The short answer is that there is not enough wild food to support many birds these days. In winter, the food we put out literally saves lives. Small birds need to eat a lot in the cold weather and they cannot migrate so without our help they perish.
Recently I have been asked a few times why we need to feed the birds. Why can’t they feed themselves?
Birds have been around for a very long time so it is reasonable to wonder why they can’t just feed themselves. After all they have been doing that for millennia. Unfortunately, we are the problem. There is not enough natural food for them anymore because we have torn down woodlands and hedgerows and developed on land that would have fed them before.
This is not just the case in the UK, bird populations are suffering all over the world. As we build more houses, shopping centres and roads the space for wildlife goes down. For example, most species of small bird in the UK have declined in numbers over the last 50 years. There are a few exceptions (we love you Longtailed Tits) but for the most part numbers of birds are between 40-80% of what they were in 1960. Years ago, the house sparrow was a familiar sight up and down the country. They are such a beautiful bird but we took them for granted. Now they are not so common. In rural areas their numbers have halved and in urban places there are about 40% of them left. If you have a flock of sparrows living nearby then you are lucky.
Why does this matter? Well I don’t know about you but I do not want to live in a world with birdless skies. Birds bring much joy to my life and there’s lots of research which shows that when they are around it is good for our mental health. This is bigger than just birds though, all life has a right to thrive and I believe it is important for us to fight for nature and help it whenever we can.
What would birds eat in the wild?
If we really want to take care of birds it is important to learn about them and give them food which is the same or not too different from what they would naturally eat. Their bodies have evolved to eat certain things and having the same diet helps them thrive. So what do they eat?
- You will often notice birds hopping around in trees pecking at the trunk and branches, they are eating tiny insects which live there. They will also catch flying insects in the air, especially over water.
- Many birds live on farmland and eat the seeds from grasses and plants. They also eat buds from trees in spring. In the woods there are lots of wild flowers and plants which they forage in spring, summer and Autumn
- Fruits and berries. Autumn provides an abundance of these and you will see birds gorging on red berries such as rowan. There are also orchard fruits around such as apples. In summer they will eat strawberries, elder and shrubs such as bilberry
What natural food is around in winter?
Some birds such as jays stash food for colder times but small garden birds cannot do that. They can sometimes find insects and larvae depending on the weather but they have to spend the whole day searching for food to make sure they eat enough to survive cold nights when they can lose 30% of their body fat. There really is not much around I winter which is why birds than can migrate head off to warmer places.
What can I feed the birds in winter?
Small birds need a combination of protein, fat and carbohydrate. If you can provide all of these then for a small bird that is like winning the lottery. They will stay close by and visit your feeders daily.
Suet or fat balls are super important. This is a dense form of energy which will keep them going through the night. They will also eat the fat from cuts of meat so don’t throw that away.
Small seeds and nuts. Peanuts are adored by all the tit family. Sunflower seeds are loved by most garden birds too so you can’t go wrong with these. Small seeds such as millet are perfect for really small birds such as dunnocks.
You can leave out soaked dried fruits and pinhead oatmeal for carbohydrates. We hear from one of our followers that blackbirds will go crazy for a grape or two.
Being consistent with food is really important in winter. First thing in the morning a bird may not have the energy to fly a long distance to forage. If you start feeding you must keep this up through the cold weather.
They need more than food
Just like us birds also need water and shelter. A bird bath gives them the chance to drink and bathe to keep their feathers healthy. Make sure to keep it ice free during cold snaps.
You could also place small shelters, piles of leaves, upturned plant pots etc for them to shelter in. Birds also use nest boxes to sleep in on stormy nights so having those in your gardens is great for them.