Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
See the tabs below for answers to some frequently asked questions on garden birds, baby birds, magpies and avian influenza. Also included are some common questions in relation to accessing your membership account.
Got a question?
See the tabs below for answers to some frequently asked questions on garden birds, baby birds, magpies and avian influenza. Also included are some common questions in relation to accessing your membership account.
There is no single answer to this – each different food type has advantages and disadvantages and will attract a different mix of species to your garden. The golden rule is that a diversity of food types will give you a diversity of bird species.
The two bird foods we tend to recommend first are peanuts and sunflower hearts – they’re both eaten by a variety of species, have high protein and calorie contents, and are readily available in most shops.
See the bottom half of this page for a summary of the different bird foods you can provide, their respective advantages and disadvantages, and a few tips specific to each type of food.
The time of year that the birds really need you to put out food in your garden is during the winter months (roughly November-March). During these months the natural food sources of fruit, berries, nuts and seeds have been depleted, and there are few invertebrates active and available. Furthermore, the weather is cold meaning small birds have to use more energy to stay warm, and the days are shorter meaning there’s less time to find food to recoup lost energy.
That being said, it’s perfectly fine to feed them all year round if you want. During the summer months adults have to feed themselves and their chicks. If there’s food in your garden they will feed themselves on that, and that gives them more time and energy to find protein-rich foods for their chicks. It’s best to avoid fat/suet-based products during the spring and summer months, but do put out mealworms, peanuts and sunflower seeds.
In general, you should put your feeders within a metre or two of a tree or hedge. Our common garden bird species are reluctant to come into open spaces as they’re vulnerable to predation from Sparrowhawks and various mammal predators, so they like to know there’s some shelter (i.e. vegetation) nearby that they can escape into if a predator appears.
This is why the hedgerows in the Irish countryside are so important for many of our birds – it gives them a network of shelter where they feel safe, and also provides them with the berries, seeds and invertebrates they need to feed on. If you want to make your garden more suitable for birds and wildlife, see our ‘Gardening for Wildlife’ section here.
Obviously, you want to get the benefit of seeing activity at your feeders too, so try and find that sweet spot where they’re placed close to vegetation but also in view from your window too!
At certain times of the year birds will be less reliant on your garden. Things get very quiet in gardens for a few weeks in the autumn – the weather isn’t too cold yet and there’s a huge abundance of food in the wider countryside – berries, seeds, nuts, fruit and invertebrates. So, in September, October and November the birds are spoiled for choice! So don’t panic if your garden is very quiet until late November. Similarly, in the late spring and summer birds disperse around the countryside to claim a territory and find a mate, so there will be fewer birds in the general vicinity of your garden at that time of year too – though you’ll have some local regulars who should continue to appear!
See also the question above about where to place the feeders in your garden – if you’re not getting many birds in the winter then it might be down to whereabouts you’ve placed your feeders.
Some species are certainly more dominant at feeders than others – especially the larger species like Magpies, Rooks and Jackdaws, Starlings too, and even the bigger of the ‘small’ birds such as Greenfinches and House Sparrows. Generally, the other smaller species don’t avoid feeders as a result, but they do change their behaviour – they’ll grab some food quickly and go rather than hang around, or they’ll visit your garden earlier and later in the day to get food and avoid the larger species in the process.
If you want to ameliorate things further, the best thing to do is to provide more feeders in a variety of locations, allowing the smaller birds to visit the less-busy feeder(s) throughout the day. It’s better to have two half-full feeders in different parts of the garden, than one large and full feeder in one location as the latter will mean all birds have to visit the same location and will end up arguing with each other!
If your problem is with members of the crow family, some people use squirrel-proof feeders to prevent them accessing food, or tie two hanging baskets around the feeder creating a similar ‘dome’ that larger birds can’t get into.
Because birds congregate in high numbers at bird feeders, there’s potential for the transmission of some bacteria, parasites and other infections. To avoid this, be sure to clean all feeders and water dishes every 1-2 weeks with a veterinary disinfectant or mild bleach (5%) solution. Give the feeders a good scrub, a thorough rinse and allow them to air dry completely before using them again. It’s also worthwhile to switch the location of your feeders from time to time, so that there isn’t a build of droppings in any one location, and to spread your feeders around the garden so birds aren’t all coming together at one location.
