Birds are always on the go, and always hungry, so in this post we take a look at how you can help migrants before they leave, and how to attract those incoming birds, making sure your feeders are visited all year round.
September and October are the best time of year to get planning ahead – if you have the space, there are many species of shrub, bush and tree you can plant, ensuring that returning birds and your residents will come to you first, eventually learning (a process called imprinting) that you have the best menu around.
Golden leaves and misty mornings
After the bounties of summer, waning food sources are dangerous for birds. What they need now, to sustain their energy for any long-distance migration and to help store fat to prepare for possible harsh winters, are much-needed calories. This means foods high in fat and oil content. Most of the birds that come to our gardens and parks are generalist feeders, with a few specialists thrown in. You’ll need to provide plenty of seeds and grains, as well as fruit and insects if you can – dried or fresh mealworms are always a winner with robins and blackbirds. All shop bought seed mixes will contain at least two of the items we list below.
What they need now, to sustain their energy for any long-distance migration and to help store fat to prepare for possible harsh winters, are much-needed calories.
Dinner is served
Sunflower seeds – possibly the best! This is a bestseller for practically all of the birds you’d see in your yard, and even those that don’t care for it much will still sample it if food is scarce. Apart from various vitamins and minerals, the evenly split high fibre and fat content with a lower but still impressive protein content make this seed a valuable asset to any feeder. All of the tit species, sparrows, thrushes, finches, pigeons and doves, magpies, nuthatches and woodpeckers – everybody loves sunflower seeds. Striped ones are good, but black oil sunflower seeds are the best – they have a higher oil content and thinner shells, making it easier for smaller birds to crack.
Don’t forget that not all birds fly to feeders, many ground-feeding birds such as grouse, quail, and pheasants will gulp down any spilled seeds. Sunflower seeds are also best fed on platform feeders, as they are often too large for mesh feeders.
Nyjer seeds – food of the gods for finches. This seed comes from an African daisy, mostly located in Nigeria, and in 1998 it was trademarked as Nyjer (NYE-jerr) seed to make sure there was no confusion over the pronunciation. This oilseed is particularly useful for regenerating feathers during the annual autumn and spring moults. Goldfinches will heartily eat Nyjer seed all day long, as will siskins, serins, and redpolls, but other birds such as sparrows, buntings, doves, and juncos will feast on it too.
It can be quite expensive, and feel free to have nothing but Nyjer in one or two feeders, but stirring a few handfuls in with your regular shop-bought bird seed mix will be appreciated by all. You can find purpose made Nyjer feeders, but platform feeders work just as well.
Nuts – this long-lasting food is a must for all bird food aficionados. You may have seen the occasional jay swooping onto the leaf covered floor of a wood, only to lift off again quickly and disappear into the branches. Jays stash acorns whenever they can. Autumn is Black Friday for many hoarding birds, and providing unseasoned and raw nuts – almonds, Brazil, beech, macadamia, hickory, pine and walnuts – will entice a huge range of birds who often confine themselves to shadowed woodland. Woodpeckers, chickadees, towhees, wrens, nuthatches, and many corvids can’t resist a fattening, chunky, nut. Smaller birds can struggle with larger nuts, so it’s fine to put out peanut butter, too.
Nuts are suited to both platform and mesh or tube feeders, just make sure the holes are big enough for some of those larger beaks.
Suet – messy! But worth it. Some people like to make their own, but if the idea of squishing fat through your fingers makes you run for the hills, then you can buy all manner of suet cakes, balls, slabs, heart-shaped, flower-shaped, and of course bird-shaped suet at most supermarkets or corner stores. You’ll find this rendered animal fat delicacy an absolute hit with so many birds. It is usually quite firm and embedded with many types of seed, nut, grain and fruit pieces, but can also be soft and smeared straight onto tree bark and fence posts for shy birds like the nuthatch or woodpecker. Remember, though, this food is great in the colder months, but on warm days it will melt, and dripping fat on your lawn isn’t exactly desirable.
Suet mesh bags are good for smaller birds such as tits and wrens, but not that great for larger birds, whose feet may get trapped. If you don’t want to turn your garden into a greasy rodent-magnet, this food is best used in a suet feeder or a platform feeder, and in the shade, just in case.
From your kitchen cupboard – apples (with seeds removed) and peeled bananas cut in half and lengthways will lure blackbirds, grosbeaks, buntings, and wrens, among many others. Cooked plain pasta and rice is loved by pigeons and quails, and crushed up cooked eggshells help replenish the calcium during egg-laying preparation for all birds. Bluebirds, tanagers, waxwings and many other fruit-eating birds adore soaked raisins, whilst pumpkin, squash, and melon seeds will get snaffled in minutes by starlings and blue tits. Even hard cheese, very low in lactose, is a favourite for robins. Your kitchen holds tempting secrets at the backs of those cupboards and in that salad drawer. Expect to see a diverse range of species literally flock to your feeder to dine on such a buffet.
If you have a garden, one of the best things you can do with it is to fill it with plants that birds love. In just a few months you will see a world of difference in visits and birds will learn where the best restaurant in town is pretty fast, and will keep coming back year after year.
There are so many types of flower, tree and shrub out there that will appeal, just remember to check the suitability to your climate, soil type, and how much sun you need, or don’t, depending on the plant. Here are some examples of perfect bird attractants.
If you have a garden, one of the best things you can do with it is to fill it with plants that birds love.
- Holly – song thrushes, redwings and fieldfares will strip a holly tree bare in no time, so beloved are those blood-red berries in winter. Whilst only the female plants produce the berries, of course you’re going to need a male one nearby for pollination.
- Hawthorn – as well as thrushes, chaffinches, starlings and greenfinches love the berries, and the leaves are the favourite foodstuff of many types of moth, providing caterpillars for baby birds in spring. It is also an excellent border plant, the thorny boughs keeping out unwelcome visitors, and the thick foliage is superb for roosting birds.
- Teasel – known as an architectural plant, the seed heads are magnets for goldfinches and buntings in the autumn through to December.
- Echinacea – the long-lasting spring and summer blooms of this hardy perennial attract butterflies for insect-feeding birds, and the seeds are a firm favourite among all the songbirds.
- Cornflower – nearly wiped out by intensive agriculture, this beautiful azure flower is no longer considered the bane of cornfields, and is actively planted in roadside verges and wastelands, such is the allure of the nectar, sap and pollen for the world’s pollinators. Bullfinches and greenfinches are particularly fond of the seeds.
- Tubular flowers – for those of you lucky enough to live in countries with hummingbirds, make sure you plant brightly-coloured flowers; their sense of smell is not very keen, so they rely on colour as their food source indicator, with the colour red proving the most attractive. The tubes of columbine, lupins, foxgloves and petunias all hold a lot of nectar.
- Sunflowers – the seeds of this plant are like gold dust for a vast number of birds. I spent one wonderful July afternoon watching an adult and three newly fledged goldfinches pluck seeds from the bobbing head of a huge sunflower.
Remember, feeding birds is a good thing to do; well-fed birds will mean more surviving migration and winters. The more birds there are, the greater benefit. Just an example would be with mosquito levels rising: the more insect-feeding birds there are, the less need for chemicals to combat them, meaning our water supplies are less likely to be contaminated. But, also: take notice of how it makes you feel. Just doing something as simple as feeding the birds can do wonders for our mental health, so make sure to spend some time watching our avian allies enjoying your offerings, it truly is one of the most beneficial, low-cost activities we can do for them and for each other.