There’s something enchanting about the presence of wild birds in our gardens. Their vibrant colours, melodious songs, and graceful flights add a touch of nature’s beauty to our everyday lives. One of the most effective ways to attract a diverse range of these feathered friends to your garden is by offering them a buffet of bird seeds. However, with so many birdseed mixes on the market, it can be challenging to determine which one is best suited to the specific needs of the wild birds in your area. In this article, we will explore the best bird food to cater to a variety of wild garden birds, from finches to starlings and beyond.
Understanding the Needs of Wild Garden Birds
Before we delve into the best bird seed mixes, it’s essential to understand the dietary preferences of the wild birds that frequent your garden. Different bird species have different dietary requirements, and catering to their specific needs will not only attract them but also ensure their overall health and well-being. Here are some common types of wild garden birds and their preferred diets:
- Finches: Finches, such as goldfinches, house finches, and purple finches, are partial to small seeds. Nyjer (thistle) seed and sunflower hearts are favourites among finches due to their small size and high oil content.
- Sparrows: House sparrows and other sparrows are omnivorous birds, but they primarily consume seeds. A mix containing millet, sunflower seeds, and cracked corn will entice sparrows to your garden.
- Cardinals: Northern cardinals love sunflower seeds, particularly the larger, black oil sunflower seeds. These seeds provide the essential fat and protein cardinals need.
- Bluebirds: Eastern and Western bluebirds enjoy mealworms and fruit, so consider adding these to your bird seed mix to attract these striking birds.
- Doves: Mourning doves and other dove species have a preference for cracked corn, millet, and sunflower seeds. They are ground feeders, so offering seeds on low platforms or on the ground can be particularly enticing to them.
- Starlings: European starlings are less selective in their diets. They eat a wide variety of seeds, including sunflower seeds, millet, and suet.
Different Types of Bird Feed
Sunflower Hearts and Seeds
Ideal for a diverse range of birds, including finches, robins, and blackbirds, sunflower seeds serve as a year-round protein and fat source. Opt for black sunflower seeds for their higher oil content, whether in hanging feeders, bird tables, or ground feeders. Sunflower hearts, pre-husked for convenience, save birds’ energy and prevent feeder mess.
Drawing woodpeckers and nuthatches to hanging feeders and robins, dunnocks, and wrens to ground feeders and bird tables, peanuts are rich in protein and fat. Choose kibble (crushed) peanuts and avoid salted or roasted ones. Always go for certified ‘aflatoxin-free’ peanuts to ensure bird safety. In spring and summer, steer clear of whole peanuts, which pose a choking hazard for young birds.
Small, black, and oil-rich nyjer seeds are a favourite among goldfinches and other finches. They work well in bespoke Nyjer seed hoppers, as well as on ground feeders and bird tables.
Fat Balls and Suet Treats
Tailored for winter use, fat or suet-based products provide essential calories for small birds during cold nights. Some variants include insects for added protein. Use a dedicated fat ball or cake feeder to prevent birds from getting caught in a plastic mesh. If fat balls and cakes go ignored, consider using smaller suet pieces for quicker consumption and shelter-seeking.
Various seed mixes cater to hanging feeders, ground feeders, and bird tables. Be cautious of cheaper options containing bulk fillers like wheat or barley grains, creating a mess and attracting rodents. Opt for high-quality mixes with flaked maize, sunflower seeds, kibbled peanuts, and possibly dried mealworms and suet pieces. Suitable for house sparrows, dunnocks, finches, reed buntings, collared doves, and blackbirds.
Insects and Mealworms
Robins, bluetits, house sparrows, and starlings love mealworms, available in both live and dried forms. Ensure dried mealworms come from a reputable source to avoid salmonella risks. Soaking dried mealworms provides valuable moisture and aids digestion in young birds. Other options include waxworms, ant pupae, and live or dried insects, though they can be more costly.
Halved apples are a winter delicacy for thrushes, blackbirds, and even winter visitors like waxwings. Tits also enjoy apple pieces. While dried fruits like raisins and sultanas can be used, soak them first for hydration. Avoid using raisins and sultanas if you have a dog, as even a small quantity can be toxic.
Growing berry-bearing bushes is a sustainable way to feed garden birds, especially if the bushes are native. Native bushes attract egg-laying moths in summer, providing caterpillars for bird fledglings. Popular berry-bearing shrubs and trees include holly, ivy, guelder rose, hawthorn, rowan, cotoneaster, barberry, and Pyracantha.
While you might see people offering bread to garden birds, ducks, and pigeons, it’s not a wise choice. Bread is filling but lacks nutrition, potentially making birds unwell if they gorge on it. Additionally, bread can easily become mouldy, posing a health risk to birds.
