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This information is provided by Provet for educational purposes only.

You should seek the advice of your veterinarian if your pet is ill as only he or she can correctly advise on the diagnosis and recommend the treatment that is most appropriate for your pet.

It is common for people to put out food for wild birds ...but what should you put out, in fact should you put anything out at all ?

Wild birds have adapted their lifestyle around the type of food that they eat. If food sources are short they will travel to find a new feeding ground. In many cases this requires a long journey at the onset of winter ..sometimes hundreds or even thousands of miles, a journey called migration. So, during cold winters when food such as insects and fruit is scarce, birds will migrate to warmer climates. In the UK we see an annual mass migration of birds away from the UK southwards seeking the warmer weather in North Africa and beyond. At the same time other birds, such as swans and geese, migrate in to the UK from colder northern climates such as Siberia and the Arctic circle. The poor Arctic Tern migrates the furthest of all - it literally travels the length of the Earth ...from the Arctic to the Antarctic !

As a general rule the birds that remain behind do so because they can survive the winter months, and only if the weather is exceptionally severe will food be difficult to find so, except for unusual circumstances when food is extremely scarce, additional feeding is not necessary.

Should you feed wild birds ?

Many people consider it wrong to put out food for wild birds, for the following reasons :

  • It isn't necessary for the birds - except under very unusual circumstances when natural food supplies unexpectedly run out.
  • Attracting birds into feeding areas in domestic gardens may increase the risk of attacks by predators such as cats, or birds of prey.
  • The ingredients put out to attract birds may not be the ideal raw ingredients found in the birds natural ration, but easy availability may create "fad feeding" with the following consequences :
    • The birds do not eat a complete or balanced ration, which could result in a nutritional deficiency or excess and disease
    • Many of the ingredients which are frequently put out for birds (such as nuts) are very high in energy density and can cause obesity if eaten in any great quantity
    • Birds may not hunt for their usual food if plenty is easily available from a garden feeding area -  which could have the following impact :
      • The birds gets less activity - resulting in obesity
      • The birds may not eat and disseminate the seeds of it's normal fruit foods - so altering the food-chain and even the whole mini-ecosystem surrounding dispersal of plant seeds
    • The birds may develop an acquired preference for ingredients in the provided bird food which are not present in it's normal environment, and so it may develop a dependence on the supplementary food.
  • Encouraging wild birds to frequent and feed in urban areas may permanently alter the birds natural behaviour patterns
  • Providing an artificial source of food may dilute the effect of the Darwinian principle of "survival of the fittest" and so may adversely alter the genetic expression and future development of the species by allowing birds that would ordinarily perish to survive.

Notwithstanding these concerns most authorities , such as Wild Life Trusts across the UK, consider it is alright to feed wild birds, they often sell wild bird food and feeders, and some even advocate all-year-round feeding rather than feeding just in the winter.

Why should you feed the birds ?

  • It is interesting and educational to watch wild birds feed, bath and interact at close quarters
  • In severe weather conditions wild birds will benefit from your food offerings
  • In some locations birds have lost their natural habitat (eg hedgerows) and so traditional sources of food may be genuinely sparse, so feeding is helping them to survive.
  • Wild birds visiting your garden will also seek out garden pests - greenfly and other insects, slugs, snails and caterpillars

Important Considerations

If you do decide to feed wild birds there are some basic precautions that you should take :

  • Situate the food in a position that is inaccessible to local predators eg cats. A high bird table with an overhanging top, or a suspended feeding cage are commonly used.
  • Make sure there is good visibility around the feeding area so that birds can see predators early and get away, but at the same time some overhead cover is desirable so that the feeding birds aren't easy prey for sparrowhawks
  • If you own a bird-catching cat, dog or ferret ...keep it indoors when you are feeding the birds
  • Only provide foods that you know have not been sprayed with insecticides, and which have been stored correctly, otherwise they can go mouldy and become toxic for the birds. Bird foods should always be stored in a dry, cool place and marked foods should be used before their expiry date.
  • The birds in your garden have a wide-spectrum of food requirements so offer a broad range of fresh ingredients including :
    • Seeds - commercial seed mixes include canary seed, sunflower seeds, hemp, and many others. Peanuts are a great favourite. 
    • Fruit - eg apples, pears, currants, grapes, figs, dried prunes or apricots
    • Nuts
      •  make sure peanuts are free from aflatoxins, and 
      • do not give too many nuts as they are high in energy content and the birds may get fat !
    • Green vegetables
    • Coconut halves
    • Soaked bread (not dry bread), biscuits or leftover cakes.
    • For carrion birds - meat ...which can be on a leftover bone
    • For live-feeders - mealworms 
  • Some birds prefer to eat flat off the ground or off a bird table surface, others (eg tits) will prefer to take food from a suspended feeder. Hiding food is useful and encourages normal foraging behaviour, for example, nuts can be hidden in cracks in tree trunks.
  • Keep all containers and feeding surfaces clean
  • You can feed birds in 2 ways :
    • Leave food out all the time - this is not such a good system because it encourages overeating and obesity, encourages squirrels and other vermin to take the food, and it means that you will not be sure at what time of the day birds will visit for a feed
    • Timed feeding - put the food out at set times of the day. Once birds learn the time they will come back every day, and you can guarantee to have some activity to watch.
    • In BOTH cases remove any spilled food or stale food regularly - otherwise it may spoil, and will attract unwanted vermin such as rodents
    • Once birds are used to visiting your feeding area on a regular basis you should maintain the food supply, otherwise they may waste a lot of valuable energy travelling to your garden in the winter for no reason.
  • Provide fresh water as well for :
    • Drinking
    • Bathing

When to stop feeding ?

Unless the birds have developed a dependency it is best to stop feeding in the early Spring when the worst of the winter weather is over, and natural foods are becoming more abundant. Also, it is important that fledglings get their natural diet. A young bird designed by evolution to eat regurgitated earthworms or insects  may die if it's parents bring home a peanut for dinner.


Updated October 2013