Creating encounters with wildlife for our children can be hard. One of the simplest ways to introduce them to nature is to feed the birds in your garden. Kids love helping prepare and put out the food as well as watching to the birds arrive and learning to identify them.
To help, here’s what you need to know to make a coconut feeder, identify garden birds and put out the right food to ensure you attract a variety of birds to your garden, as well as how to enter the annual garden bird watch or join an ongoing scientific study.
Create a Wildlife Encounter for the Kids
Not my best photography ever (mostly through windows), these photos are all taken in our back garden to show it really is worth making the effort to feed the birds.
Use Different Feeders and Be Patient
To encourage a variety of birds to the garden, use different feeding methods. Adapt the feeders to the size of your garden and be patient if you’ve not fed birds before, they can take a few days to get used to something new in their environment.
How to Feed Birds
Consider the size of your garden; whether you have trees, bushes etc and also if there are local cats. Don’t position feeders where cats can easily get to them.
Wooden bird tables work well with or without roofs, you can even make your own, while a metal bird feeding pole with hooks for different hanging feeders, a water bowl and a flat tray is excellent for feeding multiple species. We also put food on the lawn for ground feeders and sometimes hang fat coconuts in the trees.
We tried a window-hanging feeder this year and I was surprised at how many birds were courageous enough to use it. They’re a great idea for the housebound and for children to see birds close-up, if they can sit still long enough!
Hoping Mr Robin will hop down for some mealworm!
Try these ideas from a lovely blog called WilderChild; decorating an outdoor tree for birds including an alternative to our coconut feeder (below) using orange peel halves, and for younger kids, throw a birthday party for the birds.
Feed Birds All Year
Many people feed garden birds in harsh winter weather but not everyone knows that the UK’s declining bird populations benefit hugely from year round feeding. Here’s a summary of seasonal variations.
- Ensure a daily supply of fresh water when natural water is frozen
- Fat balls and suet feeders provide instant energy in cold weather
- Remove mesh wrappers from fat balls to avoid birds becoming tangled
- Clear snow from an area of grass for ground feeders
- Feeding chicks and fledglings is exhausting so continued feeding is a great benefit for tired parents
- Don’t feed whole peanuts as young birds can choke on them
- Dried and live mealworms are excellent nutritional treats for adults and juveniles alike
- Continue basic seed feeding as food shortages can occur at any time
- Provide fresh water during dry weather
- As per winter, with high fat foods and daily fresh water
- Put out soft apples for ground feeders
Putting out the right food for your garden visitors means learning which birds you’ve got visiting. To identify garden birds use the RSPB’s handy identifier or British Trust for Ornithology (BTO)’s great video tutorials for identification.
To identify birds by their song, a free App is Birdsong ID. It’s perfect to listen to bird songs to learn them but I’ve personally found its recording and playback function is not ideal. It is best used to confirm a birdsong – Caroline uses it a lot.
Which birds eat what?
Once you know who’s who, how do you know what to feed them?
Seed Eaters – these birds like seeds of all kinds, small insects, caterpillars etc.
Blue Tit, Great Tit, Coal Tit, Goldfinch, Greenfinch, Sparrow, Collared Dove
Ground Feeders – these eat worms, slugs, snails, flying insects, fruit (apples), scraps etc.
Blackbird, Chaffinch, Dunnock, Pigeon, Robin, Starling, Thrush, Wren
What to Feed
Nyger seed is great for Finches and Sparrows, requiring a special feeder for the tiny seeds. Our Collared Doves have even learnt to balance the feeder to get at the Nyger!
A no-mess (seeds already hulled), high-energy seed mix is good for general seed-eaters in a standard feeder. A a squirrel-proof hanger or half-coconut shell for fat balls is useful too.
Most people hang peanut feeders but we’ve found the birds shun them in favour of seeds.
A tray can be used for seeds, dried mealworms and household scraps – ours attaches to our feeder stand.
Bread isn’t great for birds. It has little nutritional value and can swell in their stomachs so if you must feed it make sure you have soaked it well and put it out wet and soggy. This goes for ducks too – seeds only please!
Both the RSPB and BTO have lots of detailed information on bird feeding.
How to Make a Coconut Fat Feeder
You will need:
- Half a coconut (saved from a shop-bought feeder and well-cleaned)
- Bird seeds, raisins, meal worms etc
What to do:
- Thoroughly clean the coconut shell if re-using one that birds have previously fed on. Use a bird-safe disinfectant such as Ark-Klens
- On a low heat in an old pan gently melt just over a third of a packet of lard
- Place the coconut shell on a bowl or old takeaway container for stability and to catch spills
- Carefully pour the lard, a little at a time, into the coconut shell
- Add seeds, raisins and meal worm as you go
- Top with a layer of sesame seeds if you have them and stick meal worms out of the fat
- Allow to cool and harden – around 60 to 90 minutes
- Hang in a tree and wait for the birds
I’ve found that putting Nyger seed out is the number one way to attract lots of different species to the garden so I highly recommend adding Nyger to the menu.
Join a Garden Birdwatch
Now you’ve attracted birds to your garden why not enter the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch which takes place every year at the end of January. You can sign up for a free pack and spend an hour over the weekend of the 28th-30th January recording what you see. Upload the results online and receive a certificate from the RSPB.
To record your garden birds ALL YEAR ROUND, for an ongoing nationwide scientific study, join BTO’s Garden Birdwatch where you record the birds you spot on a weekly basis. It costs £17 for a year including a quarterly magazine and a free wildlife and bird book. Kids of the Wild are joining this year.
You’ll get great results from putting out food for the birds. It’s good for them, good for us and excellent for our children’s natural well-being.
Summary – Dos and Don’ts
- Identify your regular bird visitors
- Consider cats and position feeders so cats can’t reach them
- Feed a variety of food according to species e.g. ground or seed feeder
- Use a variety of containers e.g. coconut shell, wire hangers, window feeders
- Feed all year round
- No whole peanuts in spring and summer to avoid young choking
- Always put out fresh water, especially in freezing conditions
- If you have a larger garden put food in different locations
- Maintain feeder hygiene to avoid spread of disease
- Maintain personal hygiene after handling bird feeders
- No mouldy or salty foods
- Beware of pets as raisins can be poisonous to some dogs
- Soak bread in water and feed in small pieces if you must feed it at all
Bird flu is around again in some parts of the country so for maximum protection ensure you disinfect bird feeders regularly and thoroughly wash your own and children’s hands after handling feeders.
Don’t let that stop you feeding the birds. Get feeding and enjoy the closeness of nature in your own garden.