South East Essex RSPB - Our Advice Page
Answers to some of our most commonly asked questions
- Injured Birds
- Nestboxes for Small Garden Birds
- Advice on Birdtables
- Birds and Water
- Feeding Garden Birds
- How do I stop Cats from attacking Birds in my Garden?
Please note that the RSPCA (England and Wales) is the national charity that help and advise on sick and injured birds and animals. The RSPB does not run bird hospitals or a rescue service because we are a conservation charity. The RSPCA, your local vet or a local animal rescue centre, have the expertise to help and advise you about sick and injured birds and animals.
I have an injured bird in my garden, what should I do?
For most injured birds, place them gently in a box and keep them quiet, dark and cool. It may be that the bird is in shock and will soon recover so you can let it go. If it is more seriously injured, this will reduce stress on the bird until you can get advice on how you can help it.
What should I do with a baby bird that has been abandoned by its parents?
Probably nothing. A young bird alone on the ground has not necessarily been abandoned. The young of many birds will fledge after they grow feathers, but before they are able to fly. They spend a day or two on the ground before their feather development is complete. It is really best not to interfere. The parents will be close by and come to feed the bird as soon as it is safe.
If the bird is in a vulnerable position it will do no harm to move it into shelter but not too far away as the parents will then be unable to find it. Touching a bird will not make the parents abandon it.
Watch carefully - if the parents do not return and the youngster has definitely been abandoned.
Why do some birds in my garden have growths on their feet?
Birds that have growths on their legs are usually suffering from a disease. Avian pox can cause deformed feet in house sparrows, starlings and pigeons. Chaffinches can develop tumours caused by a viral infection.
Bumblefoot, which affects large birds, is caused when cuts become infected and often makes it difficult for birds to perch or walk.
Should I feed a baby bird bread and milk?
No. These are not suitable foods for young birds most of which will be fed on soft insects, worms and grubs in their early days. Scrambled egg, with a little moist cereal, is fine to begin with but more suitable food, for both seed and insect eating birds, is available from pet shops.
If I touch a baby bird will the parents abandon it?
No, birds have little or no sense of smell, but do keep contact to a minimum. It is often easier to pick a bird up by gently covering it with a cloth first.
I have found several dead birds in my garden. Is there something wrong with the food I am supplying?
Not necessarily. There are many causes of birds dying, the most usual being an outbreak of an infectious disease, such as salmonella. If you clean your feeders and birdtables regularly you will help prevent infections from spreading.
Why are the collared doves in my garden dying?
Sadly, collared doves are one of the main sufferers of a disease called trichomoniasis (canker). It affects the upper digestive tract causing lesions in the birds throats making it difficult to feed and eventually to breathe. The infected bird may die of starvation or possibly choking. It is not caused by anything that you have done.
However, you can help to prevent it from spreading. The best course of action is to stop feeding for at least a month. Sweep up and dispose of any left over food and, if possible disinfect all feeding areas.
In summer, natural food is plentiful so the birds will not suffer. Your feeding area ought to be free of any infection by the time the birds return, in search of food, at the onset of cooler weather.
In winter, place food in hanging feeders only. Sweep up any that falls to the ground each day, to prevent the spread of disease.
My cat keeps catching wild birds - what can I do to stop this happening?
Giving your cat a collar fitted with a bell or a sonar device will reduce the number of birds it catches. You can buy collars that are fitted with a quick release mechanism that is safer for your cat. Keeping your cat indoors at dusk and dawn, when birds are most vulnerable, will also help.
If you keep your cat well fed, they are less likely to hunt and are more likely to stay close to home which may curb their hunting instincts.
How can I stop birds flying into my windows?
You can fix something to the outside of your windows to stop birds from flying into them. Birds fly into windows because the reflections confuse them. Some see the reflection of trees and the sky and dont realise it is glass. By fixing something to the window you will reduce the reflection and birds are less likely to be confused.
Plastic stickers work well - RSPB reserve shops sell stickers in the shape of bird silhouettes, which are ideal.
How to make a nestbox
Natural nest holes do not come in standard sizes, so use the following dimensions only as a guide. Use a plank about 150 mm wide and 15 mm thick. The size of each section is to be cut as shown on the diagram. The inside of the box must be at least 100 mm square and the bottom of the entrance hole must be at least 125 mm from the floor. If it is less, young birds might be scooped out by a cat.
Use galvanised nails or screws. The inside front surface should be rough to allow the young birds to clamber up. A drainage hole should be drilled in the base.
The entrance hole size depends on the species you hope to attract:
25 mm for coal, marsh and blue tits
28 mm for great tits and tree sparrows
32 mm for nuthatches and house sparrows.
