Feeding Garden Birds FAQ

See the tabs below for answers to the most frequently asked questions we get about feeding garden birds and how both you and your local birds can get the best out of it! Below this FAQ we’ve also got information about what food to put out for birds in your garden.

If you have any further questions don’t hesitate to get in touch with us via the contact form here.

Feeding your garden birds

What food is best for feeding and attracting garden birds?

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.

What time of year should I put out food for birds?

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.

Where should I place the feeders in my garden?

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!

There are very few birds in my garden – where have they gone?

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.

What can I do if a species is ‘bullying’ another species at my 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.

How do I ensure good ‘feeder hygiene’ in my garden?

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!

How do I deter rats from my garden?

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.

What should I put out for my garden birds during cold weather, snow and frost?

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.

Different foods to feed your garden birds

If you want to attract a diverse mix of bird species, then provide a wide variety of different foods to cater for every taste! Various considerations come in to play, not least the financial costs, so here’s some further information on the different foods you might be thinking of providing for your garden birds:

Peanuts

One of the most popular bird foods, and for good reason. They have a high calorie content (behind only sunflower hearts), are high in protein and they have no shell that birds need to wrestle off. Perfect if you want to avoid spillage and waste too. Be sure to hang them in an appropriate mesh feeder, and don’t use plastic netting bags. Take care to ensure no mouldy or shrivelled peanuts are in your feeders as these can produce aflatoxins which can kill birds. To avoid this, store them in a dry area and half-fill your peanut feeders at a time, allowing them to empty before refilling. Peanuts are popular with probably the largest range of species, including all of the tits and finches, house sparrows, and more!

Buy fatballs, suet-blocks, pellets & feeders

Sunflower seeds

These are a good ‘standard’ food to provide if you want to cater for a variety of bird species. Sunflower seeds come in different forms – with striped shell, black shell or no shell (‘hearts’). Striped shelled sunflower seeds have a tough outer shell that’s difficult for birds to remove and they have a lower calorie content than the other varieties. Black sunflower seeds have higher oil and calorie content and a thinner shell too. Sunflower hearts are the best of the lot though as they have more oils and calories than the others, and no shell – so the birds waste no energy when eating them. They’re a bit more expensive as a result, but worth the money. Sunflower seeds should be provided in a hanging seed feeder or scattered on a flat surface.

Buy sunflower seeds & feeders

Mixed seeds

There’s a lot of different mixed seed varieties on the market. Cheaper ones tend to include a high proportion of cereal grains that are popular with sparrows and pigeons but not much else. If you want to cater for these species (and they deserve food too!) then you’re ok, but if possible go for the mixes with better quality content as these are ultimately better value for money. There’s a great range of ‘high energy’ mixes available these days, including ones with high proportions of sunflower seeds and with added mealworms and suet pellets that are all good and will be eaten by a good variety of species.

Buy mixed seeds & feeders

Nyger seed

Nyjer/Nyger is a relatively new addition to the bird food market. The seeds are very fine, so are much loved by the finches that traditionally enjoy thistle seeds – most notably Goldfinches, but also Siskin and Redpoll. Nyjer requires a specialised bird feeder with smaller holes as it can be quite messy. It’s one of the more expensive foods on the market too, but is still very popular and maybe worth providing in smaller amounts than other foods (peanuts, sunflower hearts).

Buy nyger seed & feeders

Fat/Suet products

There’s a big range of fat and suet products on the market, with different nutrients and ingredients added. Be wary of very cheap supermarket options that tend to be very poor in any sort of nutrients and can be quite tough for birds to eat. Don’t be afraid to make your own fatballs with beef dripping or suet, and add ingredients such as seeds, grated cheese, raisins and sultanas. Avoid hanging fatballs in the plastic netting that they sometimes come in – these are very dangerous for birds! Be sure to buy a special fatball/suet-block feeder or cage, and if your fatballs/suet-blocks don’t fit in this then break them up a bit! Don’t provide these types of food for the late spring and summer – save them for the colder months!

Buy peanuts & feeders

Mealworms

These are expensive, but high in protein and are loved by Robins, Dunnocks and other species that prefer to eat insects above all else. You can add them in with the seeds in your feeder if you want or scatter them on a bird table or on the ground. This is a good food to provide in the spring and summer in particular, when you should stop feeding fatballs and suet blocks.

Buy mealworms & feeders

Fruit

Thrush species, including Blackbird, will enjoy chopped apples, pears, figs, grapes, currents, raisins, sultanas etc. Blackcaps famously enjoy halved apples stuck onto a tree branch or other spike. Cut up any larger fruits into smaller pieces so that they can be eaten with ease. As with everything, never put out anything mouldy for the birds!

blackcap-male-feeding-on-apple

Water

Water is often forgotten, but it’s hugely important for birds to drink and wash themselves in. During cold weather, other water sources in the countryside might get frozen over, so providing water in your garden is extra important. Be sure to provide it in a shallow dish, or if it’s deep bowl put a rock in it that smaller birds can perch on – they want to stand in shallow water, not completely submerge themselves!

Irish Garden Bird Survey

Ireland’s biggest bird survey is open to everyone and a great way to learn about the birds in your garden. Taking part is easy and provides us with really important data on how our garden bird populations are doing from year to year.

Get involved in the survey this winter