammers away at the suet feeder like Michelangelo wielding a chisel. If I put it on my ground feeder or makeshift bird-table everyone eats it – the blackbirds, the woodpigeons and the collared doves. The foxes will also pop by once in a while for a feed, as, unfortunately, do several cats. I suppose that suet is animal fat, after all.
The next foods are ‘optional extras’, because I have no children and so can afford to indulge my garden visitors, who will not need supported through university and rarely require nappies. I normally have some dried mealworms, which I scatter on the garden for the robin and dunnock, and mix with the suet. If you really want to see some spectacular ‘bird action’ you could try live mealworms, which you can buy from one of my favourite companies, Wiggly-Wigglers. I have stopped using them because I couldn’t bear to send all those little wrigglers to their deaths, which is just pure hypocrisy because I seem to be able to overcome my moral doubts when they’re already dead. Some people recommend that the dry ones are soaked in water first, which might be a good idea in the breeding season. They are the number one most loved food in the garden and last for about twenty minutes.
And lastly, I’m currently feeding something that the RSPB have developed called ‘Bird Granola’. It’s a mixture of suet, seeds and mealworms, and the birds have gone crazy for it. Like all suet products (including the buggy nibbles mentioned previously) it can dry to a solid lump if it gets wet, and can also turn a patio into a skating rink.
I also feed things like leftover grated cheese (beloved by the wrens), chopped apples and pears that are past their best (on the ground or bird table, for the blackbirds and any other thrushes that pop in), leftover cake (no icing) and things like rice if it hasn’t been salted. I had good results with some stuff called Flutter Butter (again from Wiggly Wigglers) – you get a jar of ‘peanut butter’ that you can hang up, and which is very popular with the tits. Normal nut butters are too salty for birds, however.
There are also things that I never bother with.
- Nyjer seed. Yes, I know that it’s supposed to be the thing that the finches love, but in my garden they much prefer the sunflower seeds
- Anything in a net – birds get horribly injured when they get tangled up in the mesh. I do sometimes put out suet balls, but always in a proper feeder
- Bread (not much nutritional value generally)
I honestly think that you could get away with putting out sunflower seeds, suet pellets and some chopped apples/grated cheese, and get a very fine range of species if everything else is in place. And what is everything else?
Water – I have the pond (as you know) but I also have a bird bath. It’s surprising how much the birds like to bathe, particularly in winter.
Somewhere close to the feeders for the birds to perch. I’m lucky (or lazy) because my garden is fairly overgrown, but birds do like to grab something from a feeder or bird table and then retreat to safety. This is worth thinking about when you position your feeding station or table – the spot needs to be open enough so that next door’s cat can’t hide close by, but close enough that the birds don’t feel exposed to airborne predators liked sparrowhawks. I think that little birds in particular are very attuned to the presence of birds of prey, and they are much commoner than you’d think – I once looked out of my kitchen door and found a sparrowhawk eating a pigeon on the step outside.
This is, of course, a very personal view: the birds that visit the garden will depend on where you live, and how urban (or otherwise) your area is. My garden is suburban, twenty minutes from central London by tube, but it benefits from having two scraps of ancient woodland and a huge Victorian cemetery nearby. My parent’s bird feeder at their home in Dorset is monopolised delightfully by the house sparrows who make their nests in their ten-foot tall beech hedge. My friend J was recently visited by a pair of parakeets. I am visited by lots of chaffinches, who are rarely seen in the garden of my friend A, who only lives around the corner. And if you live in the US or Canada or Australia, your guests will be very different. But there is something in many of us that derives great pleasure from helping our feathered neighbours. For me, it’s a small thing that I can put back – we have taken so much in terms of habitat for nesting and opportunities for feeding with the growth of our cities and the intensification of our agriculture. And whose heart doesn’t lift when a flock of long-tailed tits drop by in a chorus of contact calls, or a jay descends on the birdtable in a flash of blue? These moments can give us an instant of wonder and a surge of connection with the world around us.
Maybe it isn’t surprising that the song ‘Feed the Birds’ from Mary Poppins always leaves me with a lump in my throat. It’s sentimental, sugary-sweet, and these days any old lady selling bird food on the steps of St Pauls would be hauled off for a night in the cells. And yet I still find myself wiping away a surreptitious tear. See what you think.
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