Like bread, offering cooked rice to garden birds, ducks, and pigeons isn’t recommended. While unharmful, rice is filling without providing sufficient nutrition. Birds might overeat on rice and become unwell due to nutrient deficiencies. Additionally, cooked rice can easily become mouldy, posing a potential health risk to birds.
What You Shouldn’t Feed Birds
- Milk: Birds are generally lactose intolerant, so avoid offering milk as it can upset their stomachs.
- Processed Foods: Anything high in salt, sugar, or additives is unsuitable for birds. This includes chips, cookies, and other human snacks.
- Junk Food: Like processed foods, avoid feeding birds anything considered junk food, such as candy or sugary treats.
- Raw Meat: Birds have specific dietary requirements, and raw meat might introduce harmful bacteria or parasites.
- Avocado: While a nutritious fruit for humans, avocados contain a substance called persin, which can be toxic to birds.
- Moldy or Spoiled Food: Just like for us, mouldy or spoiled food can be harmful to birds and may cause sickness.
Selecting the Right Bird Seed Mix
Now that you’re acquainted with the dietary preferences of some common wild garden birds, it’s time to choose the right bird food that caters to their needs. While it may be tempting to purchase a single type of seed for your feeders, a well-balanced seed mix will attract a more diverse range of bird species. Here are some of the best bird foods to consider for your garden:
Nyjer Seed Mix:
Ideal for attracting finches, especially goldfinches and pine siskins, Nyjer seed is high in oil content and small in size. Look for a mix that combines Nyjer seeds with other small seeds like sunflower chips.
Black Oil Sunflower Seed Mix:
This mix is a favourite among various birds, including cardinals, sparrows, chickadees, and titmice. The high-fat content in black oil sunflower seeds provides an excellent energy source, especially during the winter months.
A well-rounded blend of sunflower seeds, safflower seeds, millet, and peanuts, the songbird mix is designed to attract a diverse range of birds, including cardinals, chickadees, finches, and nuthatches.
Suet is a valuable source of fat and protein for birds, making it an excellent choice for attracting woodpeckers, nuthatches, and chickadees. These often contain ingredients like peanuts, berries, and insects.
Fruit and Nut Mix:
For those interested in attracting bluebirds, orioles, and other fruit-loving birds, a fruit and nut mix is a great option. It typically includes dried fruits, nuts, and sometimes mealworms.
If you have doves, sparrows, and other ground-feeding birds in your garden, consider a mix designed to be scattered on the ground. These blends often contain millet, cracked corn, and sunflower seeds.
Tips for Successful Bird Feeding
To create a bird-friendly environment in your garden, follow these tips:
- Provide Fresh Water: A clean, reliable water source is just as important as food for wild birds. Consider installing a bird bath or shallow dish with fresh water for drinking and bathing.
- Keep Feeders Clean: Regularly clean your bird feeders to prevent the spread of disease among the birds that visit your garden.
- Offer a Variety of Feeder Types: Different bird species have different feeding preferences. Provide a variety of feeder types, such as tube feeders, platform feeders, and suet feeders, to cater to a wide range of birds.
- Be Patient: It may take some time for birds to discover your feeders. Once they do, you’ll be rewarded with the joy of observing these beautiful creatures up close.
Should You Feed Birds Year Round
Feeding birds year-round can be beneficial for both the birds and the birdwatcher in you. However, the types of food you offer may vary with the seasons. Here’s a guide to what to feed birds throughout the year:
- Basic Birdseed Mix: A quality birdseed mix that includes a variety of seeds like sunflower seeds, millet, and cracked corn, can be offered year-round. This provides a general source of nutrition for many bird species.
Spring and Summer:
- Insects and Larvae: During the breeding season, birds often need more protein. Live or dried mealworms, suet with insects, or a mix high in sunflower hearts can provide the necessary energy.
- Fruits and Nectar: Offer fresh fruits like apples, berries, or slices of oranges. Hummingbirds are attracted to nectar, so consider putting up a hummingbird feeder with a sugar-water solution.
- Eggshells: Crushed eggshells are a good source of calcium, which is beneficial for birds during the nesting season.
- Seeds: Many birds start preparing for winter by stocking up on seeds. Keep providing a mix that includes sunflower seeds, millet, and other seeds that birds in your area prefer.
- Suet: As temperatures drop, suet becomes an excellent, high-energy food source for birds. You can find suet with added ingredients like insects or berries for variety.
- Peanuts: Peanuts in the shell or out of the shell are a favourite for many birds in the fall.
- High-Fat Foods: Birds need extra energy to stay warm during the winter. Offer foods high in fat, such as suet, peanuts, and black oil sunflower seeds.
- Heated Birdbath: Providing a heated birdbath with fresh water is crucial when natural water sources may be frozen. Birds need water for drinking and bathing even in the winter.
- Mealworms: Continue offering mealworms as a protein-rich snack for birds that forage for insects even in colder months.