Though most of the bacteria and parasites that might affect birds have little impact on humans, it’s important to wash your hands properly after touching and cleaning your feeders – just to be sure!
Rats are present in almost all habitats in Ireland. This generally isn’t a problem until they come close to houses and people. Sometimes rats are attracted to gardens where birds are being fed, so the key to stopping this is to remove what’s attracting them! What’s attracting them is the food, but more specifically the food on the ground. If you can stop your food spillage problem, you’ll stop your rat problem.
Solutions include switching to foods that don’t spill as much (e.g. peanuts), using bird tables where food is out of reach from the ground, or using hanging bird feeders that catch any food that might otherwise be spilled. You can get creative with this by attaching a plastic plate to the base of your feeder to catch any falling seed.
If your feeders are over hard ground its worthwhile cleaning up any spillage on a daily basis too.
This is when the birds really need you! A diversity of foods will allow you to help a diversity of species. High calorie foods like fatballs, suet blocks, peanuts and sunflower seeds are all great. Put the food in multiple locations – in different feeders, but also some on the ground (or roof or on top of a wall to keep away from cats/rats) for species that don’t like hanging from feeders.
One of the most important things during cold weather is to put out fresh water. The icy conditions mean natural water sources might be frozen over, so your birds will need somewhere to drink and wash themselves. Keep an eye throughout the day to make sure the water you put out hasn’t frozen over and top it up with fresh water each day.
It should be kept in mind that the majority of baby birds found outside the nest are not in distress or in need of help. It is not unusual for a baby bird to leave the nest before it is fully capable of flight. For more information – Click Here.
Frequently asked questions about bird nestboxes and putting them up in your garden.
That depends on the type of nestbox you have. If you have a ‘traditional’ type of nestbox then it depends on the size of the entrance hole: Blue Tit and Coal Tit will use nestboxes with a 25mm diameter hole, Great Tit and Tree Sparrow will use it if it has a hole of 28mm and House Sparrows use nestboxes with entrances of 32mm diameter. House Sparrows will also used ‘terraced’ nestboxes – which are essentially two or three nestboxes joined together. Starlings will use nestboxes if they have an entrance of 45mm and are around 25-30% bigger than the average nestbox.
If you have an open-fronted nestbox then it might attract Blackbirds, Robins or Wrens to nest. Blackbirds require a mostly-open front, Robins are okay with something half open, and Wrens will use something a bit more closed up.
In addition to the ‘traditional’ style of nestbox there are specialist nestboxes available for species like Treecreeper, Jackdaw, Barn Owl, Kestrel, Grey Wagtail, Dipper, Swallow, House Martin and Swift.
Many people put their nestboxes up too high – really you want it 2-4m off the ground if it’s a nestbox with a hole. Something around 2m up should be fine once there’s no way for cats to get near it. The exception is for open-fronted nestboxes for Robins, Wrens and Blackbirds which should be lower than 2m but amongst dense vegetation and somewhere cats and other predators won’t easily see or access it.
If you’re attaching it to a tree, don’t drill or nail it as this will damage the tree, but instead use a wire strap wrapped around the tree.
Firstly, make sure it’s facing a direction where it’s not going to bear the brunt of wind, rain or strong sunshine – facing between north and south-east is usually best, though there’s some flexibility here if it’s in a sheltered corner of the garden/house. Tilt the box forward slightly so any rain will run off the top, and a nestbox with some small holes for drainage in the bottom are preferable too – just in case.
After that, somewhere with some surrounding vegetation (ivy, brambles, shrubs, trees) is ideal, but make sure the birds have a clear flight path to access the nestbox hole. For Starlings and House Sparrows (and occasionally other species), boxes placed under the eaves of your house or shed should work well.
Lastly – don’t put your nestbox beside where you feed your birds as any birds looking to nest will waste a lot of energy trying to fend off intruders into their territory!
