Familiar, conspicuous in our skies and in our landscape, birds are, in a very real sense, our canaries in the mine – casualties connected to far greater and less visible losses. Preceding them, and the following in their wake, are all the other species – including the less glamourous forms of life like insects, plants, fungi, lichens, bacteria – that share their fate.Isabella Tree, Wilding, p166
I was just about to hit “subscribe” to an order of bird peanuts…when I thought…hang on just a peanutty moment. I’m about to part with my hard-earned cash to feed the BIRDS. And what’s more, then have to watch these irritatingly acrobatic squirrels scoff the lot! NO WAY.
I love birds, I love watching them use the bird feeder. So too, do 75% of British households who are also feeding 196 million garden birds every year. Garden centres, supermarkets, even pharmacies now stock a bewildering variety of bird seeds. Some are even tailored for different seasons and different varieties of wild birds.
Birds have been a form of solace to all of us while locked down in our homes. With fewer cars, I could hear the birds, and learn to recognize their songs. This is something I definitely wouldn’t have been able to do or had time to do in the cacophony of our multi-tasking busy lives. Watching them from my patio window and seeing them bob back and forth to peck at seeds from the feeder was comforting to us all.
But, what about their natural food sources? On what day was it announced that we should all start feeding them with overpriced bags of bird food?
I suppose it may have coincided with our realization that we actually destroyed most of their natural food sources. Through intensive agriculture, deforestation, house building, verge clearing, pollution, increased use of fertilizers, and pesticides – the number of birds have been declining – RAPIDLY.
In 1966, according to the RSPB, there were 40 million more birds in the UK than there are today. Our skies have emptied.Isabella Tree, Wilding, p166
Birds like cuckoos, turtle doves, woodpeckers, yellowhammers, skylarks and even sparrows are dropping in numbers. Our gardens are the last refuge for many of these birds.
What do birds actually eat?
It’s definitely not peanuts, bread and chia seeds!!
Blackbirds and robins like earthworms and small insects. Sparrows will eat invertebrates and aphids and caterpillars. Your seed lovers are chaffinches and goldfinches. They like the tiny seeds from much maligned-ragwort, thistles and, teasels.
The bigger birds like woodpeckers will also eat insects and the occasional nut. Owls like small mammals and frogs!
For our summer guests, like the housemartins and swifts, they enjoy dining on fine hoverflies, aphids, mosquitos, gnats and flying ants.
So to help keep all our birds happy and full, I needed lots of insects and some seeds.
Feed the birds by starting some insect husbandry
Yes – that’s what I said. Get into insect husbandry.
I don’t mean, actually rearing them in a little cot, and feeding them every the cee hours. Instead, by just giving insects a chance to grow and develop and not be poisoned by some horrific pesticides.
By making our garden more hospitable to insects I hoped to provide a lot of food for our birds.
So we did the following:
- Stop all chemicals
Spray a pest, and you are likely to kill the predator and anything else that feeds on that pest too. I had been phasing out the insecticides and pesticides for a while, but now it was a blanket ban, punishable by death. No amount of peer pressure or seductive advertising of luscious dahlias and juicy veggies was gonna convince me otherwise. We also cut out all the artificially made fertilizers. We ditched the Jayes Fluid and outlawed the Round-Up. Even when an army of aphids descended on my roses, I held my nerve. Within a week or two the lacewing (Neuroptera) cavalry had arrived. I have NEVER seen that amount of lacewings in our garden. At one outdoor family dinner, all four of us had two or three lacewings sitting on our arms and faces. I hope they were saying, “thank you, humans, we have never had such a feast.” If you kill the pests, you’ll never get the predators to come. We were truly honored to have a garden full of them and really just in the nick of time. Now we have an onslaught of hoverflies
- Make a pond
Ponds are the BEST way of attracting life and insects into your garden. Our pond was made at the start of lockdown, by using the neighbor’s 10-year-old boat sand-pit, that we sunk into the ground.
- Make a compost heap
I’ve currently got two hot compost bins which are made of polystyrene and plastic, and a council bin which I’m using to make fungally dominated compost for my shrubs. But, we had forgotten about the corner of our garden where I’d made a chicken wire bin of sorts for our leaves. I dismantled this and started feeding it some nitrogen and some compost activators to turn it into a lovely mountain of mulch.
- Grow a variety of smelly flowers
Hoverflies (Diptera) and Parasitic wasps (Hymenoptera) are partial to some Lemon balm, Marigold, Alyssum, Dill, Cosmos and Mallow. Although in our garden, the hoverflies love the Sunflowers and Calendulas the best. Lacewings love the large landing pad type plants, like fennel, dill, dandelion, and angelica. I have also recently put in a lot more varieties of Buddleia – much beloved by all insects. I’ve also left the Ivy (Hedera helix) to grow wild too as little insects like to eat the leaves and the nectar from the flowers.