A starling box needs to be 25-30% larger with an entrance 45 mm across.
Hinge the lid with a strip of leather or rubber (an old piece of bicycle inner tube would do). Do not nail the lid down but use a good catch to fasten it. You will want to clean out the box in the autumn.
The same box with the upper half of the front taken away altogether may attract the occasional robin, pied wagtail or wren to nest. Spotted flycatchers prefer an even shallower, open-fronted box.
Softwood boxes may be treated with water-based preservatives such as Fenceguard or Sadolin: apply only to the outside of the box, and not around the entrance hole. Whatever you use, make sure the box dries and airs thoroughly before putting it up.
Where to site a nestbox
Boxes for tits, sparrows or starlings should be fixed two to five metres up a tree or wall, out of the reach of cats and curious humans! Unless there are trees or buildings, which give permanent shelter, it is best facing between north and east, thus avoiding strong sunlight and the wettest winds. Tilt the box forward slightly so that any driving rain will hit the roof and bounce clear. House sparrows and starlings will readily use nest boxes placed high up under the eaves and these will often deter the birds from nesting in your roof! Keep these away from areas where house martins normally nest. Open-fronted boxes for robins and wrens need to be low down, well hidden in vegetations.
Fixing your nestbox with nails may damage the tree. It is better to attach it with wire around the trunk or branch. Use a piece of hose or section of car tyre around the wire to prevent damage to the tree. Remember that trees grow in girth as well as height, and check any fixing every two or three years.
Two boxes of the same kind may both be occupied if they are at the edge of adjoining territories and if there is plenty of natural food. Tits can, however, be very aggressive and seldom nest at densities greater than two or three pairs per acre. If you put up different boxes, you can attract several species.
The nests of most birds harbour fleas and other parasites, which remain to infest young birds that hatch the following year. We recommend that old nests be removed in October or November. Use boiling water to kill any remaining parasites. Insecticides and flea powders must not be used.
If there are unhatched eggs in the box, these may be removed legally only between October and January, and must be disposed of.
If you place a small handful of clean hay or wood shavings (not straw) in the box once it is thoroughly dry after cleaning, it may be used during the winter by small mammals or birds for hibernating or roosting in respectively.
The RSPB receives many questions about nestboxes. This page aims to answer some of the commoner ones.
Why are there dead young or unhatched eggs in the box?
It is quite normal for a few eggs to fail to hatch, or for some young to die. Blue and great tits lay up to 14 eggs to allow for such losses. Cold weather and food shortage may lead to nest desertion, or to only the strongest young surviving. The death of one parent or interference from animals or humans may also cause desertion.
Can I see what goes on inside the box?
We recommend that nestboxes in use are not inspected. It is best to simply watch and enjoy from a distance. Alternatively, it is possible to buy a tiny camera specially designed for nestboxes. It can be linked up to your television for a front-row view from inside your nestbox.
How can I keep predators away from my nestbox?
Nestbox predators include cats, squirrels, rats, mice, stoats, weasels, woodpeckers and members of the crow family. As predators mainly hunt early in the morning, most people are unaware of their presence. A metal plate fixed around the entrance hole may deter woodpeckers and squirrels, while barbed wired, gorse or rose clippings above and below the box will give some protection against most mammals. Various commercially available deterrents may help reduce predation.
Conflicts between species
Birds such as sparrows and starlings often take over nesting holes used by tits. Most tits are able to defend a box successfully, provided that the intruder cannot get inside. A hole size of 25 mm will exclude larger species. Do not fix a perch on the front of your box as this will encourage intruders. Tits do not need the perch. Please remember that sparrows and starlings are in serious decline and may need help even more than the tits. Do not place sparrow boxes too close to ones intended for other birds.
Why do tits hammer away at the entrance hole?
This is probably a form of display by the male, rather than an attempt to enlarge the hole. Later, the female will also peck vigorously: natural holes may have all the surrounding bark chipped away. This may help her to judge how soft the wood is and whether the hole will provide a safe, predator-proof home in which to raise her brood. Blue and great tits will also hammer at the inside of a box or nest hole, perhaps as a form of display.
Why do tits enter nestboxes in autumn and winter?
They may be looking for a suitable place to sleep or perhaps feed. Roosting boxes are often subsequently used for nesting. Tits will not seriously inspect potential nest sites until February or March.
How can I prevent insects from taking over a nestbox?
Bees, wasps or earwigs will, on occasions, take over nestboxes and there is little one can do to prevent it apart from using insect sprays. As many of the insects are useful food for birds, it is best to leave well alone. Insects often move in after birds have finished nesting. Any young found dead are likely to have died of other natural causes. Despite thorough cleaning, it is not unusual for the same type of insect to return to the box in subsequent years. So leave that box in situ and put up another one a few feet away. It is rare indeed for both to be lost to insect invasion!
