Feed The Birds

Starlings getting stuck in to the suet pellets

Starlings getting stuck in to the suet pellets

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.

Sunflower hearts

Sunflower hearts

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.

Woodpigeon and collared doves getting stuck into the sunflower hearts. The squirrels pull out the plastic feeding rings, hence the duct tape.

Woodpigeon and collared doves getting stuck into the sunflower hearts. The squirrels pull out the plastic feeding rings, hence the duct tape.

Female chaffinch on seed feeder

Female chaffinch on seed feeder

House Sparrow and Goldfinch on seed feeder

House Sparrow and Goldfinch on seed feeder

Peanuts

Peanuts

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.

RSPB's buggy nibbles. Other suet nibbles are available :-)

RSPB’s buggy nibbles. Other suet nibbles are available 🙂

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.

Starling waiting for a go at the suet pellets. The blue bit at the base of the bill tells us that this bird is a male

Starling waiting for a go at the suet pellets. The blue bit at the base of the bill tells us that this bird is a male

I love the way that the blue tit holds the suet pellet in his foot while he eats it

I love the way that the blue tit holds the suet pellet in his foot while he eats it

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Mealworms

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.

Bird granola, believe it or not.

Bird granola, believe it or not.

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.

Female blackbird picking up the crumbs from the birdtable

Female blackbird picking up the crumbs from the birdtable

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.

Robin picking over the leftovers

Robin picking over the leftovers

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?

Female chaffinch drinking from the pond

Female chaffinch drinking from the pond

Female blackbird by the pond

Female blackbird by the pond

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.

Woodpigeon in the whitebeam tree

Woodpigeon in the whitebeam tree

Blue tit in the lilac

Blue tit in the lilac

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.

Fluffed-up starling

Fluffed-up starling

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.

‘Feed the Birds’ from Mary Poppins

All blog content copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share non-commercially, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you!

 

12 thoughts on “Feed The Birds

    1. Bug Woman Post author

      Hi Anne, I am a complete and utter softie where the birds are concerned. Sometimes they sit on the birdtable when it’s empty, or in the whitebeam, and peer in at me. It’s like a benign version of The Birds….

      Reply
      1. Anne Guy

        Yes we came back home from a few days away earlier this week and the feeders were all empty and the birds looking particularly menacing…we rushed out to refill them before they started throwing stones at the windows!! We also never see a sparrow when we were away I awoke to hear some birds chirping and I couldn’t recognise the call…it was sparrows! Never see a starling either!!

  1. Gail

    Snap! ‘Our’ garden birds down here near Wells in Somerset are the same, except that we aren’t lucky enough to have jays. There are lots of sparrows in the hedgerows along the fields, but none come to the garden. I live in hope that eventually they will be tempted, we have an untidy garden with lots of hedging that is a bit wild. I remember so vividly the squabbling and racket of sparrows in my garden in Barnet when I lived there, but they seemed to disappear 20 or so years ago.

    Reply
    1. Bug Woman Post author

      We still have a few sparrows who visit here in East Finchley Gail, a flock of about six. I suspect they nest in one of the thick box hedges just up the road, and pop in to me for elevenses….

      Reply
  2. Sarah Ann Bronkhorst

    A birdbath is a terrific asset. Lots of different garden birds queue up at ours (or push & shove) to take the waters and their behaviour is enchanting to watch. But the woodpigeons often drink, then turn round and defecate into the water: v. bad manners. Your advice about the most useful foods is spot on.

    Reply
  3. Toffeeapple

    Do you have all of the Starlings? I saw one here recently, just one. I am over-run with Crows, Magpies and male Blackbirds but have espied Dunnock, Pied Wagtail, Wren and all of the Tit family and the Robins.

    Reply
  4. Veronica Cooke

    I have to confess to buying Nyjer seed in the hope it would attract goldfinches – I’ve had one goldfinch (to my knowledge) in my garden and I wanted more; hence the nyjer seed. Of course, it didn’t work and now I have an almost full bag that’s going to waste…

    I’m going to try the sunflower hearts; I usually buy the black sunflower seeds or black striped ones and they are really popular. I leave out fat balls and I do give the birds dried meal worms and peanuts and mixed seed. I give them wholemeal bread spread with unsalted peanut butter; cheese, cake, stale biscuits, left over roast potatoes, apples, (I have yet to try pears), chips, rice, oats. They won’t eat pasta or spaghetti though!

    I’ve had a Sparrow Hawk perch on my bird table – luckily it didn’t catch anything.

    I’d love to have a Jay or a Woodpecker visit my garden….

    Reply
    1. Bug Woman Post author

      Hi Veronica, I think that I get the woodpeckers and jays because Coldfall Wood is so close….I’m finding that the local geography and the weather has almost as much impact on who turns up as what I feed. I love how everybody’s garden seems to attact a slightly different audience….

      Reply
  5. Gubbinal

    You have inspired me to “up” my game when it comes to my local birds. I’ve ordered a bird bath and I’ve got some hulled sunflower seeds and suet balls. Thank you for all of the helpful information.

    Reply
    1. Bug Woman Post author

      That’s really exciting, Gubbinal! I look forward to hearing how the birds enjoy their new gourmet kitchen and spa 🙂 And perfect timing too, what with the nesting season coming on and the birds needing all the help they can get….

      Reply

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