- Build a bug hotel
These don’t have to be elaborate affairs with expensive bamboo and perfectly drilled bits of bark. A pallet stuffed with leaves and twigs in a quiet corner will be enough. Once you have some guests, the bugs will bring the birds.
- Leave the spider webs
In summer there is a temptation to keep the windows clean and fling the spiders out the door. But, remember, robins love spiders as do treecreepers.
- Garden wild
Leaving an area of your garden to just go wild is one of the best things you can do for insects. We left lots of patches of wild all across our garden. You could tell it was beneficial as when you walked through the long grass, clouds of insects flew up out of the way. We also let the ivy rampage up trees and over walls. Not only are ivy flowers great for insects, but they also provide berries for birds over the winter too.
Grow your own seeds and berries for birds
- Grow seed-bearing plants
Sunflowers will provide great big seeds as well which can be dried and then left out for the birds. Globe thistles (Echinops ‘Veitch’s Blue’) and ornamental thistles (Cirsium rivulare) are also good seed producers.
Wildflowers will also provide seed. Try Geranium pratense (meadow cranesbill), lesser knapweed, yarrow, meadowsweet
I am also growing some teasel from seed as well this year. I’ve tried the scatter and pray method and also grown some in seed trays which I’ll plant out in autumn.
Wildflowers UK provides a special bird and insect selection of seed you can plant in your garden.
- Make a brambly hedge
Brambles and blackberries make an excellent source of food for birds – oh and the humans too! Larger birds like thrushes, waxwings, starlings, jays, and blackbirds will all love the blackberries. Adding a dog rose too will provide juicy rose hips over the autumn. Even holly and cotoneasters are good as a berry producer. Other good berries producers include hawthorn – Crataegus spp., and chokeberry – Aronia spp. I’ve got a really dry shade bank under some holly trees, which are currently planted up with spirea, which just get mildew and look awful. I’m thinking of replacing them with a bird-friendly shrub, like Mahonia aquifolium ‘Apollo’ (Oregon grape) which has tiny black/purple berries.
- Plant native trees
Our previous owners planted LOTS of oak trees – great for the squirrels and the one jay, but there was a severe lack of native trees. We found a bunch of native seedling trees from the Woodland Trust that were cheap and that we could add to the back of our vegetable patch. So now we have rowan, wild cherry (Prunus avium) which produces very bitter cherries the birds adore. Also, a crab apple (Malus sylvestris) which will feed song thrushes, redwings, blackbirds and fieldfares. We already had quite a lot of Birch and Elder trees (Sambucus nigra) which produces lovely dark berries in the autumn.
- Grow native grasses
Tufted Hairgrass (Deschampsia cespitosa), Miscanthus (favored by the finches), and Panicum virgatum (switchgrass) grasses are great for providing seed in the colder months. At the moment, we just have our long grass-like Yorkshire fog grass and a few Stipa tenuissima which the birds like. I think we could sneak in a few more switchgrasses here and there too.
- Don’t chop off their heads
I previously liked to do a garden tidy up in the autumn, remove dead leaves and chop off seed heads. But I’ve since learned that leaving seed heads is a great way to provide food for the birds over the winter. Sunflower’s, obviously, but also your Asters, Black-Eyed Susans (Rudbeckia), Coneflowers (Echinacea), Coreopsis, Cosmos, Daisies,and ornamental grasses will all have seeds for birds. Even dried up stalks can become home for sleeping overwintering insects too. Sedum (Stonecrop) also has good seeds and they look good throughout the winter.
What are the benefits of growing your own bird food?
Reduce your costs
If you are growing your own source of food, using either weeds, wildflowers or perennials, your costs will be dramatically reduced.
Reduce your carbon footprint
A lot of niger seed is imported from Africa, India, Nepal and Myanmar. Peanuts come from as far as China. Some producers are working to grow bird seed locally, however.
Support insect life and pollinators at the same time
Growing more diverse plants and leaving seed heads on plants will give insects a place to feed and rest.
To supplement or not to supplement the birds during the winter?
Even though I’ve done all this for the birds, I think I will still supplement with a few peanuts in the winter months.
The verdict is still out on whether we are artificially promoting the health of birds that would not have normally made it through the winter or whether we are offsetting our environmental impact. Either way, I think working towards providing natural food sources, available at the right time of year by growing more native plants and encouraging insects is the better ‘wilder’ way to go.
There are also dangers in not cleaning bird feeders, which can lead to mouldy food and disease spreading between birds. If you do decide to put out some food make sure you check out the British Trust for Ornithology on best practices here.
So I will still continue to give a LITTLE food in the winter, but I’ll be waving my birds away to the garden where this time next year there should be PLENTY to eat. (Yes, that is an accurate representation of me – a bit browner though 😂 )
Go and feed the birds, but using your garden and not your wallet.
Why not download a free copy of my plant list for birds here.