When should a birdtable be used?
A birdtable will be at its most popular and valuable when natural food is in short supply; this usually runs from October-April. At the end of the winter there are natural signs which tell you when you can stop feeding; the appearance of large numbers of insects and the buds on the trees starting to open are good guides.
The birdtable itself can be left in position all year round, but bringing it in out of the weather during the summer will prolong its life. If you wish to continue feeding during the spring and summer, current thinking is that this will cause no harm as long as hard foods are avoided. In particular, make sure that birds cannot take whole peanuts during the breeding season.
Where should it be?
A garden is not essential - a feeding tray can attract birds to a windowsill on a block of flats. Consider the following:
Quiet - if possible your birdtable should be placed where the birds will not be disturbed regularly by human traffic - ie the back garden rather than the front, and a quiet window if you have a choice. However, don't place it so far away from the house that you can 't see it - half the fun of feeding the birds is being able to watch them!
In the open and safe - with a good all-round view so that the birds can see they are safe from predators while they feed. The position should be safely away from cat ambush sites. These include fences and trees from which cats can leap, and dense bushes in which they can hide.
Sheltered - in a position where it gets neither too much sun nor too much cold wind.
With a lookout point - a small bush about two metres from the table gives the birds somewhere safe to perch while they look to see if it is safe to feed, to queue up for a place on the table, and to dash to if disturbed. Bramble clippings placed around the bush should prevent cats lurking.
Mounted - a raised birdtable has the advantage of being visible from the comfort of a chair. It can be placed on top of a post, hung from a branch or bracket or even from the washing line. However, some species of birds, such as Blackbirds, other Thrushes and Chaffinches, prefer to feed on the ground, so consider providing more than one type of feeding station.
Buying a birdtable
Birdtables are readily available from the RSPB, garden centres, pet shops and specialist mail order firms. Aesthetics aside, when you choose a table consider the following:
Size - too small a table will lead to more fighting than feeding. An area of about 3-4 square feet is ideal.
Material - will it survive hot and cold, wet and dry, sun and wind? With care a good birdtable will last 10 or more years. Avoid the pretty rustic ones made from silver birch logs: they will rot rapidly. Some plastics go brittle and crack readily when exposed to the weather.
The post - the smoother and straighter the post the harder it is for cats and squirrels to climb. Metal ones are ideal. Avoid the knobbly rustic ones which provide handy pawholds.
Safety - check there are no sharp edges which will endanger birds ' feet, and that there are no moving or 'scissoring ' joints in which a bird may be trapped or injured.
Design - avoid birdtables that provide a nestbox in the roof - encouraging birds to feed in another 's nesting territory is not wise. Avoid 'rustic ' thatched birdtables: in spring the roof will rapidly go bald as the birds take the thatch to build their nests! Some birdtables incorporate a birdbath in the table top. Unless very well designed, these generally result in the food getting wet and the water turning to soup and are therefore not recommended.
Making a birdtable
This leaflet gives you the information you need to build a basic birdtable. A birdtable does not need to be fancy or complicated - the birds are only interested in a good supply of food in a safe, sheltered place.
A plank or an old door make excellent birdtables. There is no maximum size, but don 't make the table too small or the birds will squabble and the shyer species will be kept away - 30 x 50 cm is about right. Use wood that will not split or disintegrate when it gets wet - exterior quality plywood, 0.5-1 cm thick is ideal, but do check that the wood comes from a sustainable source. A low rim about 1 cm high around the edge of the table will help stop the food from being knocked or blown off; leave gaps in the rim at the corners to allow rain to drain away and to make cleaning easy.
A metal post, as mentioned earlier, is best to mount your birdtable on as it is impossible for cats and more difficult for squirrels to climb. However, it is much easier to attach the table to a wooden one and you can slide a length of plastic drainpipe over the top to make it unscalable.
The length of the post will depend on whether you intend to drive it into the ground (allow for about a foot of post in the ground) or make it free-standing with a cross-shaped base. Either way the table needs to be 4-6 ft (1.2-1.75 m) off the ground. The best height will depend on the level at which you will be viewing the table from, the agility of the cats in your neighbourhood and the height of the person in charge of stocking and cleaning the table! Whichever way the post is fixed the table must be firm. If on a cross-shaped base make the feet long enough to stop the table blowing over. If wind is a problem you could either peg the feet down or place rocks on them. Use small metal angle brackets at the top of the post to fix the table, or small blocks of wood which can be screwed to the post from the side and then to the tray from below.
