Here are a few simple tips and hints which can make your garden more attractive to birds and support the populations in your neighbourhood.
• Plenty of cover
All birds are wary of predators, including other bird species, so it’s important they have plenty of places to hide and feel secure, and this is doubly important if you want them to nest in your garden. A mature garden with trees and shrubs, ivy and other climbers, and even a patch of dense brambles would be ideal. If you have a new empty garden, start planting some shelter and cover so in a few years the birds will have what they need.
• Grassy areas
Although we generally recommend letting the lawn grow long for wildlife, having some short grass is good as it gives birds like blackbirds, starlings and wagtails a chance to get at the soil invertebrates. Tall grass and rough herbage tend to obstruct this although they are good for other animals. A mix of ‘lawn’ and ‘meadow’ is a good aim. I see a lot more birds feeding on the ground when I’ve just cut the lawn. Decking and paving obliterate this food source so think twice when you consider covering up ground in this way. And please don’t talk to me about AstroTurf® …. (other makes of horrible artificial grass are available)
• Plant to provide insect bird food
Lush green plants (and veg) will encourage caterpillars, aphids and other herbivores that are essential for bird nutrition, especially for nestlings. Learn to tolerate a bit of bug damage, and don’t use insecticides! Later in the year plants with berries are very valuable.
• Leave seed heads in place
We tend to dead-head plants once the growing season had ended out of tidiness. Leaving seed heads in place through the winter provides a food source for finches and other birds and also provide nooks and crannies for small insects and spiders. I’ve seen goldfinches use seed heads all year round as they come to fruition.
• Water is always a good thing
Birds need water to drink, and bathing helps them keep their feathers in proper order. If you don’t have a pond put in a birdbath
. You get some interesting extra wildlife growing in a birdbath – in my garden I get millions of rotifers as well as all sorts of protozoa. Birds make the water really dirty really quickly (do they prefer it dirty?) so these kinds of creatures thrive. A small microscope can add enormously to your enjoyment of garden wildlife and extend your species list enormously! However muck in bird baths can spread disease so you should clean them regularly
• Time your pruning
Don’t engage in massive shrubbery cut-backs during the bird breeding season (March-July). I try to get my tree people in during the winter. That’s better for the hardy perennials too as they are likely to be sub-surface and less trampled at that time.
• Don’t be obsessively tidy
Sticks, stumps, nooks and crannies harbour insects and spiders through the winter and into the summer, so they provide a good food source for predatory birds like robins and wrens. Small twigs and straw are useful for nest building. See our page on tidiness
• Nest boxes
These can attract birds to stay in your garden – find lots of more specialist advice about nest boxes in our “How to” guide
and at the RSPB website
• Feeding birds
There are a lot of different feeding systems on the market and garden centres have huge sections full of bird food and delivery systems. Dried mealworms and fly larvae are good for insect eaters and provide high energy food in winter. Sunflower seeds (in or out of their husks) and peanuts (whole or kibbled into smaller chunks) are great for tits, sparrows and finches, and nyger seed (a bit like mass-produced dandelion seed) is favoured by the smaller finches such as goldfinch and siskin. Blocks of fat (with or without added goodies) provide a high-energy food source. Bird metabolism is really good at dealing with fat! Get detailed information about feeding birds in our guide
and at the RSPB website
• Practice good hygiene
Whatever feeder system you choose make sure you can clean it easily. Apart from protecting yourself from Salmonella
and things like that, you also protect birds from deadly infections. For example greenfinch populations have been greatly reduced by Trichomonas
infection in recent decades as they used contaminated feeders. And despite what I said about pond life in bird baths, you should clean them pretty often too. There is a whole website
devoted to wildlife health.
• Try to resist playing favourites!
For example, many people seem to hate it when woodpigeons or starlings ‘eat all the food’. Magpies are also unpopular birds. They do eat eggs, hatchlings and fledglings. I’ve even seen one kill an adult starling in my garden. That can be quite distasteful or even upsetting. But frankly, something has to eat the blue tits or we would be knee-deep in them within a couple of years…. And people tend to forget the baby butterflies and moths eaten in vast quantities by the blue tits. All ecosystems include predation and if we have a successful wildlife-friendly garden then the wildlife will behave as it will in nature, and that includes eating each other…. You can adopt strategies such as meshes around the seed feeders to favour the smaller birds, whilst continuing to put food on the ground for pigeons and the like - but look out for...
Keep an eye open for rats
. Rodents are an important part of the garden ecosystem but you can lose the good opinion of neighbours pretty quickly if they see hosts of rats around your bird feeders, and that could be counter-productive. Humane ways of managing rats and mice can be found here
• Cats and dogs
These can be an issue if you are keen on getting birds into your garden. You can control our own pets to some extent. Dogs are trainable (usually) and you can keep cats indoors rather than letting them roam. There is not much you can do legally about other people’s pets beyond attempts to use reason. Cats are thought to kill around 25 million birds a year in the UK although the effect on common garden bird populations does not seem severe (see the research project
‘What the Cat Dragged In’ run by Hannah Lockwood at University of Derby). The impact of cats and dogs on threatened populations and less common habitats like heathland may be locally important however. There is evidence
that the mere presence of dogs can reduce biodiversity, although mainly in parks and larger semi-natural areas rather than gardens.
Finding out more:
How to: Improve
your garden for birds
How to: Feed
Risely, Kate and Clare Simm (2016), Garden Birds and other wildlife. British Trust for Ornithology
Page written by Roy Smith compiled by Steve Head