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Bird feeding: an endless source of fascination

Martin Hughes-Games Martin Hughes-Games | 18:55 UK time, Friday, 20 November 2009

A few years ago I gave my mother a bird feeder for Christmas. I thought it was a rather good present. As it turned out she didn't! A couple of months later I got the feeder back. "It doesn't work," she told me. "No birds came"...

Humm, what went wrong? There have been a lot of questions on the Autumnwatch messageboard about bird feeders in the garden. There's quite an art to getting it right, and to be absolutely frank, even if you take every precaution imaginable, sometimes they still take time to come. But when they do... it's an endless source of fascination.

I put the feeders where I can see them when I'm washing up and what a joy: warm suds, a good honest scourer and constant stream of acrobatic, dazzling squabbling visitors whizzing about, and every now and then something really exciting, perhaps a great spotted woodpecker, a marsh tit, and... was that a nuthatch?

A nuthatch visiting one of the Autumnwatch webcam bird tables
nuthatch on bird table

So bird feeders in the garden - a few general principles. What to feed them? Think energy and variety. In winter especially birds are living on a knife edge, some need to eat 40% or more of their body weight every day, that would be around 65lb of pizza pasta and pakoras for me.. imagine! So high energy food, fat, fatty nuts like peanuts are all good.

Variety - different species like different types of food so the more types of food on offer the greater variety of visitors your likely to attract. Some birds like the incredibly beautiful goldfinch are specialist seed eaters and will mainly go for tiny black niger seeds. Personally I've always put out niger seeds in the special niger seed feeder. The goldfinces always seem to find it and the sight of four or six goldfinches all feeding together is superb. I just can't understand people who say our birds are dull. A great spotted woodpecker, a goldfinch, a bullfinch... surely they rival any birds in the world?


Well, except for maybe a Cuban trogon, a flock of dazzling scarlet macaws, the rainbow lorikeet... er... well, you get the picture... and anyway we've got the kingfisher!

Back to feeders. Sacks of nuts and seeds can be expensive and the birds will also be happy with a bit of old cake, a half-rotten apple, some cheese and stale bread - soaked if you can, but in water NOT milk. Birds can't digest milk and it's now thought to be very bad for them... but hang on! How about the blue tits that used to peck the top off our milk bottles all those years ago? They didn't seem to have a problem with milk. Anyone know the answer to this conundrum?

So a good variety of energy rich foods is a perfect first step. Where to put the food? Positioning feeders is a bit of an art, one I think my mother may have slipped up on. Birds often like to have some good cover fairly nearby so they can escape if danger threatens. Also they can fly into the cover, fairly close to the feeder, and have a good look around to check the coast is clear before they jump on. Many tits and finches like to land in a nearby tree and work their way down the tree to the feeder. BUT don't put the feeder close to cover which could also hide a.. erm.. playful cat.

Put yourself inside the head of the blue tit - is it safe around here? Can I get away in an emergency? If you are feeding on or near the ground make sure the chances of an ambush are reduced to a minimum.

Be patient. Sometimes it takes the birds a while to find the feeders. If your garden, or the gardens around you, are used by cats you're going to have a problem. If all your birds disappear it's worth checking if a neighbour has got a new cat. Have a look at the Breathing Places website if you want to find out how to help cats to be wildlife-friendly.

chaffinch feeding © Pete Walkden

Cats are one thing but I see some other predators in a very different light. If you have been really successful and your bird feeding is drawing in a host of lovely critters you may see this.... One moment a sweet chaffinch flitting toward the feeders, then bang! A puff of feathers and it's gone, you've been sparrowhawked! It's totally natural and surely the ultimate accolade for the really successful bird feeder. It's been shown that, over time, the sparrowhawk makes no actual impact on overall bird numbers so don't worry, you can just marvel at the flashing view of one of nature's most spectacular and beautifully designed predators at work.

For more information have a look at my previous blog on what to feed birds, or watch my guide on how to feed your garden birds.


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