To hang a table, use screw-in eyes or hooks at each corner and attach lengths of wire or a light metal chain (avoid lines which can be chewed through by squirrels). To stop the table from spinning round, the chain needs to be hung from more than one point, so make loops of the chains at either end of the table and hang it from a horizontal branch (or your washing line). To protect a tree from being cut into by the chain, thread the chain through a section of garden hose.
Birdtables can be fixed to window ledges with angle brackets, chains or angled supports depending on the site.
A ground feeding tray
For those birds that prefer to feed on the ground, a low-level birdtable can be provided. This should be mounted no more than 10 cm off the ground (to allow the grass to 'breathe '), and moved fractionally each time you put out food. This prevents both the build up of droppings in one part of the garden and damage to your lawn. Remember, beware of cats under shrub cover.
The finished table
Once your birdtable is mounted, a few nails or hooks in the edges of the table will be useful for hanging nut bags or wire baskets for kitchen scraps. If it takes a few days before you see any birds, don 't be discouraged; once the birds discover the food and convince themselves it is not a trap they will visit it regularly.
Should there be a roof?
A table with a roof gives some protection to feeding birds (from rain, snow and hunting Sparrowhawks - with a roof some birds may even use your birdtable for roosting at night. This type of birdtable also provides a dry place for seed hoppers and nut bags. However, a roof can deter the shyer and larger species from visiting and, in most cases, an open one is really just as good.
Cats and squirrels can be a pest on a birdtable. Cats keep the birds away and squirrels devour the food. Although unsightly, four-centimetre wire mesh around the table can stop squirrels eating the food and cats reaching the birds. But it will also keep away larger birds such as thrushes, woodpeckers and jays. An alternative is an inverted biscuit tin fixed at the top of the post supporting the table; this can stop cats and squirrels climbing up and on to the table.
Starlings, House Sparrows, Collared Doves and the Crowg> family may monopolise a birdtable. An overhanging roof may deter the larger species but you are unlikely to stop these birds feeding altogether. Try providing food in a variety of sites, which should at least give the other birds a chance. Break food such as bread into smaller pieces so that large pieces cannot be snatched away. Place food on the table, on the ground and in a variety of feeders (spreading the food over a wide area also reduces squabbling). Loose food should only be sufficient for daylight hours or vermin may be attracted. If pigeons increase in number, discourage them by containerising all food: high numbers cause problems.
Looking after your table
Once you have completed your birdtable, treat it with a water-based wood preservative, which should dry thoroughly before the table is erected or used. Clean the table regularly, especially if you are feeding all year round. Never allow old food to accumulate, otherwise the food can be contaminated by sick birds, and spread disease. Move the table from time to time to stop the accumulation of droppings. This is obviously easier with a free-standing table. Annual maintenance is best carried out in autumn. Clean the table, re-treat if necessary (remember to leave plenty of time for it to dry), tighten/replace screws and make sure it is still a safe place for birds to feed.
If you are supplying a regular source of food in your garden you should also provide water. Birds require less water in their diet than we do and some may obtain all they need from food, but seed-eating birds - which you will be attracting to your birdtable - have the driest diet and need water the most. Provide a simple birdbath, such as a dish or a dustbin lid, or dig a pond.
If you enjoy watching your birdtable, consider providing more varied feeding stations to attract more species. Unfortunately tidier gardens and changes in farming methods have reduced the natural food supply of species like finches, buntings and sparrows. Providing sunflower seeds and pin-head oatmeal during the breeding season will help these birds. Both items are readily taken and are unlikely to be harmful if given to young in the nest.
Finally, do take care but carry on feeding your favourite birds and be sure to enjoy them.
Many people put food out for birds, but fewer provide a regular supply of clean water. Birds need water for drinking and bathing. Water is particularly important during the winter when natural supplies may be frozen, and in dry weather during the summer.
Birds get the liquid they need from their food, and by drinking. Many insectivorous birds get most of their water from food, while seed-eating birds have a dry diet and they need to drink more. Since birds have no sweat glands, they need less water than mammals. However, they do lose water through respiration, and in their droppings. Most small birds need to drink at least twice a day to replace the lost water.
Water is freely available to birds at all shallow edges of ponds and streams. Woodland birds may drink water droplets on leaves. Aerial species such as swallows and swifts will swoop down onto a water body and scoop up a billful while in flight. Most birds drink by dipping their bill in water and throwing their head back to swallow. Pigeons and doves are able to immerse their bills and drink continuously.
Water to bathe in is equally important, especially in winter. It is essential that birds keep their feathers in good condition, and bathing is an important part of feather maintenance. Dampening the feathers loosens the dirt and makes the feathers easier to preen. When preening, the bird carefully rearranges the feathers and spreads oil from the preen gland so they remain waterproof and trap an insulating layer of air underneath.
