It’s more important than ever to feed garden birds during autumn and winter. Birds that migrate need energy for the journey they’re about to make, and those that remain will benefit from a reliable source of food. And when the really cold weather arrives, birds need high energy foods to survive the conditions.
As well as knowing that we’re helping wildlife, feeding garden birds also brings the pleasure of seeing different species up close. It can even attract those we haven’t seen before to visit, and keep coming back to, our outdoor spaces.
To bring a wide variety of birds to the garden, and keep them healthy, it’s important to feed the right foods – and in the right way. So we enjoyed seeing our favourite gardener, Monty Don, sharing his tips on feeding birds over winter on Gardeners’ World.
Find more on how to attract birds into your garden in our dedicated feature, and for Monty’s advice, just scroll down.
How to feed garden birds in winter: Monty Don’s top tips
1. Monty starts feeding birds once autumn begins. Like the idea of feeding birds year round? No problem! It can be a great project for those of us with gardens smaller than Monty’s that don’t offer such varied and plentiful sources of nourishment.
Birds need food in spring and summer, too, and food shortages can occur. What you feed then will be different, though, as birds’ requirements at other times of the year aren’t the same as those in autumn and winter.
2. Monty makes use of a table that has plants on it at other times of the year as a bird feeding surface when autumn arrives. But that’s only one of the places he provides for his winged diners. It’s important to create different feeding locations in the garden to suit different birds, Monty says.
3. Monty feeds seeds, nuts and fats to birds over winter. He says the single best food is sunflower seeds. These are available in two forms. Sunflower seeds with the husks removed are preferred by some birds, including blackbirds, Monty explains.
Unhulled sunflower seeds can be provided for birds that have beaks adapted for taking the husks off, Monty says.
Grown sunflowers this year? Don’t cut them back but leave them for the birds to take the seed from, Monty advises.
4. Monty also feeds niger (or nyjer) seeds. These are loved by finches, he says, and house sparrows, siskins, and tits enjoy them, too. The gardening guru sprinkles them on a log, which allows little birds that can get their beaks into the crevices to enjoy the seeds.
As an alternative, look out for niger seed feeders, which are made to hold the tiny seeds. A design with a tray at the bottom will save the fallen seed so small birds can eat it. Bigger birds like pigeons can reap the benefit if it falls, and you may want to ensure it’s the smaller birds who win out over this particular food source.
5. Peanuts are also a favourite bird food that Monty offers over winter, bringing tits and even the great spotted woodpecker to his garden (see below). He puts them into specially designed feeders and hangs them up. Don’t position these in the open, Monty warns. They should be located in the shade of a tree or shrub. If you have a garden wall, it’s an ideal hanging spot, Monty says. The birds like it, and the food stays clear of rats and squirrels.
Make sure any peanuts you feed are high quality bird food. Salted and dry roasted peanuts should never be fed to birds.
6. Monty also recommends buying dried mealworms to feed to birds. He says they’re a favourite of robins and blackbirds, and also starlings.
7. High calorie food is important for birds in the cold months of the year, and you can provide this as fat slabs or fat balls, Monty advises. There are specially designed cages for the slabs, which Monty hangs, and sees long-tailed tits take advantage of.
The containers for fat balls can be positioned on a table or hung, Monty says, and he chooses to hang them on the wall.
8. What else is vital for birds over autumn and winter? A source of fresh water, Monty says, for both drinking and washing themselves. Make sure you break up the ice when freezing weather comes.
9. Good hygiene is also essential when you’re feeding garden birds. The RSPCA recommends a weekly clean of feeders, and that water containers should be cleaned daily and dried before refilling. If you have bird table, the RSPB’s advice is to brush off debris when you put out fresh food, and to clean it with a mild disinfectant solution every few weeks.