Our feathered friends have made it through the worst of the weather and with spring peeking around the corner, the lengthening daylight switches songbirds into breeding mode. Their priorities urgently turn from keeping cosy to building a nest and raising a family. As a nature lover you want what is best for your garden birds, you may even want to feed them.
Perhaps the most noticeable evidence of birds getting geared up for the new mating season is the increase in birdsong and the flurry in activity. Male birds sing to attract a partner, as well as defend their territory, and once they have paired up the expectant parents will focus all their energy on nest building and getting ready for their chicks. The increase in activity might make you consider putting out some bird feeders, but what do you feed garden birds?
This means that whilst they often need more food to help survive the winter, spring and summer are important times for feeding as baby birds during bird breeding season they have insatiable appetites and busy parents need their energy.
As a nation of wildlife lovers, it’s clear we want the best for our birds. And with over 60% of the UK population who regularly feed their birds – how do we ensure that what we feed garden birds will keep them in tip top condition?
As the largest wildlife conservation charity in Europe, we at the RSPB wax lyrically about giving garden birds the right diet. We make sure that the bird food we produce, or has our logo on, has been tried and tested and we know what goes into every batch. We never promote any kind of bird food unless we know it is packed full of nutrients and safe to eat.
Not all bird food is created equal and some can be more ‘junk food’ than ‘top nosh’. With so many different outlets selling bird food, there are some common pitfalls to avoid. Remember to check the labels and use this guide to aid you.
Mix It Up
Seed mixes are the most common bird food available but with a dazzling array of products, blends and all boasting different benefits – how can you tell if your birds will go gaga for your grains? Bird food should be split into different combinations for feeders, for bird tables and for birds which feed on the ground. A nutritious mix should contain plenty of sunflower hearts, naked oats, sunflower seed, millet, canary seed and kibbled maize.
Watch out for: Avoid bird food mixtures with large amounts of wheat, barley grains, split peas, beans, red dari, oilseed rape, dried rice or lentils. These are added to some cheaper seed mixes to bulk them up but only attract the larger birds such as pigeons and doves and will be ignored by most other birds.
Don’t worry about seasonal mixes or specific food for certain birds – the right food will attract a diverse range of birds all year round. Any mixture containing colourful biscuit pieces should also be avoided as these are dog biscuits!
Make it Full Fat
High-energy fatty foods such as suet balls or cakes are essential during the cold weather to keep up fat reserves to survive the frosty nights. However, you don’t have to shy away from them in later months as high-quality suet won’t melt – even in the summer. Super suet cakes and bars are easy to crumble onto bird tables without getting messy fingers, whilst super suet fat balls are a consistent hit all round and fit nicely into suet fat ball feeders.
Most of the tits, including coal and great tits, love hanging from suet-filled coconut shells, whilst robins and blackbirds go crazy for cakes. As an added bonus, if you buy the balls and cakes with dried mealworms – that extra protein is perfect for helping to replenish the busy and tired parents as they collect fresh foods for their chicks.
Watch out for: In some suet, chalk is used as a cheap filler and marketed as extra calcium for birds to help with egg stability – however there is no evidence that more calcium is needed for wild birds in addition to their natural diet. Birds are likely to get enough calcium in their diet and there is concern that added calcium may be harmful by causing hypercalcemia.
Suet balls should be made with as clean fat as possible. They should be light in colour, have little scent and not held together by edible glue. A lot of suet balls are very hard which makes them difficult for birds to eat. Avoid balls wrapped up in mesh bags as little beaks and feet can get caught in them.
Go Nuts for Peanuts
Siskins, tits and nuthatches love peanuts but make sure they’re fed from a stainless-steel mesh feeder. This will help stop squirrels and woodpeckers from destroying the feeder to get to the nuts! Whole loose peanuts can also be a potential choking hazard to young fledglings starting to feed.
Watch out for: Peanuts are susceptible to aflatoxins – a mould which can be toxic to birds. There are protective laws in place which say that peanuts may only have tiny amounts of aflatoxin if they’re for birds, but we believe that peanuts should have no detectable aflatoxins just to be safe. Never give dry roasted or salted nuts.
Above and Beyond
Like any other grown product, bird food can have an impact on the environment. Some mixes say they contain vegetable oil which may in fact be palm oil. This is where checking the label or even speaking to the bird food suppliers can help when thinking about what to feed your garden birds.
Another way is through certification; at the RSPB over 90% of our bird food seeds are Fair to Nature. Fair to Nature farms are where a premium is paid to farmers to make sure that they manage a minimum of 10% of their farmland for conservation. Fair to Nature farmers work hard to grow pollen and nurture habitats for pollinating insects, fields of food crops for wild birds or grassy meadows surrounded by hedges and woodland.
Fair to Nature farmers only cut the hedges on their farms every third year to protect nesting habitats and food sources such as wild berries. The hedges also provide essential shelter for animals such as the hazel dormouse, bank vole, harvest mouse and hedgehogs. It’s an extra layer of protection to make sure that the food you’re buying for your birds – will also protect the wider environment.
Visit the RSPB site for more information.