There are many ways of providing water in the garden. The simplest way is a bird bath. This is essentially a dish of water that needs to be functional - the aesthetic aspects are there to please us, not the birds.
A good bird bath has a simple, sturdy construction, but is light enough to make it easy to clean and refill. It needs to have shallow sloping sides with a shallow approach to water. Water depth needs to range at 2.5-10 cm (1-4 inches) to allow each species bathe at their preferred depth. The surface of the bath must be rough so birds can grip it with their claws and not slip. It should be large enough to hold sufficient water to withstand a vigorous bathing session by a flock of starlings.
The simplest bird bath is a large dish. A plant saucer with textured finish and a stone in the middle is the easiest. A dustbin lid needs to be either sunk into the ground or supported on stones or posts. If the lid is shiny or slippery, a thin layer of gravel on the bottom (though this makes it more difficult to clean), and a shallow stone in the middle will help birds get to the water in comfort. Concrete baths can be made by digging a hole of the desired size and shape, and lining this with concrete. Once the concrete has set, the bath can be removed, trimmed, and placed in the final location. If you prefer a custom made bird bath, these are available from the RSPB, many specialist suppliers, and from garden centres.
The location of your garden and the type of vegetation immediately around it will determine what birds will visit your bird bath, and in what numbers. Siting of the bath is very important - birds will only use it if they feel safe. Birds get excited and pre-occupied about bathing, and tend to be more vulnerable than at other times. Birds will need to have clear visibility as they bathe, nearby bushes or trees to provide cover if alarmed, and perches to use when preening. Ensure cats cannot use the cover to attack bathing birds. This can be done, for instance, by placing a thick layer of clippings from thorny vegetation, such as rose or pyracantha, beneath the bushes. Try placing the bath at different points around the garden to find the most popular site.
During droughts birds will try to use water barrels or drinking troughs. Sadly, many drown. If these containers cannot be covered, they can be made safer if a plank of wood or a branch is placed in the water so that birds can land, drink and even partially bathe in safety.
Keeping water clean
Bird baths must be cleaned regularly as they soon build up a layer of algae, dead leaves or bird droppings. Give the bath a thorough clean every week or so. Scrub the sides and bottom to remove algae and other dirt. You can use dilute household disinfectants, but make sure that you rinse the bath out thoroughly to remove any traces of chemicals. There are two non-toxic products on the market, Enviroclens and Crystal, which can be used to clean bird baths.
If your garden is large enough, a pond will provide both water for the birds, and an interesting wildlife habitat in its own right. It often attracts shyer species that dont use bird baths.Dig a suitably sized hole, sloping gradually to a shallow end. Cover the surface with 5 cm (2 inches) of sand before laying a sheet of 1,000 gauge polythene or butyl rubber sheeting into the hole, allowing 50 cm spare around the edge. Place a layer of soil over the bottom of the pond to allow plants to grow and cover the edge with soil and turf. A gravel beach in the shallow end gives birds easy access to the water. Stock your pond with natural plants and place a branch in the water or allow a bush to overhang to encourage shyer birds to visit.
A MORI poll conducted in 1994 showed that 50% of adults in Britain fed birds in their gardens, and by 1996 this figure had increased to 67%. With this growth in the popularity of feeding birds, it is more important than ever that we do so responsibly and safely.
By following a few simple guidelines we can all play a valuable role in helping the birds that visit gardens to:
- overcome periods of natural food shortage survive periods of severe winter weather
- be in good breeding condition in the spring and you can enjoy seeing wild birds at close quarters.
What birds to expect
The most likely visitors, even in suburban gardens, are starlings, house sparrows, blackbirds, blue and great tits, robins, greenfinches and collared doves. In many gardens dunnocks, song thrushes and chaffinches will hop around on the ground below the birdtable.
In more wooded areas you may be lucky enough to see great spotted woodpeckers, nuthatches and coal, marsh and long-tailed tits. Look out for blackcaps, too they are becoming common visitors to some birdtables in winter. All thrush species fieldfare, redwing, mistle and song thrushes and blackbirds visit gardens for fruit and berries. Feral ring-necked parakeets visit birdtables in south-east England and are spreading west and north. Magpies and black-headed gulls often pirate food from small birds. You may also see sparrowhawks and kestrels in search of prey.
Insect-eating birds, such as wrens and treecreepers are unlikely to visit birdtables, but for treecreepers food can be pushed into cracks in bark and for wrens put beside an ivy-covered wall, a stump or along a hedge bottom. Goldfinches are attracted to seedheads of plants such as teasel, and the seed supply can be augmented by refilling the seedheads with niger seeds, which they love. Yellowhammers have also started to feed at some bird tables put prefer mixed seeds to kitchen scraps.
