Feathered friends

Birds can bring huge rewards to the gardener, from their bright colours and cheery songs, to their penchant for eating slugs and aphids. There are three main things you can do to attract birds into your garden: feed them, give them somewhere to live and something to drink/wash in.

Birds can also be pests, damaging fruits, pecking up seedlings and distributing unwanted seeds around your garden. However, these relatively minor offences can be mitigated by the smart use of netting, bird scarers (over crops) and regular weeding.

Feed them

There are two ways you can feed birds; natural sources and artificial sources.

Providing natural sources of food for birds means growing plants in your garden which provide fruits for the birds to eat and making sure you don’t eradicate all the insects they also find tasty to eat. Here are some examples of plants which can provide great bird food, and the types of insects they also like to eat:


  • Rowan (Sorbus spp.)
  • Euonymus europeaus
  • Bramble/blackberries (Rubus spp.)
  • Thistles (Carlina spp.)
  • Groundsel (Senencio vulgaris)
  • Dandelions (Taraxacum officinale)
  • Dock (Rumex spp.)
  • Elders (Sambucus spp.)
  • Yew (Taxus spp.)
  • Holly (Ilex spp.
  • Apple trees (Malus spp.)
  • Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.)
  • Informal hedging (preferably with a variety of native species)


  • Ants
  • Beetles
  • Spiders
  • Millipedes
  • Slugs
  • Snails
  • Earthworms

Providing artificial sources of food is useful for a smaller garden, to provide a wider range of food and for the months where there are fewer natural sources of food available. This involves providing feeding stations for the birds, be these on the ground, on a table or hanging (to suit the different ways in which birds like to feed). If you are feeding from the ground be aware that this can also attract cats, dogs, rats, mice, hedgehogs and other animals which may, firstly, get to the food before the birds and, secondly, might find feeding birds to be a good food source themselves! Generally a feeding table is a better bet.

Hanging feeders can be hung in trees or on specialist poles with hooks on them. Specially protected peanut bird feeders can be purchased to protect the peanuts from squirrels, although most can’t withstand the attentions of a very determined squirrel! Generally speaking the bigger the feeder the better, as you won’t have to refill it as often, however this runs the risk of the food getting damp and becoming mouldy, which isn’t good for the birds or fun to clean out.

All feeders and tables should be brushed regularly and old food removed as bacteria can quickly spread and cause infections amongst the birds using the feeders. They should all be disinfected at least 4 times a year.

Keep the feeders topped up all year round. Your local birds will become reliant upon it, so you don’t want them to go hungry because you haven’t refilled their food supply.

A wide variety of food is available for bird feeders. Many are now available as ‘no mess’ or ‘no grow’ formulas, whereby the seeds have been sterilised or the husks removed, so they will not germinate if they fall onto your borders or lawn. Here’s an overview of the different types of food available and the birds you can attract with it:

  • Peanuts – blue tits, coal tits, siskins and nuthatches
  • Sunflower seeds/hearts – blue tits, coal tits, greenfinches and bullfinches
  • Cereals (eg rolled oats or corn) – woodpigeons
  • Raisins/sultanas and berries – blackbirds and thrushes
  • Nyger/nyjer/niger seeds – finches
  • Fat products (eg fat balls, suit cakes, lard cakes) – tits, starlings, nuthatches, treecreepers, goldcrests and great spotted woodpeckers
  • Mealworms/waxworms – robins, dunnocks, wrens, blackbirds and tits
  • Household food scraps – blackbirds
  • Meaty tinned dog or cat food (though beware as this can attract cats to bird feeding areas) – blackbirds
  • Cooked rice (white or brown)
  • Grated mild cheese – robins, wrens and dunnocks

Seed mixes are a great option as they provide a range of nutrition appealing to different birds. Even better, some also contain insects or fatty substances to add more goodness to the mix.

There are a few things which shouldn’t be fed to birds:

  • Polyunsaturated margarine or vegetable oils
  • Dry dog food
  • Milk
  • Coconut milk/water or dessicated coconut
  • Mouldy or stale food
  • Cooked porridge oats
  • Anything with salt added

Somewhere to live

Again, you have the choice between a natural and an artificial solution here! These are some natural sources of nesting sites you can provide for birds:

  • Hedges – the less clipped and informal the better!
  • Thick masses of ivy (Hedera spp.) growing up a wall.
  • Elders (Sambucus spp.)
  • Cotoneaster spp.
  • Honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.) – prune it to get dense growth.
  • Oak (Quercus spp.)

If you want a neatly pruned, ivy-free, formal garden then you ‘ll be better off providing artificial nesting sites. If your garden has plenty of natural places for birds to nest, you can always add to them with a nest box or two.

Nest boxes come in many different designs to suit different styles, sites and personal (bird and gardener) tastes. Mostly these are made of wood, which is warm, dry and breathable, although increasingly they are available from other specialist materials. Some even come with a video camera so you can watch your brood growing! If you have woodpeckers locally then most boxes come with a metal plate to surround the entrance hole, so the woodpecker can’t peck through it to get to the chicks.

Where you site your nest box is an important consideration. They should be sheltered from wind, rain and strong sunlight, out of the reach of predators (particularly cats), where you can see it (you don’t want to miss that first fledgling going out into the world!) and easy to get to to clean out annually once the birds have all flown the nest.

If you find your box isn’t used then try moving it a little over the winter – moving it just a short way away can make all the difference to birds.

There are alternative solutions to nest boxes:

  • A bundle of branches (eg of willow or hazel) loosely tied together and hung from a wall or fence can provide a nesting site.
  • Encourage house martins to nest by keeping a wet, muddy puddle going even in dry weather, so they can use the mud to build their nests in the eaves of your house.

Something to drink/wash in

Although birds don’t drink in large quantities (particularly those who obtain some moisture from their food, such as berries and insects) they do still need a supply of clean water. As well as drinking from it they will also use it to bathe, which dampens their feathers and loosens dirt to make it easier for them to preen.

Providing them with a water supply can be done in many different forms. Plastic plant pot saucers with a shallow stone in the middle (to weigh them down and give the birds something to stand on) or an upturned dustbin lid make perfect water supplies. Alternatively you can buy bird baths, use a shallow half barrel or create a pond with sloping sides. So long as it has rough edges for them to grip onto, shallow areas for them to stand in and a depth of 2.5cm to 10cm maximum, it should be suitable.

The water supply should be placed so that the bird has good visibility all around them when bathing, so they can spot any predators (such as cats) approaching. You may find that you need to move the bath around to find a place that suits your birds, or place several in different spots and see which are used (this is a good tactic with cheap solutions such as plastic plant pot saucers).

The water should be refreshed regularly to keep it clean and the bath scrubbed clean when any algae starts to grow on it. Try to prevent it icing over either by floating a small rubber ball in it, putting a sheet of polythene in it so you can lift out the ice and replace with water, or by using hot water to melt the ice. Never use chemicals to prevent it freezing.

You should always keep deep water sources, such as water barrels, securely covered to prevent birds drowning in them, particularly over the summer when other water sources might be scarce.