The best way to tell if your nestbox is being used is to keep a watchful eye from as far away as possible. If you’re standing too close, the parent birds won’t want to give away the location of their nest to a potential predator (i.e. you!), so they won’t fly in. If you open the nestbox there’s a risk that the adults will abandon it – this can happen during nest construction, egg incubation and even chick raising, so don’t risk it! You should never take down a nestbox during the breeding season (i.e. start March – end September) as there may be birds using it without you knowing!
There are a variety of nestbox cameras on the market which allow you to see whats happening in your nestbox without disturbing the birds. See the BirdWatch Ireland shop here for some nextbox cameras.
It often takes a year or two before a nestbox is used, so don’t panic if there aren’t birds nesting in it straight away. If you’ve picked a good location for it then you’re better off leaving it where it is rather than moving it around from year to year. The longer it is in one place, the more the birds get used to it and are more likely to use it down the line. If it hasn’t been used after two years, then it might be worth changing location. Never move a nestbox during the breeding season (start of March to end of September) as there might be birds using it without you realising it!
During the cold winter months, many garden bird species will use nestboxes as somewhere to roost and shelter for the night, so it’s worth leaving your box out all year round.
There’s a variety of more specialist nestboxes available for species of farmland and river habitats, many of which are available here on the BirdWatch Ireland shop.
Treecreepers will use a special sloped nestbox design that mimics a crevice along the trunk of a tree where they would naturally nest. Swallows will use artificial nest cups when placed under the eaves of a house or inside a shed or porch, and there’s a slightly different design for House Martins for the outside of buildings too. If you have a river with Dippers or Grey Wagtails, there’s a custom nestbox that can be attached to bridges to give them somewhere to nest.
Swifts are a species declining in large part due to loss of nest sites in buildings, but by installing and incorporating nestboxes into buildings in towns and cities we can halt their decline. We’ve produced a comprehensive guide to saving swifts which can be downloaded here.
If you have Barn Owls or Kestrels in your area, there are specially designed nestboxes you can provide for these species, further information for which is freely available online.
There’s an old proverb that says something along the lines of “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the second best time is now!” and the same can be said for nestboxes. If you can get them up in March there’s still a good chance they’ll be used that year, but the further in advance of spring the better.
If you put it up in the middle of the nesting season (summer months) it’s unlikely to be used until the following year as birds will have already established territories and found nesting sites. By putting it up well in advance of the following breeding season you’re giving your local birds a chance to find it, get used to it and check it out ahead of the following year. Also, small birds such as Wrens will often roost (i.e. sleep) in nestboxes during cold winter nights, as somewhere warm and sheltered – so it’s not all about nesting when it comes to nestboxes!
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Trichomoniasis is the condition caused by Trichomonas gallinae – a protozoan (unicellular) parasite. This parasite has been around for a long time – causing ‘canker’ in pigeons and doves, ‘frounce’ in birds of prey, and is even though to have been a problem for the dinosaurs.
In recent years it has been seen to cause disease in finches – mostly Greenfinch, Chaffinch and Goldfinch. It has been speculated that the increase in the number of pigeons in gardens brought them into closer proximity with finches than they otherwise would have, providing the opportunity for the parasite to transfer and adapt to a new host (i.e. finches). Following initial reports from the UK in 2005, it has established itself in finch populations across Ireland and many European countries. There is no practical treatment for wild birds with trichomoniasis and it nearly always proves fatal within a couple of weeks.
There is no risk to humans, though we always recommend washing your hands after handling and cleaning feeders.
The birds most susceptible to trichomoniasis are Greenfinches and Chaffinches, though other species (particularly finch species) may also be affected.
The parasite makes it difficult for birds to eat, initially leading to difficulty swallowing but as birds struggle to eat they will become colder and less energetic, with symptoms worsening over several days. Infected birds will be inclined to fluff up their feathers more and be slower than other birds to fly away when disturbed. They often have bits of food stuck around their bill. Unfortunately the bird will eventually succumb to the infection, so the best thing to do is minimise the risk of other birds getting sick.