When to feed wild birds
The value of winter feeding has been known for a long time, but in recent years it has become apparent that many birds are struggling to survive during the breeding season because of the fluctuations in weather, intensive farming and greater tidiness in gardens and all built up areas. By feeding year round, we are giving birds a better chance to survive the periods of food shortage whenever they may occur.
Autumn and winter
Put out food and water on a regular basis. If the weather is severe, feed twice daily if possible, in the morning and in the early afternoon. Always adjust the quantity given to the demand, and never allow uneaten foods to accumulate around the feeders. Always use good quality food and scraps. All foods listed in this leaflet are suitable for winter feeding. Once you establish a routine, please try not to change it.
Spring and summer
Only selected foods should be fed at this time and good hygiene is vital (see below), or feeding may do more harm than good. Black sunflower seeds, pinhead oatmeal, sultanas, raisins, currants, mild grated cheese, mealworms, waxworms, mixes for insectivorous birds (from pet shops), good seed mixtures without loose peanuts, RSPB food bars and summer seed mixture can all be used. Soft apples and pears cut in half, bananas and grapes are also useful foods. Some people also use soaked dog or cat food and tinned pet foods. These can be helpful but may well attract magpies, crows and other large species. Avoid using peanuts, fat and bread at this time, since these foods can be harmful if brought to young nestlings. If you feel you must put out peanuts, only do so in suitable mesh feeders that will not allow whole or half peanuts to be removed.
What food to provide
Bird seed mixture Proprietary mixtures are already widely available for wild birds and are advertised in Birds, the RSPBs quarterly magazine for members. Different mixes have been formulated for feeders and for table/ground feeding. The better mixtures contain plenty of flaked maize, sunflower seeds, and broken peanuts. If the mix contains peanuts, please use it only in winter. Small seeds, such as millet, attract mostly house sparrows, dunnocks, finches, reed buntings and collared doves, while flaked maize is taken readily by blackbirds and dunnocks. Tits and green finches favour peanuts and sunflower seeds. Pinhead oatmeal is excellent for many birds. Wheat and barley grains are often included in seed mixtures but they are really only suitable for pigeons, doves and pheasants, which feed on the ground and rapidly increase their numbers frequently deterring the smaller species and upsetting neighbours. Avoid seed mixtures that have split peas, beans, dried rice or lentils as again only the large species can eat them dry. Any mixture containing green or pink lumps should also be avoided as that is dog biscuit, which can only be eaten when soaked.
Bird seed mixture
Proprietary mixtures are already widely available for wild birds and are advertised in Birds, the RSPBs quarterly magazine for members. Different mixes have been formulated for feeders and for table/ground feeding. The better mixtures contain plenty of flaked maize, sunflower seeds, and broken peanuts. If the mix contains peanuts, please use it only in winter. Small seeds, such as millet, attract mostly house sparrows, dunnocks, finches, reed buntings and collared doves, while flaked maize is taken readily by blackbirds and dunnocks. Tits and green finches favour peanuts and sunflower seeds. Pinhead oatmeal is excellent for many birds. Wheat and barley grains are often included in seed mixtures but they are really only suitable for pigeons, doves and pheasants, which feed on the ground and rapidly increase their numbers frequently deterring the smaller species and upsetting neighbours. Avoid seed mixtures that have split peas, beans, dried rice or lentils as again only the large species can eat them dry. Any mixture containing green or pink lumps should also be avoided as that is dog biscuit, which can only be eaten when soaked.
Black sunflower seeds
These first appeared in the bird food market in the early 1980s and in many areas have now become even more popular for birds than peanuts.
These are rich in fat and are popular with tits, greenfinches, house sparrows, nuthatches, great spotted woodpeckers and siskins, although black sunflower seeds are now a preferred food in many gardens. You can buy peanut kernels (whole, broken or sliced) for wild birds in bulk from dealers advertising in Birds. Peanut granules are also popular. Crushed or grated nuts attract robins, dunnocks and even wrens. Nuthatches and coal tits may hoard peanuts and black sunflower seeds. Salted peanuts should not be used. Peanuts can be high in a natural toxin, which can kill birds so buy from a reputable dealer who will guarantee freedom from aflatoxin (see below). If a number of birds start dying or looking ill, please telephone the RSPB for advice immediately.
Make by pouring melted fat (suet or lard) onto a mixture of ingredients such as seeds, nuts, dried fruit, oatmeal, cheese and cake. Use about one-third fat to two-thirds mixture. Stir well in a bowl and turn out onto the birdtable when solid. An empty coconut shell makes an ideal bird cake feeder.
