Nothing is more satisfying for a gardener than looking out over your plot and seeing birds enjoying your land. Birds of all kinds are important parts of the eco-system, and their presence signals that your garden is thriving and healthy. Watching birds flutter, bathe, eat, and rest is a true pleasure, as educational as it is relaxing.
Do you want to become a bird watcher from the comfort of your own home? It’s easy to take a few simple measures to attract birds to your garden. Of course, you might be worried about birds pecking and snacking on the contents of your garden. You can easily protect your berries and vegetables from birds by covering your crops with polythene covers.
Follow the advice below to transform your outdoor space (or even your flat’s balcony) into a paradise for your avian friends. Here is how you can create a bird-friendly garden.
What Food Should You Offer to Attract Birds?
Birds are just like people – they have favourite snacks and treats, and they are willing to fly out their way to get them! Remember – each species of bird has its own preferred treats. Here some of the best foods to offer your feathered guests:[i]
- Millet seed mixes – The RSPB recommends that you look for seed mixes that are packed with a variety of small seeds, including millet, in order to attract collared doves, reed buntings, house sparrows, and finches.
- Mixes containing peanuts and sunflowers – You’ll find many thankful tits and greenfinches if you set out a mix that includes peanuts and sunflower seeds.
- Pinhead oatmeal, wheat, and barley grains – These ingredients are great for doves, pheasants, and pigeons, who all like to feed on the ground. Watch out for these species (and these treats) as they can rapidly multiply and drive out the smaller species.
- Niger (or Nyjer) seeds – These little black seeds have a high oil content and are good for siskins, house sparrows, nuthatches goldfinches, tits, greenfinches, and great spotted woodpeckers. They do need a special feeder.[ii]
- Suet balls – Suet and other fat balls are sold in nylon mesh bags, and can also include seeds and nuts. Remove the mesh bag before you set these out for the birds – the bags can injure them.
- Mealworms – Robins, blue tits, and pied wagtails love to munch on mealworms, and many avid gardeners grow their own to feed the birds.[iii] You must ensure that the worms are fresh; old or dead mealworms can cause illness in birds.
- Wet dog or cat food – Wet dog or cat food might not spring to mind as an ideal bird food, but it really can help them. In the warm and dry months of summer, worms might be too hard for birds to catch. Blackbirds delight in eating meaty chunks of dog and cat food, and they will even feed their chicks with it.
What Foods Should You Avoid?
- Milk – Fresh milk is never suitable for birds, as it can upset their digestion or even cause death. However, they do enjoy fermented dairy products, and grated cheese can attract wrens, dunnocks, and robins.
- Desiccated coconut – Fresh coconut in the shell can be a nice treat, but desiccated coconut can swell inside a bird’s stomach and cause them to die.
- Bread – There is a common urban myth that feeding birds bread is bad for them.[iv] While this is not exactly true, if you rely too much on bread to feed the birds, you are feeding them the equivalent of junk food and empty calories. Focus on seeds and grains instead.
- Mixes that contain split peas, beans, dried rice or lentils – While peas, beans, rice, and lentils can be nutritious and delicious for larger species, the smaller species cannot eat them dry. They are often added to cheap seed mixes as a bulking ingredient.
- Mixes that include dog biscuits – It is not uncommon to see cheaper seed mixes including pink or green chunks. These are actually dog biscuits, which birds can only ingest when they have been soaked.
Plants and Shrubs That Attract Birds
Making your yard hospitable to birds isn’t just about setting out seeds and nuts. Consider planting some of the following plants and shrubs to really welcome them to your property![v]
- Shrub rose – The shrub rose produces large rose hips, which are favoured by mistle thrushes, fieldfares, and blackbirds.
- Holly – Holly berries will usually start to ripen in mid-autumn, but you won’t see the birds start to feed on them until the end of winter. Redwings, fieldfares, blackbirds, and song thrushes will all stop by.
- Guelder rose – Guelder rose, also known as Viburnum opulus, will fruit with berries throughout the winter, keeping bullfinches and mistle thrushes very happy.
- Ivy – Ivy flowers start to emerge in the autumn, attracting flying insects. These in turn attract wrens and robins. Ivy is also a perfect place for birds to roost and nest.
- Sunflower – Sunflowers are a happy and delightful addition to your garden, but don’t pick them and bring them inside! Appreciate them in the soil, allowing the flowers to start producing abundant seed heads. These are rich in nourishing oils, proving long-tailed tits, nuthatches, finches, and other seed-loving birds with a vital food source.
