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How to look after garden birds …. especially in the winter

Help our feathered friends in Cambridge

Winter is just around the corner and our little feathered friends need help over the cold months ahead. There are lots we can do to look after garden birds and help by leaving out the right food in the correct conditions as well as practical changes you can make in your garden to encourage their survival.  So here’s our advice on how to look after garden birds in winter in Cambridge.

Where to feed them?

Bird tables are ideal, as they keep the birds out of reach of cats and give some protection from aerial attack.  But some birds, such as dunnocks and blackbirds can prefer ground feeding. If you have a ground feeding station, make sure it is exposed so that cats have less opportunity to pounce.

You could make your own more attractive feeder.  Take a small log (forearm size), drill several large holes through it (1-2cm diameter) and then stuff these with fat.  Screw a hook in the top and hang it from a branch or bird table.

What to feed them?

In chilly weather, birds appreciate a variety of food, but especially fatty foods which are a great source of energy.  Fat balls (amusing I know) provide the best solution but there are many other delicious and nutritious treats you can leave birds to help them survive.

Fat balls

Densely packed with lard or suet, seeds, cereals, nuts, fruit or dried mealworms, fat balls and are great treats to put out in your garden for a variety of species. Unless you make your own, fat balls tend to come in mesh bags which can be harmful to birds if their feet get trapped.  So, always take them out of the bag and put them into a fat ball holder (available from good garden centers) or place them on a bird table. Don’t put fat balls out in the summer months, as they can rot in the heat, and make birds ill.

Great tits love fat balls (snigger), as do other tits, sparrows, starlings, blackbirds, woodpeckers and black caps.


Bird-seed mixes are great but avoid cheap mixes because these are often bulked out with pulses, rice, and wheat which are hard to digest, except for pigeons.  Instead, buy high-quality mixed seeds.  Sunflower seeds are highly nutritious, especially the black seeds which have a higher fat content than striped ones.  Small seeds, such as millet, attract house sparrows, dunnocks, finches, reed buntings, and collared doves.  Niger and sunflower kernels are popular with goldfinches.   Flaked maize is taken readily by blackbirds.


Birds love peanuts of course, especially tits and nuthatches.  Place them in a special nut feeder that only allows birds to take little nibbles of nuts.  Mixes that contain chunks or whole nuts are suitable for winter feeding only, as small and young birds can choke on large pieces.  And replace them regularly if they don’t get finished quickly, as they can go off.  Peanuts can also be high in a natural toxin, which can kill birds, so make sure your peanuts are good quality to guarantee they are free from aflatoxin.


Appreciated by most garden birds all year round, especially robins and blackbirds, mealworms work well placed on a bird table.  Buy good quality ones from a local pet shop or garden center, or from the RSPB.  Robins and blackbirds love mealworms.

With a bit of patience and time, you may even get robins to eat mealworms from your hand.

Kitchen scraps

Kitchen scraps work well, you can also make your own homemade bird cake. A good recipe for successfully feeding birds over winter might include chopped fat from unsalted meat, mild grated cheese, dried fruit, and pastry.

But there are plenty more leftovers the birds will enjoy.  Cooked unsalted rice, potatoes and pasta, uncooked porridge oats, dry breakfast cereal, small amounts of cake, and biscuit crumbs.  Birds also love fruit. Halved apples, soaked sultanas, bananas and other soft fruit.  You must soak dry fruit to prevent it expanding in birds’ guts but avoid sultanas if you have a dog as they can be harmful to them.  You can also use tinned pet food, but you must soak dry cat and dog food first.  Food scraps should always be placed on a bird-table as sprinkling on the ground can attract rats and mice.


Now we’ve established what to feed birds in the winter, it’s important to talk about water.  All birds appreciate a supply of fresh drinking water by your bird table in a shallow container.

After a frost, it can be hard for birds to find unfrozen water for drinking and bathing.  This simple RSPB trick will help. Float a small ball, such as a ping-pong ball, on the surface of the water, such as a garden pond or water butt. The lightest breeze will keep it moving and stop an area of the water freezing.

How to look after garden birds, especially in the winter:

Never give the following foods:

  • Bread tends to fill them up with little nutritional benefit, so only give to birds as part of a varied assortment of food.  Any kind of bread is fine, but brown is preferable but soak it first. Never put large chunks of bread out during the breeding season (spring and summer) as greedy hatchlings can choke on it.
  • Salty food can dehydrate birds.
  • Vegetable, chicken, or turkey fat is dangerous. It can smear on birds’ feathers and prevent them from being able to preen or fly.
  • Milk can cause severe stomach upsets.
  • Desiccated coconut can swell in birds’ stomachs and cause problems.
  • Moldy food, which can cause respiratory problems. Stale food, which can encourage salmonella virus.

Squirrels and cats

No matter where you put your food, squirrels will find ways of getting to it.  Many food containers are squirrel proofed (for example with an outer cage that lets small birds through).  There are several types of plastic ‘baffles’ you can buy, which can make it hard for the little grey gymnasts to reach the food. Or you can make your own. A biscuit tin with a hole punched in the middle and threaded upside down onto the bird table pole.  This will drive them crazy and amuse you as you watch them struggle to get to the goodies.

Cats are more of a problem.  They are natural hunters and they kill wildlife, even when they have full bellies. If you have space, you can create a bird feeding enclosure that keeps all unwanted interlopers out.  At the very least, buy a cat bell that can alert birds to an impending attack.

A recent study estimates that 55million birds are killed by cats each year in the UK, and a total of approximately 275million animals are killed overall each year.

Other advice on feeding birds

  • Clean your feeders, tables, water pots, and birdbaths regularly to prevent the spread of disease in wild bird populations.  A mild disinfectant liberally diluted in water will do the trick.
  • The decline in UK greenfinches over recent years was due to a disease called Trichomonosis, caused by a protozoan parasite prevalent at unclean bird feeding stations.
  • Avoid the use of ornamental mirrors in your garden.  Mirrors can confuse birds: they will see your garden in the mirror and fly straight into it.  This runs the risk of the bird breaking their neck and potentially killing them.
  • If you are feeding birds very close to your house it is advisable to place stickers on your windows to deter birds from flying straight at your window, again for the same reasons.
  • Try to balance the amount of food that you provide against the number of birds coming in to feed. In this way, you will avoid creating a surplus of food that might go off or attract unwanted visitors, such as rats.  A good practice is to clear your bird table down each night, removing uneaten food and any droppings.
  • If you are going away on holiday, then reduce the amount of food provided in the days leading up to your departure. That way the birds don’t find that their favoured resource has suddenly disappeared.
  • Provide shelter for birds by planting dense hedges such as privet or hawthorn, or allowing ivy or holly to grow: these all provide great cover for birds to roost in. Roofs are also a popular spot for birds trying to keep warm. If birds are getting into a hole in your roof, fix the hole and consider putting up a nest box to replace the gap. Find out more at
Look after garden birds
If you would like to discuss your garden design project, from a simple redesign to the total transformation we can recommend local designers who understand the environmental and ecological impacts of planning as much as the creativity and functionality. Get in touch for a FREE consultation.


Dawn Giesler, is the founder of Scuseme Cambridge, a recommendation website that helps your family run smoothly. She has lived in Cambridge for over 20 years and offers advice based on her own experiences. For more information visit scuseme

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