See below for an image of a Greenfinch with noticeable signs of trichomoniasis.
Unfortunately there is no practical treatment for wild birds. Though medicines do exist for captive birds infected with the parasite, there’s no way to ensure a wild bird receives a suitable dose. Providing the medicine in an uncontrolled way (i.e. in a garden) would also likely create the conditions for a resistant strain of the parasite to evolve and develop, with disastrous consequences for wild bird populations.
If you see a bird in your garden that is likely infected with trichomoniasis, the best thing to do is to remove all feeders and water dishes. They should be cleaned thoroughly with a suitable disinfectant or mild bleach solution (5-10% solution), rinsed and allowed to air dry. The consensus amongst bird conservation experts is that it’s best to then stop feeding or providing water in your garden for two to three weeks. This allows the birds that normally congregate in your garden to disperse more widely in the countryside and means they are less likely to encounter a sick bird. If you keep feeding, you’re attracting the sick bird, other infected birds not yet showing symptoms, and healthy birds, into close proximity, and this will undoubtedly cause the rest of the flock to become infected.
We realise it may seem counterproductive to stop feeding your garden birds completely, but while removing feeders and water may have a temporary and minor negative effect, the birds will die if they contract trichomoniasis, so the further spread of the infection should be avoided at all costs.
After the two weeks are up, gradually reintroduce your feeders one at at time every few days, keeping an eye out for any more sick birds. It’s best to avoid putting out water for another few weeks.
The parasite is transmitted between birds via their saliva, typically at shared food and water sources. It cannot live long outside a host, but can persist longer in damp conditions.
To minimise the spread of infection it is important to clean all feeders and water dishes thoroughly on a regular basis (i.e. at least every two weeks). Feeders should be cleaned with a suitable disinfectant or mild bleach solution (5-10% solution), rinsed thoroughly and allowed to air dry fully before being used again. If you have ‘spare’ feeders it can be good to rotate these when cleaning (i.e. use different feeders every two weeks, giving you plenty of time to clean and dry them).
Other tips include:
Yes – trichomoniasis has had a very devastating impact on Ireland’s Greenfinch population in a few short years.
The Irish Garden Bird Survey has proven important in documenting their decline since trichomoniasis arrived. In the 1990’s and early 2000’s Greenfinches were recorded in around 90% of Irish gardens each winter. Since winter 2008/09 their numbers have fallen considerably and by winters 2016/17 and 2017/18 they were only in 70% of gardens. The average size of flocks also dropped considerably, from peak counts of 7 birds visiting gardens each winter in the late 1990’s, to average peak counts of only 3 birds in recent years. The results of last year’s (2018/19) Irish Garden Bird Survey will be published soon, but Greenfinch fell to their lowest ever levels nationwide.
The Irish breeding population of Greenfinches is monitored each summer through the Countryside Bird Survey and Greenfinch are now at around half the levels they were when the survey began in the late 1990’s.
The dramatic declines seen in Irish Greenfinches is reflected in similar declines in the UK and Europe, where trichomoniasis has taken hold. Other finch species, most notably Chaffinch and Goldfinch also suffer from this infection. Chaffinch numbers in the UK took a brief dip when trichomoniasis initially appeared, but they have largely recovered since. Goldfinch numbers have been on the rise for the last two decades in Ireland and further afield, and thankfully trichomoniasis has done little to slow that increase.
Each year we run the ‘Irish Garden Bird Survey‘ as a way to monitor the health and status of Ireland’s garden birds. The survey runs from December to February each winter and this year (2019/20) we are asking participants to record whether or not they noticed any finches in their garden that may have been suffering from trichomoniasis. From a scientific point of view, it’s important that we hear what gardens didn’t have sick finches, as well as those that did, to build an accurate picture of the extent of the problem.
If you haven’t taken part in the Irish Garden Bird Survey before, please consider doing so this year. The survey is easy, very enjoyable, and provides us with really important information to monitor and protect our favourite birds. The Irish Garden Bird Survey page on our website has all the details about taking part – this years survey starts on Monday 2nd December 2019.