- Hawthorn – Haws remain hanging on the hawthorn trees until the very end of the winter, and are enjoyed by redwings, blackbirds, chaffinches, fieldfares, and starlings. They also provide a good means of nutrition for caterpillars and moths.
- Teasel – Teasel plants are a favourite of architects, as they make a striking border in any garden and add height and interest to your beds. They bear large seed heads in early autumn, providing snacks goldfinches, buntings, and sparrows.
- Honeysuckle – Honeysuckle smells wonderful to us, and tastes just as wonderful to birds! This climbing plant provides excellent roosting space, and offers up tasty berries for bullfinches, thrushes, and warblers.
Other Ways To Attract Birds To Your Garden
If you want a plethora of different bird species to visit your garden, you need to make your land as hospitable to them as possible. In addition to filling bird feeders and planting shrubs that they prefer, consider doing some of the following.
- Birdbaths – Birds of all shapes and sizes love to splash around in a birdbath. They clean their feathers, preen, and have a little drink. In the past, some unhelpful myths about birdbaths have spread, prompting some gardeners to abandon them.[vi] However, when the water is kept clean a birdbath is one of the best ways to attract birds to your garden.
- Install a feeding tray – Not all birds like to eat while they are up in the air, and prefer food that has been left on the ground. That is where ground feeding trays come into play. They are especially favoured by grouse, quail, starlings, and grackles.
- Nests / nest boxes – While most bird species prefer to build their own nests, many nesting habitats are in decline.[vii] Birds will therefore really benefit from a pre-built home! Nest boxes are a way to attract many species of birds to your garden, year after year.
- Plant fruit trees – Just like humans, birds enjoy the sweet taste of fruit and nectar. Planting a series of fruit trees in your garden will attract birds for the fruit, and they might return to build their nests!
- Keep predators away – Remember – you need to protect your bird visitors from harm whenever possible. Placing bird feeders, bird baths, and nest boxes around your garden is all well and good, but are you inadvertently sentencing your feathered friends to an early death? If you are not protecting them from predators, you could be doing just that. In order to keep cats and other crafty predators away from your flying guests, place feeders and nest boxes in hard to access areas. Hang them high in trees, on branches too spindly to support the weight of a sneaky (and hungry) cat.
Visiting birds signal a healthy garden
A truly healthy garden is one that is full of insects, birds, and mammals. Visiting birds are a vital part of a diverse eco-system, and they will truly bring your garden to life.
BBC Gardeners’ World Magazine (2019). Top 10 plants for birds. [online] BBC Gardeners’ World Magazine. Available at: https://www.gardenersworld.com/plants/top-10-plants-for-birds/ [Accessed 22 Jan. 2020].
Northumberland Wildlife Trust (2020). How to build a nesting box for birds | Northumberland Wildlife Trust. [online] Nwt.org.uk. Available at: https://www.nwt.org.uk/cy/node/1354?gclid=CjwKCAiAgqDxBRBTEiwA59eEN1JUE-B8s4S7w7Q73jpFfzNQg-QhFZYH2IOpjQpxEkWCeuq4K_-K9xoCR5cQAvD_BwE [Accessed 22 Jan. 2020].
RSPB (2019). Safe Foods For Birds | What Can I Feed Birds? – The RSPB. [online] The RSPB. Available at: https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/advice/how-you-can-help-birds/feeding-birds/safe-food-for-birds/.
RSPB (2020). Nyjer Feeders | Nyjer / Niger Seed Bird Feeder Range – RSPB Shop. [online] The RSPB. Available at: https://shopping.rspb.org.uk/nyjer-seed-feeders/ [Accessed 22 Jan. 2020].
The Happy Chicken Coop (2019). Making Your Own Mealworm Farm 101. [online] Thehappychickencoop.com. Available at: https://www.thehappychickencoop.com/make-your-own-mealworm-farm/ [Accessed 22 Jan. 2020].
The Happy Scientist (2019). Feeding Bread to Birds | The Happy Scientist. [online] Thehappyscientist.com. Available at: https://thehappyscientist.com/blog/feeding-bread-birds.
The Spruce (2019). Debunk Bird Bath Myths to Have a Safe Water Source for Backyard Birds. [online] The Spruce. Available at: https://www.thespruce.com/bird-bath-myths-385559 [Accessed 22 Jan. 2020].
Elizabeth Waddington is a writer and green living consultant living in Scotland. Permaculture and sustainability are at the heart of everything she does, from designing gardens and farms around the world, to inspiring and facilitating positive change for small companies and individuals.
She also works on her own property, where she grows fruit and vegetables, keeps chickens and is working on the eco-renovation of an old stone barn.