Responsible Bird Feeding

Wednesday 17th February 2016

Goldfinch Feeding by Derek MooreGoldfinch Feeding by Derek Moore

Gardens can be a haven for wildlife during the ‘lean’ months. They provide an important source of food and shelter for all kinds of species, especially birds. With a little planning, you can turn your garden into a sanctuary for them and reap the reward of seeing wildlife thrive throughout the year.

Feeding birds at this time of year can make a real difference to their survival and that of their offspring. However, even the best intentions can have unintended consequences. The wrong sort of food, overfeeding and poor hygiene can do more harm than good; but if you follow our guidelines you can keep your feathered visitors happy and healthy.


The first priority for all animals is water. A shallow dish or a bird bath is ideal, but do keep an eye on it to make sure it isn’t frozen solid in cold weather. Check it twice a day if you can. If you have a pond, try floating a tennis ball on the surface to prevent it freezing over. If it does freeze, don’t break the ice as the shock waves could harm any wildlife in the water. Sit a pan of hot water on the ice until it melts a hole instead.


When the days are short and cold, birds spend most of their time trying to find enough food just to survive on. Birds need high energy foods when it is cold. Kitchen scraps, seeds, nuts and berries are all good for them. Fat balls are easy to make (see below) and can be hung out of the reach of predators like cats. They can turn rancid in warm weather though, so only use them when it is cold. Don’t use margarine or vegetable fats. They don’t contain enough saturated fat and are prone to smear on the feathers which can destroy their waterproofing and insulating qualities. Never use leftover fat from a roast either – in addition to smearing, the meat juices are home to bacteria which can breed quickly.

  • Fat Balls - You need a large bowl with a mix of bird friendly foods like peanuts, seeds, dried fruit, uncooked oats and grated cheese. Melt as much lard as you need (about one third lard to two thirds food) and pour it onto the ingredients and mix well. Then pour into a shallow dish to set (an old plastic pot is ideal) and use string to hang it up in your garden.

Girl filling bird feeder credit Lee ParsonsIn the spring and summer, birds start to need protein rather than fat in their diet. Unseasonably cold or wet weather in spring can cause problems for birds by reducing the availability of the food they would naturally eat, like earthworms and caterpillars. If the birds have young to feed they will flock to take advantage of your offerings, but be aware that they make take food back to the nest, so it is important not to leave anything out that may choke the chicks. This includes loose peanuts, large chunks of bread or other dry hard foods, and fats.

Black sunflower seeds, soaked dried fruit, mealworms, fruit like apples or pears (cut in half), and even mild grated cheese are good food to leave out in the warmer months. You can buy good quality seed and insect mixes without loose peanuts from reputable suppliers (if you buy from Vine House Farm, Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust gets a percentage of each sale).


Most diseases are transmitted by droppings from birds and other animals like rats. If the droppings contaminate the food, the chances of a bird picking up an infection increase. There are a few simple precautions you can take to guard against infection:

  •  Don’t leave old food out to go mouldy – if there is food left over at the end of the day then you are probably putting out too much.
  •  Don’t put food directly on the ground – use a tray as it’s easier to keep clean, or better yet, use hanging feeders or a bird table. Food left on the ground can attract rats and other pests.
  •  Don’t allow droppings or mouldy food to build up – they are a breeding ground for bacteria and parasites. Clean feeding stations regularly using a mild disinfectant, and move bird tables and feeders to a different part of the garden once a month.
  •  Rinse out water containers every day, especially in hot weather. Don’t forget droppings can accumulate in bird baths too, so clean them regularly.
  •  Don’t forget personal hygiene; clean your feeders and water containers outside, wear gloves while doing so, and wash your hands afterwards.

Tagged with: Wildlife Watch, Feeding, Garden birds, Hygiene, Responsible feeding