Fresh coconut in the shell is very popular with tits. Rinse out any residues of the sweet coconut water from the middle of the coconut before hanging it out to prevent the build-up of mildew. Desiccated coconut is unsuitable as bird food.
Mealworms and waxworms
Mealworms are relished by robins and may attract insect-eating birds such as pied wagtails. Supplies can be obtained from advertised dealers in pet and wild bird food. You can also culture your own mealworms ask for our information sheet (The cost of postage or a small donation would be most welcome.) Waxworms are a recent addition to wild bird food and are excellent but expensive. Proprietary foods are also available for insect-eating birds from bird food suppliers and pet shops. Ant pupae, insectivorous and softbill food, yolk of hard-boiled egg, and even crushed peanuts or black sunflower seeds can attract treecreepers and wrens.
Household items suitable for birds:
- Crumbled brown and white bread is suitable, but moisten if very dry.
- Pastry, cooked or uncooked is excellent especially if it has been made with real fats.
- Cooked rice, brown or white, without added salt.
- Dry porridge oats or coarse oatmeal.
- Fat, including suet, is particularly welcomed by tits, great spotted woodpeckers, thrushes and wrens. However, do not put out polyunsaturated fats, since they do not give the birds the high levels of energy they require in winter.
- Bacon rind, chopped up finely for robins or suspended on string for tits, can be of benefit, but avoid salty bacon. Mild grated cheese is a favourite with robins, dunnocks, blackbirds and song thrushes. It will also help wrens if placed under hedgerows and other areas in your garden where you have noticed them feeding.
- Bones with some fat or meat attached are good, but keep small bones, especially those of poultry, out of reach of cats and dogs, and if possible, secure them with string to prevent birds flying away with them.
- Potatoes - baked (cold or opened up), roast and even mashed with added real fats are all suitable. Wildfowl will also enjoy them. Chips are rarely eaten.
- Dried fruits, such as raisins, sultanas and currents are particularly enjoyed by blackbirds, song thrushes and robins. Apples, pears and other fruit, including bruised and part rotten ones, cut up, are very popular with all thrushes, tits and starlings.
- Peanuts: Peanuts are rich in fats and are of major importance to tit and greenfinch flocks during the winter and cold spring months. Never place out loose nuts during the breeding season. Salted peanuts should never be used for bird food.
- Rice and cereals: Cooked rice, brown or white (without salt added) is beneficial and readily accepted by all species during severe winter weather. Uncooked rice may be eaten by birds such as pigeons, doves and pheasants but is less likely to attract other species.
- Porridge oats must never be cooked, since this makes them glutinous and can harden around a bird 's beak. Uncooked porridge oats are readily taken by a number of bird species.
- Any breakfast cereal is acceptable birdfood, although you need to be careful only to put out small quantities at a time. It is best offered dry, with a supply of drinking water nearby, since it quickly turns into pulp once wetted.
Peanuts and aflatoxin
Aflatoxin is a poison produced by a soil fungus, which can occur on peanuts in their country of origin. It is a very powerful toxin, which is harmful to many living organisms, including people and birds. It can cause liver cancer, brittling of bones and a breakdown of the natural immune system. Unfortunately, aflatoxin can only be detected by chemical analysis. Tests for aflatoxin are carried out both in the country of origin, and by port health authorities and importers themselves in the UK, and there are strict legal maximum limits permissible in nuts for human and animal consumption. Certain hot and humid conditions are needed for the fungus to grow and produce the toxin. These conditions do not exist in Europe. Therefore, once nuts have reached the UK, and have been certified free of aflatoxin, it is extremely unlikely that they would develop the toxin later.
Although consignments of peanuts found to contain aflatoxin are normally destroyed, some unscrupulous importers may try to sell them as bird food. It is advisable to buy nuts only from a reputable dealer, who can guarantee that the nuts are free from aflatoxin. Do not buy very cheap peanuts if the seller cannot guarantee their quality, as there is a greater risk that the are harmful. The RSPB believes that nuts fed to wild birds should be at least human quality, but it would be preferable to source nuts that are certified nil detectable for aflatoxins. The RSPB insists on 'nil detectable ' standard on our own brand nuts. Many of the main birdfood companies use this as their quality standard.
If the nuts look dusty or mouldy and smell musty you are advised not to buy them. Although this would not indicate aflatoxin contamination, the nuts would clearly not be suitable as foodstuff. Nuts rejected from the processing plants (broken nuts, those with a wrinkled skin looking cosmetically unattractive, and sweepings) are often sold as birdfood, and are perfectly acceptable.
Although aflatoxin is always a potential hazard, the current safeguards and the vigilance of the public seem to be preventing a problem at bird feeders. The last confirmed cases of aflatoxin poisoning were around 1990.
