How to Make your Garden a Bird Haven this Winter

Published: 15/11/2013

It would be forgiven for it to be thought that nature recoils after the warm summer months into hibernation during the crisp and frosty winter period, as many of us feel like doing. Yet just as it is not so possible for us to weather the months wrapped in a duvet, much of the UK’s wildlife have their morning commutes and days’ work to get on with. With there being an estimated 16 million gardens in the UK the potential is there for a massive contribution to be made towards helping our islands wildlife survive and thrive through the winter. Different schemes ran by organisations such as The Wildlife Trust’s ‘Wild About Gardens week’ - which ran from 25th – 30th October – helps in the efforts to turn the UK’s gardens into havens for wildlife. So find out how to make your garden into a little haven for our feathered friends this winter…

It is said in figures produced by the RSPB that over 50% of adults in the UK feed birds in their garden. Doing this is a great way to help birds throughout the year, and to really see the variety of species and colours which birds can offer right in your back garden!

After the summer there is a shift in the species of birds that the UK holds residence to with mass migrations happening to signify the change in seasons and the weather. To help us to understand how we can tailor out gardens for birds, we asked a few questions to wildlife expert Kate MacRae (AKA WildlifeKate)(who you might of seen talking on Autumnwatch a few weeks back!)

What are the most common birds can you expect to see? Any specialist birds that people should look out for?

Depending on where you live and the habitats both in and around your garden, you can expect tp attract different species of bird. Most gardens offering food of varying types would expect to see common species such as robin, blackbird, blue tit and great tits, along with wood and feral pigeons. More rural locations can expect more of the finch family, such as goldfinch, chaffinch and the stunning bullfinch.

What food can you put out? Would you tailor this to species?

The more variety of food you offer in your garden, the more species you will attract! Some food stuffs are very much tailored for specific species. The nyger seed (very fine seed from thistles) is very much favoured by goldfinches. Fat-based products are loved by long tailed tits in particular, along with Great spotted woodpeckers.

Mixed seed can be a good compromise, but the cheaper it is, the more wheat it contains, the fewer species it will attract. The wheat-based products are really only favoured by the larger pigeons and doves. I prefer to buy straight seed mixes and then to create my own mixtures based on the species I feed and want to attract.

If the seed has a husk or shell, such as sunflower seeds, then only species with a bill capable of removing this will eat them. The tit family will take these seeds from the feeder, fly to a nearby branch, hold the seed with their feet and peck off the shell to access the seed kernal inside. Finches, with larger beaks are able to grind the shell off from the seed. A robin, blackbird or dunnock would not be access this food type. Thus, the type of food offered will determine the species.

Kate’s recommended foods

5 different types of birdseed

If there is one food that attracts all, it is sunflower hearts. These are sunflower seed with the shell removed. It is an expensive food stuff, but is loved by all species.  If fed through feeders with perches and clinging opportunities, as well as on the bird table, just about every species can benefit.

Where should you place the food?

The food you offer in your garden and the way in which you offer that will determine the species you attract. Birds are adapted to feeding in different ways and if you mimic these feeding methods then you will be able to attract more to your feeding stations.

Some species are quite agile and acrobatic and like clinging onto feeders to feed. Species such as the tit family and some of the finches are happy to hang on the mesh of a feeder to eat. Woodpeckers also like feeding like this.

Other species, such as the robin or blackbird, would find it difficult to cling like this and would prefer to feed from a surface such as a bird table.  A feeder with integrated perches will also increase the number of visitors able to access the food. A large seed tray increases this further. Many species such as goldfinches, greenfinches and bullfinches like to sit on the edge of a tray to feed, rather than clinging.

When is the best time of year to feed birds?

I feed all year around, but the most important time to feed the birds is in the Autumn and Winter when natural foodstuffs start to diminish. Feeding stations can be essential to the survival of many species especially when heavy snow or low temperatures make foraging for food difficult.

