One of the most helpful things we can do for garden birds is to provide food. The removal of trees and hedgerows and increased building in the countryside have had an impact on natural food sources for birds in the UK, and this is most noticeable in winter. The start of colder weather is also when our native birds need to start fattening up in order to survive freezing temperatures. Increasingly, our help is required for birds to get the sustenance they need to survive.

Different birds have different needs, so if possible identify the species visiting the garden and cater appropriately. However, there are many foods that will suit a variety of birds. It is possible to get specialist bird feeders, but don't feel that they are required - you can provide a great range of food using the natural garden environment or home-made feeders. Some food can be scattered on the grass or earth, which is perfect for ground-feeding birds. Try sprinkling some under shrubs for the more secretive birds. However, be aware that any leftover food may attract rats or mice, so try to supply only what you know can be eaten in a day or clean up regularly. If you do have bird tables or feeders, then it is a good idea to regularly move them so any predators don't become too familiar with the location of their prey.

Dawn and dusk are the key times for food to be available. It is thought this is due to birds wanting to replenish energy reserves lost during the night or to top up to last until morning. Once you have established a regular supply of food for local birds, it is important to keep this up. They will come to rely on your contributions, and a sudden withdrawal may threaten their survival.

There is a wide range of food suitable to put out and, provided they frequent the local area, you may have visits from birds you don't usually see. 

Seed Mixes

These are nutrient-rich and you can buy them for wild birds in general or specific species. Sunflower seeds are rich in protein and unsaturated fats. Whilst they are good, for a more natural foraging experience it is wise to provide them crushed in winter for maximum benefit. Niger seeds are rich in fat and particularly good for finches, but they are very small so it is wise to incorporate them in a home-made fat ball or buy a specialist feeder.

Animal Fat

Fat balls (or bars) are an excellent winter food for garden birds (don't use in warmer weather, as they could melt and go off). If they come in nets or with hooks, then ensure you remove these before putting them out, as they could be harmful if a bird gets caught in them. It is even possible to make your own by melting down some fat (normally suet or lard) and mixing with ingredients such as seeds, nuts, oats, dried fruit or cheese. Put it in a container, such as an old plastic yogurt pot or even an empty coconut shell, and allow it to set. This could be put out as it is or turned out on to a bird table when solid. Fat balls are perfect for birds such as tits, starlings or woodpeckers.


Live mealworms are full of protein and moisture and are an ideal food for robins and thrushes. Alternatively, dried mealworms can be soaked before putting out to ensure they also provide some moisture. Avoid discoloured mealworms, which can carry diseases.

Kitchen Leftovers

Lots of scraps you may have in your kitchen are suitable for garden birds. Unsalted bacon rind, uncooked oats, unsalted but cooked rice and soaked dried fruit (though ensure it is naturally dried, sweetened and preserved) are all ideal. Don't give fat from cooked meats because it can coat their feathers. Unsalted peanuts are perfect, and they can be put out whole in winter as there are no fledglings who could choke, or alternatively they can be crushed or put in a specialist feeder. For ground-feeding birds finely grated mild cheese can be scattered on the grass or under shrubs. Windfall or wrinkled fruit such as apples, pears and plums are ideal for thrushes or waxwings. Just halve them and leave on a bird table or the ground. Milk should never be given to birds, as they cannot digest it.


A fresh coconut, drained and halved, can be hung up for tits. After it has been eaten, the empty shell can even be used for a home-made fat ball. Never put out dessicated coconut, as it can make birds ill by swelling in their stomachs.


As important as the food being supplied is a source of fresh water. When it gets very cold, birds may find their usual water sources have frozen. Water is vital for both drinking and cleaning. A small ball floating in a pond or bird bath can prevent ice from forming. Never put antifreeze in the water, but it is possible to obtain bird-friendly disinfectants to prevent diseases from spreading. Alternatively, regularly replenish a shallow dish with fresh water.

All of the above will encourage birds to visit your garden, but with these increased numbers there is also a risk of diseases being spread. It is vitally important to keep the area clean. Ensure bird tables and feeders are regularly washed with hot soapy water and then rinsed; sweep away droppings and clean away mouldy or extra food.

In addition to all these tips, it is also worth remembering that birds need a wide range of natural proteins and vitamins which cannot be entirely provided by the supplementary food we can offer. Well-managed and appropriate shrubs, flowerbeds and lawns will provide a range of natural foods for our garden visitors. Holly and ivy are perfect choices, as they produce their berries in winter. Plants that attract insects will indirectly provide food for the birds.

Following just a few of these suggestions should provide local birds with the help they need to survive through winter and allow you to enjoy watching a beautiful array of wildlife.