Garden birds are practically unable to metabolise salt, which in high quantity is toxic, affecting the nervous system. Under normal circumstances in the wild, birds are unlikely to take harmful amounts of salt. Never put out salted food onto the bird table, and never add salt to bird baths to keep water ice-free in the winter.
Feeding in the breeding season
It is nowadays considered that it is alright to feed birds throughout the year. Temporary food shortage can occur at almost any time of the year, and if this happens during the breeding season, extra food on the bird table can make a big difference to the survival of young.
Birds time their breeding period to exploit the availability of natural foods, in the case of blackbirds and song thrushes, earthworms; in the case of tits and chaffinches, caterpillars. It is now known that if the weather turns cold or wet during the spring or summer months, severe shortage of insect food can occur, and if the weather is exceptionally dry, earthworms will be unavailable to the ground feeders because of the hard soil.
If food shortage occurs whilst birds have young in the nest they may be tempted by easy food put on birdtables to make up the shortfall in natural food, initially to feed themselves, but if the situation gets bad enough, they will also take the food to the nest. If the food offered on bird tables is not suitable for the young chicks, it can do more harm than good, and can even be lethal to the chicks as they can choke on the food. It can be difficult for a human to gauge when food shortage in the wild occurs, and hence it is best not to put out food that is likely to create problems during the breeding season. Therefore, never put out loose peanuts, dry hard foods, large chunks of bread, or fats during the spring or summer months.
Safe foods are:
- Any wildbird seed mixes, but make sure these do NOT contain peanuts or dog biscuit.
- Black sunflower seeds (the birds will remove the outside casing, and the inner seed is soft)
- Mild grated cheese
- Sultanas, raisins, currants
- Pinhead oatmeal
- Apples, pears and other soft fresh fruit
- Mealworms & waxworms
- Dried fruit such as sultanas are best soaked overnight. These are suitable food for nestlings, as long as they contain enough moisture.
A range of relatively simple measures can be recommended to cat owners and non-cat owners which could help to reduce the risk of cats catching garden birds, especially where food is being put out for birds.
Put a bell on your cats collar a recent study suggests that this may reduce predation of birds, and may reduce predation of mice and voles too. The collar must be correctly fitted and should have a quick release mechanism to allow the cat to free itself should it become snagged.
Cats should always be well-fed and cared-for, but this may also encourage them to stay near home and be less likely to wander where they are not welcome (although it will not prevent them catching birds).
Keep your cat indoors when birds are most vulnerable: at least an hour before sunset and an hour after sunrise, especially during March-July and December-January. Also after bad weather, such as rain or a cold spell, to allow birds to come out and feed.
Take unwanted cats to a shelter for rehoming to prevent the feral cat population from increasing.
Consider having cats neutered to prevent them wandering or producing unwanted kittens.
Where cats are a problem, avoid putting food on the ground, but use a bird table where cats cannot reach it.
Place feeders high off the ground but away from surfaces from which a cat could jump.
Place spiny plants (such as holly) or an uncomfortable surface around the base of the feeding station to prevent cats sitting underneath it.
Place an upturned tin or cone underneath the table to prevent cats from climbing the post (squirrel baffles are already commercially available).
Make the table-stand slippery using a metal post, or plastic bottles around non-metal posts.
Plant wildlife-friendly vegetation, such as prickly bushes and thick climbers in the garden to provide secure cover for birds. These should be close enough to where birds feed to provide cover, but not so close that cats can use it to stalk birds. This kind of planting may also provide food and nesting sites.
Position nest boxes where cats cannot reach them or sit close to them (preventing the parent birds from getting to the box).
Some other ideas that we have heard:
There is one sure-fire cat deterrent and that is a large dog! A large dog trained to react to the command 'Cat! ' will solve all feline problems. All you need to do is open the backdoor and say "Cat!!!" I have never heard of a dog actually catching one so this is possibly the most humane method. Cats will soon learn not to come into your garden
If, like myself, you are an owner of a cat then a collar with a bell is pretty effective. This will not stop a cat hunting - but will certainly reduce the success rate from one a month to, hopefully, none at all.
Try hosing the cat(s) from a hidden point. If they don 't actually see you doing it they may associate the garden with an unpleasant drenching, and henceforth avoid it. This does the cat(s) no harm whatsoever ...
An electronic cat deterrent purchased from RSPB shops can be very effective. You would need to use a mains adapter otherwise it will cost a fortune in batteries. Check out your local RSPB reserve centre.
I have heard that Lion (or any other large predator) dung works very well. Any plucky Tom trying his luck in your garden will take one whiff and think 'I am not exactly sure what sort of cat they 've got in there, but I don 't intend finding out '. Contact your nearest zoo or wildlife park and ask for any spare lion dung.
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