Read our guide to Caring for Wild Birds in Winter here.
How Often Should You Feed Birds
Feeding birds can be a wonderful way to attract a variety of species to your garden. To create a bird-friendly environment, it’s essential to maintain a balanced and safe feeding routine. Here’s a simple guide to help you:
Consistency is Key:
Birds thrive on routine. Try to feed them at the same time each day. This helps them establish a feeding pattern and ensures they know when to visit your garden.
Morning is generally the best time to feed birds. They are active and hungry after a night of fasting. Providing food in the morning gives them the energy they need throughout the day.
Clean and Fresh Water:
Always have a clean and fresh water source available for the birds. Water is just as crucial as food, especially for drinking and bathing. Clean the water containers regularly to prevent the spread of diseases.
Clean your bird feeders and feeding areas regularly. Leftover seeds and hulls can attract pests and create an unhealthy environment for the birds. A clean feeding area also reduces the risk of spreading diseases among the birds.
Different bird species have varying dietary needs. Adjust your bird feeding strategy based on the seasons. For example, in the winter, birds may benefit from high-energy foods like suet and black oil sunflower seeds.
Provide a variety of bird foods to attract a diverse range of species. Different birds prefer different types of seeds, fruits, and insects. Experiment with different foods to see what works best in your area.
Position your bird feeders in safe and strategic locations. Keep them away from windows to prevent bird collisions. Also, place feeders where birds can easily spot predators, such as cats, to avoid ambushes.
It might take some time for birds to discover and trust your feeding area. Be patient and enjoy the gradual increase in bird activity as they become accustomed to your garden.
How to Stop Squirrels Eating Bird Food
Ah, the classic battle between birds and squirrels for that coveted bird food! Here are some squirrel-deterrent strategies:
- Squirrel-Proof Feeders: Invest in feeders designed to be squirrel-proof. These often have mechanisms that close off access to the food when a squirrel’s weight is detected.
- Strategic Placement: Position your bird feeders away from trees, fences, and other structures that squirrels can use to launch themselves onto the feeders. Ideally, place the feeders at least 10 feet away from any jumping-off points.
- Selective Seeding: Some types of birdseed are less appealing to squirrels. Safflower seeds, for example, are known to be a bit of a turn-off for squirrels but are loved by many birds.
Why You Need to Keep Bird Feeders Clean and How to Do It
Maintaining clean bird feeders is crucial for the health and well-being of the birds that visit your garden. Here’s why it’s important and how to do it:
- Disease Prevention: Dirty bird feeders can harbour harmful bacteria and fungi. Birds, when they come into contact with contaminated feeders or seeds, can contract diseases such as salmonellosis. Keeping feeders clean helps prevent the spread of diseases among bird populations.
- Attractiveness: Birds are more likely to visit and stay in your garden if the feeding area is clean. They prefer fresh food and clean water sources. A dirty, mouldy feeder might drive them away.
- Longevity of Feeders: Regular cleaning can extend the life of your bird feeders. Mould and moisture can damage the structure, and accumulated debris can clog feeding ports, making it difficult for birds to access the food.
- Regular Inspection: Check your feeders regularly for signs of mould, dirt, or debris. If you notice anything unusual, it’s time for a cleaning.
- Empty and Brush: Empty the feeder of any remaining seed. Use a brush or a sponge to remove debris, mould, and droppings. Pay attention to corners, seams, and crevices.
- Disassemble if Possible: If your feeder can be removed, do so for a more thorough cleaning. This allows you to reach all the nooks and crannies where bacteria and mould may hide.
- Use Mild Detergents: If needed, use a mild detergent to clean the feeder. Rinse it thoroughly afterwards to ensure no soap residue remains.
- Bleach Solution: Periodically disinfect your feeder with a mild bleach solution. Mix 1 part bleach to 9 parts water. Soak the feeder in this solution briefly, then scrub and rinse thoroughly. Make sure the feeder is completely dry before refilling.
- Clean the Perch Area: Birds can leave droppings on the perches or feeding ports. Wipe these areas clean to prevent the buildup of bacteria.
- Clean the Ground: If seeds accumulate on the ground beneath the feeder, clean it regularly. This helps prevent the growth of mould and the attraction of pests.
- Rotate Feeder Placement: Move your feeders to different locations in the garden periodically. This prevents waste buildup in one area and allows the ground to recover.
Attracting wild garden birds to your feeder can be a rewarding and educational experience. To maximise your success, select the right bird seed mix that aligns with the dietary preferences of the birds in your area. By offering a diverse range of seeds and supplementary foods, you’ll create a haven for a variety of species, from colourful finches to melodious cardinals. Ultimately, your garden will be filled with the enchanting sights and sounds of nature, making it a haven for both birds and bird enthusiasts alike.