Fresh water is another essential. Not only will birds find it difficult to find open water to drink when temperatures are subzero, but it is essential that they keep their plumage in top condition in cold weather. This means that the need to bathe and preen. I am always amazed to watch them bathe when it is absolutely freeing cold! Feathers need to be kept in tip-top condition if they are to keep the bird warm and bathing helps this process.

Once you start feeding birds, it is important to keep up with it, particularly in cold weather as they will come to rely on it.  You can supplement commercially bought bird foods with small amounts of crumbled granary bread, grated cheese, raisins, sultana, chopped apple and easily make your own fat balls by mixing all of the above, with seed into lard. This can be shaped into balls of pressed into holes drilled into a log or into crevices in the bark of a tree.

Anything else that should be considered?

Hygiene is really important too. Keep feeders and water areas clean from old food and wash them regularly. I sell a selection of feeders on my shop ( that cater for all sorts of birds and foods, and one range has a biocidal coating which helps prevent the buildup of harmful microbes. All the items I sell in my shop have been used and trialed by me and my wildlife. You can watch my wildlife LIVE on my cameras at

Not only will you be supporting your population of birds through the cold months, but you may also be rewarded with some rarer visitors; last winter brought redpoll, linnet and bullfinch to feeders in numbers not previously seen. Many species, such as these, are discovering feeding stations, giving keen garden bird watchers the chance to see wonderful new species in the garden.

It is a fantastic pastime... a wonderful way to engage with the wildlife in your garden and really make a difference!

Robin on perch

The British Trust for Ornithology’s (BTO) Garden BirdWatch scheme is an on-going project aiming to get the nation involved in helping our birds through collecting information from bird enthusiasts up and down the country. We spoke to Clare Simm from the BTO about the scheme and what we can do to help our isles birds…

What natural ways can help in our birds?

A great way to guarantee birds in your garden all year round is to plant wildlife-friendly bushes and trees. This is a great time of year for planting for birds. Fruit and berry-bearing trees/bushes will provide food for birds during the winter as well as providing cover all year round. Native species that are good for birds include Rowan, Holly, Dog Rose, Hawthorn and Elder. Non-native species that are good include Cotoneaster and Pyracantha. 

What should be avoided putting out in your garden?

Foods to avoid putting out for birds include any with a high salt content (salted peanuts and bacon rind), those that may swell up inside the bird (desiccated coconut), those that are mouldy or spoiled and those which harbour bacteria (e.g. meat scraps).

Avoid unnecessary chemicals – many compounds impact on other plants and animals within the garden. There are natural ways to manage pest and disease issues and those insects that you may think are pests are food to other organisms.

Are there any species that are seen to be dwindling in population? – Why?

There are common garden species that are, or have been, declining. House Sparrows are a classic example, with loss of foraging and nesting sites thought to be part of the problem. However their decline seems to be levelling off, in gardens at least.

Collared Doves are undergoing a decline though reasons for this are relatively unknown – it could be that they are being outcompeted or that disease is having an effect. Finally, Starling numbers have fallen in gardens over the last decade, matching the wider population decline. Again, the cause is uncertain but may be due to reductions in insect numbers due to drought and changes in agricultural practices.

What can be done to help these? – What do schemes like the BTO Garden BirdWatch do to help?

By managing your garden for wildlife, you will already be helping these birds. House Sparrows and Starlings are potentially being affected by a reduction in insect numbers so not using pesticides and allowing parts of your garden to grown wild should encourage these. Providing thick vegetation that provides cover for hiding and putting up nestboxes can also be beneficial.

BTO garden birdwatch

Schemes like the BTO Garden BirdWatch and other bird surveys help bird species by spotting population declines before it is too late. The BTO Garden BirdWatch has been running since 1995, and currently has almost 14,500 volunteers providing information from across the country. This long-running data set and the large number of submissions allow the monitoring of population changes in gardens on a large scale.

Gardens are an important habitat supporting populations of some bird species for all or part of the year, and we need to understand how what is happening in gardens affects these populations. Finally, the Garden BirdWatch introduces people to wildlife monitoring which increases their interest and, hopefully, their desire to conserve these species. You can find out how to take part in the Garden BirdWatch here:

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