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Feeding Wildlife in the Garden

Bird tables: can provide a wonderful focal point for bird activity in your garden, and can hugely increase the total number of birds, and the number of species, that visit. But be careful that your kindness is combined with care: bird tables if badly situated or dirty can put birds at risk.

And remember a bird table can be as successful on a window box or window sill, so don’t imagine they are only for big gardens!

The right place for your bird table

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  • Place your bird table somewhere where you can see it clearly
  • But where it is not regularly disturbed by passers-by
  • Make sure birds have a good view from the table so that they can see approaching danger
  • But with a retreat such as a bush not too far away that they can dash into or use as a ‘staging post’ when approaching the table
  • Don’t position near a fence or any structure from which a cat could pounce
  • And move the position of the table occasionally if possible to reduce the risk of disease. Free-standing tables make this easier.

What is the ideal bird table?

Many garden centres, pet shops, and of course RSPB reserve shops sell bird tables. Usually they are wooden, and look quite rustic, but if a more unusual design would suit your garden, then you are free to experiment. The basic considerations are:

  • Aim for a table area of about 30cm x 50cm, so that the table is not too small (which will cause squabbles)
  • Your bird table needs to withstand being stood out in all weathers
  • Can your table be climbed easily by cats/foxes/rats? If your table is on a post, the straighter and smoother the post is, the more difficult it is for them to climb, although you can be innovative with bits of drainpipes or funnels half way up the post to thwart any climbing predator
  • Thatched tables look great but may be stripped by birds for nesting materials!
  • Tables which combine food and water compartments risk food tainting the water
  • The height of your bird table will depend somewhat on how high you can reach to replenish it, but aim for 150cm-180cm if possible
  • The table surface needs to be cleanable. Wood should be treated with a water-based wood preservative which should dry thoroughly before the table is used.

Feeding Garden Birds

About two thirds of all households feed their garden birds at some stage each year.

When to feed: It is now accepted practice to feed birds throughout the year – not just during the winter. Indeed, birds may be most in need of food in spring, just at the point where we are most likely to stop because we think it is getting warmer. By April and May, nights are often still freezing, but birds must begin to defend territories, spend much time singing or laying and incubating eggs, at the very time when there are no seeds and few insects available naturally. It is in late summer when your feeders will probably be most inactive.

There are some simple golden rules to ensure that your kindness is doing good rather than harm.

  1. You can be as inventive as you like with what you feed – but ALWAYS avoid salted food of any sort (chips, crisps, salted bacon, salted peanuts, plus desiccated coconut) as this can seriously dehydrate birds. And avoid feeding lose peanuts during the breeding season as this could possible become lodges in the mouths of chicks.
  2. Keep your feeding stations hygienic. Bird feeders bring lots of birds into contact with each other day after day – a great opportunity for disease to spread. Cleaning feeders at least weekly with boiling water or a special disinfectant). Move the position of feeders regularly. And don’t allow food to go off in the garden. And buy food only from reputable dealers – if peanuts (unsalted) aren’t fit for human consumption, then they are not fit for birds.
  3. Provide water as well as food – it is essential for feather maintenance as well as drinking.

What are the best foods?

Different birds eat different foods, which is why putting out a variety of foodstuffs will attract a wider range of species. Typical foods include:

  • Peanuts – good traditional food, best loved by the tit family but also taken by starlings, sparrows and greenfinches
  • Sunflower seeds – especially loved by greenfinches
  • Mealworms/ waxworms – not for the squeamish, live food is increasingly popular, good in the breeding season for robins, wrens, thrushes and many more
  • Nyjer/Niger Seeds – especially loved by goldfinches
  • Fat cake – tits, blackcap
  • Table seed (mixed corn/wheat/pinhead oats) – collared dove

Deterring unwelcome visitors

There are several visitors which are often unwelcome at feeders. All come because there is food on offer – some to eat the food you put out, some to try to catch the birds you want to attract.

  • Rats – most problems occur either with spilt seed that isn’t cleared up regularly, or ground feeders left out overnight. Solutions include attaching seed trays to the base of hanging feeders to catch much of that which is dropped, and bringing ground feeders in overnight
  • Squirrels – grey squirrels are highly adaptable, and finding a solution that they cannot crack can be hard. Good products are now available – either Perspex domes that fit over or under a feeder, or metal cages that fit around the feeder and let small birds in but keep squirrels out, and also larger birds such as feral pigeons, crows, magpies, wood pigeons
  • Cats – if it is your cat, or you can persuade your neighbour, attaching a bell to the cat’s collar is a god alarm for the birds; alternatively products are available which emit sounds designed to deter cats


Bird nestboxes: Typical nestboxes – the ones with the small round hole - provide substitutes for the natural holes in old trees which are often absent from gardens. But there are many other types of boxes that can be used, each with a particular design to encourage a particular species. And it’s not only birds - bats, dormice, hedgehogs and even insects can be attracted to boxes too.

Most birds will require a nestbox that is higher than 2 metres up to make them feel safe from predators, but shouldn’t be much higher than 5 metres – much will depend on where you can reach, for the box will need to be accessible in order for it to be cleaned out.

There are some birds, however, such as wrens and robins, that nest low down but well hidden in vegetation.

Where boxes are open to the elements, they should not face south or west which will put the young birds at risk of overheating in sunshine and will also face the prevailing winds. Anywhere between north and east is ideal. Lean the box slightly forward too, to lower the risk of rain dribbling or driving in.

Fixing nestboxes to trees.

If possible, avoid using nails, and affix instead with a loop of wire cushioned against the trunk with, eg, a hose pipe.

Clearing out nestboxes

It is best to clear out your nestbox each year, and the best time to do it is autumn. Sometimes you will find unhatched eggs or even the remains of youngsters. This is quite normal – birds try to produce as many young as possible, knowing that there will always be some losses due to weather or food shortages. Unhatched eggs can legally only be removed between October and January, and must be thrown away. Disinfect only with boiling water.

Boxes for other creatures

There are now nestboxes that can be bought – or made - for hedgehogs, bats, lacewings and bees. The key is understanding the needs of animals and then being creative!


'Information supplied by RSPB, August 2002'



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