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Bird Tables, Feeders & Food

Our gardens have become one of the most important habitats for many of the so-called "garden bird" species, partly because of the changes in agricultural and woodland practices but many of us have also planted shrubs and trees or constructed ponds to attract wildlife into them.

However, one of the easiest ways to attract birds into the garden is to put out food and water, and you don't even need a garden to be able to do this.

See the article on feeding for a discussion of the arguments for and against the feeding of birds.

Bird Tables

Bird tables come in all shapes and sizes but are usually either open or roofed. The roofed ones help to keep the food dry, provide some protection from aerial predators but may prevent some larger species from feeding.

The bird table may be mounted on a post, on short legs or be suspended by a chain from a bracket. When mounted on a post or hung from a chain, some ground-feeding species, like the Dunnock, may be deterred from using the table.

A ground feeding table, which is usually an open table on short legs, should encourage even the shiest of ground feeders to feed. Some of these tables have a fine wire mesh base rather than solid wood or plastic so that water drains away and prevents the food from becoming too soggy.

The edge of the table should have sides to prevent the food from blowing away but also gaps in the corners so that stale food, droppings and other debris can be removed easily.

In addition to bird tables, there are also "feeder trees", which comprise a metal pole and several arms or branches from which feeders may be hung.

Bird Feeders

Today, there are an enormous variety of feeders available ranging from the old-fashioned peanut bag to sophisticated ones that will even spin squirrels off them!

There are essentially 3 types of feeder, those for peanuts, seeds and suet.

Peanut feeders comprise a coarse plastic or wire mesh, usually large enough for birds to peck and remove large pieces but not to take whole peanuts.

Seed feeders usually comprise a plastic tube with several ports and perches sited down and around the tube. The birds sit on the perches and remove the loose seed from the ports. A specialist seed feeder is the "niger feeder", instead of the usual large ports these have very small holes that prevent the very small niger seed flowing away but still allow the birds to get at it.

Suet feeders are typically a metal cage that vary in size and shape depending on the type of suet block, which may be shaped like a ball, cylinder or square.

Some of the feeders are made wholly of plastic and may not survive the persistent attack of a hungry squirrel - more expensive metal and polycarbonate ones are available that should last much longer.

Bird feeders are often hung from bird tables but there are other options. Some may be suspended from brackets or hooks that fit over tree branches. Others may be attached to windows using suckers.

The latest advice is not to use the mesh bags that suet balls and peanuts are often supplied in as the birds' legs and tongues may become trapped or entangled.

Bird Foods

Traditionally, bird food comprised peanuts, stale bread and, if they were lucky, caged bird seed. Today there is a whole industry thriving on the supply and innovation of wild bird foods.

Typical Energy Values
Food Calorific Value (per 100g)
Mealworms 150 calories
Raisins 300 calories
Apples 350 calories
Oats 370 calories
Cheese 400 calories
Niger 480 calories
Sunflower Seed 500 calories
Peanuts 560 calories
Sunflower Hearts 600 calories
Suet 800 calories

Here is a brief list of the main foods available, but visit one of the on-line wild bird food suppliers or a reputable local DIY store or pet shop and you will discover many others.

Kitchen Scraps

Kitchen scraps can include almost any leftover food, such as stale bread, biscuits and cake, cooked and uncooked pastry, cooked pasta, bacon rind, dried fruits, cooked potatoes and rice, bruised and overripe fruit, marrow and bones, meat and cheese.

There are, however, some foods that you MUST NOT feed the birds as they may harm or even kill them. For example, mouldy foods, salty foods (e.g. smoky bacon, salted peanuts and crisps) and dehydrated foods (e.g. desiccated coconut).

Peanuts

Peanuts are rich in protein and oils and are one of the most popular bird foods. They can be fed all-year-round and produce very little waste.

Aflatoxins are produced by fungi that grow in the ground with the peanuts and are poisonous to humans and wildlife. To ensure the peanuts are not affected, buy them from a reputable bird food supplier.

Peanuts are eaten by tits, finches, House Sparrows and Starlings. Siskins are often attracted to peanuts in red plastic mesh bags, which the birds may associate with their natural food - alder cones.

Do not provide loose whole peanuts to the birds during the breeding season (April to August) as the adult birds may feed them to their young who could then choke on them. Only offer them in wire mesh feeders.

Black Sunflower Seeds

Black sunflower seeds have a high energy content and the husks are easily opened by many species. The husks can cause a mess underneath the feeders and should be cleaned up to avoid pests and infections.

Black sunflower seeds are a particular favourite of Greenfinches.

Sunflower Hearts

Sunflower hearts have the highest energy content per weight of any of the popular bird foods. The husks have already been removed so there is no mess and most species can eat them. Plastic (polycarbonate) feeders rather than wire mesh ones should be used to keep the hearts reasonably dry otherwise then can go mouldy quite quickly.

Blue Tits, Coal Tits, Great Tits, Greenfinches, Chaffinches, Bullfinches, House Sparrows and Robins will feed on hearts in a hanging feeder, and Blackbirds and Dunnocks will occasionally take them when they are placed on the ground.

High Energy Mix

A high energy ground mix typically comprises sunflower hearts, peanut granules, flaked maize, kibbled oats, sultanas and raisins, and is available from many good bird food suppliers.

This type of mix is best fed on the ground (or a ground table) and should attract a good variety of species including: Blackbirds, House Sparrows, Starlings, Dunnocks, Song Thrushes, Blue Tits, Great Tits, Coal Tits, Chaffinches, Robins, Collared Doves, Wood Pigeons, Magpies, Jays.

Niger

Niger (also spelled nyjer and nyger) seed is similar to thistle seed, is high in energy, quite expensive, but is a favourite of Goldfinches, though Siskins may also eat it.

A special plastic bird feeder is required to hold this very fine seed. The seed will germinate and grow very easily if spilt on the ground so it is best to also fit a tray underneath the feeder - though this may encourage pigeons, squirrels and rats to perch on the feeder and eat the expensive seed.

Do NOT purchase niger seed or feeder unless Goldfinches are already visiting your garden - simply providing niger will not entice them into the garden if there are none in your neighbourhood.

Live Foods

Not surprisingly, live foods are alive and include mealworms (larvae of the Flour Beetle), wax worms (larvae of the Wax Moth) and earthworms. These can be purchased in tubs to feed to the birds, but you can also breed your own. If you don't relish handling wriggly worms, you can also purchase freeze dried ones.

Worms are rich in proteins and are a favourite food of Robins, Blackbirds and other thrushes, but during the breeding season the seed-eating birds will also feed their young with these live foods.

Remember: Clean the feeding areas and wash your hands (see hygiene).


Last revision: 27 Mar 2010
Copyright © David Gains 1999-2014.
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