Feeding birds is one of the easiest and most rewarding ways to see wildlife really close up. In winter, birds may have difficulty finding natural foods such as berries, insects, seeds, worms and fruit. Any food you put out during these cold months will help birds survive until the spring.
Most kitchen leftovers can be used to feed birds. Bread can be crumbled up and scattered - moisten very dry bread first as it could cause dehydration.
Biscuits provide a rich source of fat, and cooked rice, pasta and pastry are packed with starch. Potatoes can be boiled, baked, roasted or mashed, and cheese - crumbled or grated - will be very popular with robins and wrens.
Fat is a wonderful source of energy - cut bacon rinds, fat from chops or blocks of suet into cubes.
Fruit, such as windfalls or bruised apples and pears, goes down a treat with blackbirds and thrushes. It may also attract winter visitors from Scandinavia such as fieldfares and redwings.
Beware: Grapes, sultanas, raisins and some artificial sweeteners can be very toxic to dogs and some other wild/domestic animals. These foods should be put on a raised bird table and never scattered on the ground.
Fresh coconut in the shell is a great favourite with tits. Drill two holes in one end and drain off the milk. Saw the coconut in half and hang outside. Never put out desiccated coconut as it swells up inside a bird's stomach.
Peanuts are rich in fat and attract nuthatches, siskins, great spotted woodpeckers, tits, greenfinches and house sparrows. Peanuts may be naturally contaminated with an invisible toxin so make sure you buy peanuts of guaranteed quality. Use a darning needle to thread nuts in their shells onto string or put shelled peanuts in wire mesh containers or spiral feeders. Robins and dunnocks will eat crushed or chopped nuts. Never use salted nuts.
Bird seed mixes with sunflower seeds attract greenfinches and chaffinches. Dunnocks and finches prefer smaller seeds such as millet or canary seed.
Many birds prefer to eat off the ground – robin, blackbirds, thrushes, dunnocks, wrens and certain other birds are not used to eating from a table – so remember to place some feed on the ground.*
Cats pounce from bushes and trees so don't put food nearby. Don't put food out late in the day, it might attract rats and mice overnight.
To reduce the risk of spreading disease, clean bird tables and feeders weekly and water bowls daily.
- Make a mould, a half coconut shell is ideal, and thread some string or wire through a small hole in the base.
- Mix some seeds, chopped nuts, sultanas, biscuit crumbs and rolled oats in a bowl.
- Melt the same volume of lard or suet in a pan.
- Add the fat to the dry mix and stir well.
- Pour the mixture into the mould and leave to cool.
- When the pudding is set, hang the mould upside down in the garden.
Natural food starts becoming hard to find in early winter, so October is a good time to start feeding birds. Feed them until the end of April, when they should be able to find plenty of food for themselves. Seeds are scarce in early spring. For chaffinches, greenfinches and other seed eaters keep putting food out during May.
A long dry summer hardens the ground. Blackbirds, thrushes and robins have difficulty catching worms, so put suitable food out for them until the earth is softer.
Birds need water to drink and bathe in. Try a dustbin lid or flowerpot base made of terracotta or plastic as a birdbath. Sink it into the ground, or raise it on three bricks to keep it stable. Keep it clean and only fill with clean, fresh water.
BirdWatch Ireland have some factsheets on their website for download:
Feeding Wild Birds (PDF)
Bird Tables (PDF)
Injured and Dead Birds (PDF)