Food for thought: feed the birds

01 Oct 2010 | No. 2010-10-43

As autumn draws in and food for birds in the wider countryside is depleted, our feathered companions will start to flock to feeders in our gardens. The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) provides a master class on what the public can do to help.

Sunflower hearts in feeder

Last winter taught us many lessons: travel chaos dilutes the romance of a white Christmas; Frosty the Snowman can begin to feel like a permanent guest; and when it gets really cold huge numbers of birds precipitate from the sky and settle in our gardens. Thousands of hungry beaks snaffled up tasty morsels in UK gardens last winter, and as the spectacle unfurled participants in the year-round BTO Garden BirdWatch recorded the dramatic comings and goings.

As we gear up for another winter, now is a great time to think about our garden visitors again. For them, our patch can mean the difference between life and death and the BTO Garden BirdWatch has issued guidelines on how householders can help:

In a nutshell

1. Top foods:

  • Oil-rich seeds, such as sunflower hearts and nyjer
  • Ground-up peanuts
  • Finely grated cheese, beef or vegetable suet
  • Chunks of windfall (especially) or fresh fruit
  • Dried fruit (that has been soaked first) – note, can be toxic to dogs
  • Mealworms and other live-foods (alive or dried)
  • Beef or vegetable suet-based ‘cakes’
  • Pinhead oatmeal or uncooked porridge oats

2. Foods to avoid:

  • Soft fats and oils (can soil feathers)
  • Dried foods e.g. coconut, uncooked rice (could swell after ingestion)
  • Bread (nutritionally lacking compared with other foods)
  • Milk (birds are not adapted to digest milk)
  • Cooked porridge (can stick to beak)

3. Provide clean fresh water: to drink and to keep feathers in good condition for insulation.

4. Don’t provide too much! Ensure that food does not go mouldy and cleanfeeders regularly. Excess food can attract vermin.

5. Avoid substantial trimming of berry producing vegetation such as holly and ivy that will continue to hold fruit long into winter.

6. Record what you see through the BTO Garden BirdWatch so that we can monitor garden birds every week of the year.

Dr Tim Harrison, BTO Garden BirdWatch, commented: “Research shows that providing food during winter improves the survival prospects of many species and can even boost breeding success in the following spring. Cold winters often occur in flurries and if last winter is anything to go by then thousands of birds will race to our handouts during the next few months.”

He added: “Huge numbers of birds that are normally scarce garden visitors, such as Redwing, Fieldfare and Brambling, can pour into our towns and cities during cold weather – so autumn and winter is a great time to be an armchair birdwatcher! Research shows that interactions with nature can reduce levels of stress, so feeding birds can be a positive activity all round.”

For a free guide on feeding garden birds or for more information about BTO Garden BirdWatch please phone 01842 750050, email gbw [at] or write to BTO, The Nunnery, Thetford, Norfolk, IP24 2PU.

Notes for Editors

  1. The BTO is the UK’s leading bird research organisation. Over thirty thousand birdwatchers contribute to the BTO’s surveys. They collect information that forms the basis of conservation action in the UK. The BTO maintains a staff of 100 at its offices in Norfolk and Stirling, who analyse and publicise the results of project work. The BTO’s investigations are funded by government, industry and conservation organisations.
  2. The BTO Garden BirdWatch is the only nationwide survey of garden birds to run weekly throughout the year, providing important information on how birds use gardens, and how this use changes over time. Currently, some 15,000 people take part in the project. The project is funded by participants’ contributions and is the largest year-round survey of garden birds in the world. For more information see

Contact Information 

Tim Harrison (BTO Garden BirdWatch Development Officer)
Office: 01842 750050
Email: gbw [at]

Images are available for use alongside this News Release
Please contact images [at] quoting reference 2010-10-43

The BTO has an ISDN line available for radio interviews

Please contact us to book an interview
Office: 01842 750050

Related content