Bird Food - What, When and Why

Feeding our garden birds not only gives them a helping hand (or wing), it also means we get to see our wonderful wildlife up close and all the joys they bring. However, it is important to know what food to put out – hopefully this guide will help!

Sunflower Hearts

These de-shelled sunflower seeds are loved by most garden birds. They are high in energy, and without the husks they can be eaten quickly – and without leaving a mess in your garden.
When: All year
Birds: Tits, greenfinches and most other garden birds

Black Sunflowers Seeds
While not as favoured as sunflower hearts, sunflower seeds are very good for their high oil content and their thin husks that make them easy to split open.
When: All year
Birds: Nuthatches, Coal Tits


Peanuts have a high fat and protein content which is great for helping birds through winter. If you choose to continue to feed peanuts in spring, make sure they are fed through a mesh feeder, to prevent whole peanuts being fed to young, which could potentially choke them. Alternatively, you can crush them first. They can also be high in a natural toxin - aflatoxin - that is deadly to birds, so make sure to buy them from a reputable dealer. Salt is also toxic to birds, so never feed them salted peanuts.
When: Best in winter
Birds: Tits, sparrows, nuthatches, great spotted woodpeckers and green finches

Great Spotted Woodpecker

Photo: Bob Coyle

Nyjer Seeds
These small black seeds have a high oil content and are good for birds with delicate bills. Their small size means they need to be put in a special bird feeder, and it is worth placing a tray underneath to catch any that fall on the ground.
When: All year
Birds: Goldfinches and siskins

Fat Balls
Fat balls provide lots of energy which is extremely important in the cold winter months. If buying, make sure to remove the mesh surrounding the ball, as this can entangle bird’s feet. If making your own, make sure to only use pure suet or lard – butter or cooking oils are difficult to remove from feathers, reducing their waterproofness and can harbour harmful bacteria.
When: Best in winter
Birds: Tits, sparrows, starlings, blackcaps and blackbirds

Despite the name, mealworms are actually beetle larvae. They are loved by many birds, but can be expensive to buy constantly, although it is possible to culture your own. Fresh is also best - dead mealworms can carry salmonella poisoning.
When: All year
Birds: Blue tits and robins

Seed Mixes
Bird seed mixes contain a mix of different seeds which can include: Millet, flaked maize, sunflower seeds, peanuts, barley and wheat. Having the different seed types and sizes will help attract different birds. Be careful not to buy mixes that also contain dog biscuit, split peas, dried lentils and rice as these can swell and choke smaller birds.
When: All year (winter for ones containing peanuts)
Birds: Millet – finches, collared doves, house sparrows
Maze – Blackbirds
Wheat & Barley – Pheasants, doves and pigeons


Photo: Niel Higginson

Why should we feed our garden birds?

During winter, there can often be food shortages and without a steady food supply, many birds will die. By feeding birds high energy foods you can help keep their condition up through the winter, ready to start breeding in spring.

Blue Tit

Photo: Elliott Neep

Come spring time, parent birds will be working overtime to make sure they have a healthy and happy brood. While there should be natural food sources around, providing a bit extra is important to achieve maximum brood success!

Over the summer, high protein foods will help birds that are moulting as this is an energy consuming process. If there are temporary food shortages due to bad weather, birds will rely on garden feeders to keep their broods going.

Into autumn birds will either be getting ready to migrate or start fattening up for winter. A mixture of high protein and high fat foods will give them the strength they need to survive.

In rural parts of the country natural food sources are available for birds to feed on, but in urban areas these can be harder to find. Combined with our landscape becomes increasingly more fragmented by agriculture and buildings, birds will come to rely on us feeding them more and more.

And there you have it! With any luck, you should have plenty of birds in your garden in no time. If you are still struggling to attract birds, be patient; it can take some time for birds to discover your garden and feel safe enough to come and feed. Making food visible to passing birds, having a variety of feeders, natural sources of food, and potential nesting sites (boxes, climbing plant species, trees) should all create a bird garden haven!