Whether you live in the rural countryside, a suburb or a big city, there is often nature to be found right on your doorstep. There are small things that we can all do to help wildlife survive and even thrive - for example, laying down food for birds. But what should we be feeding birds, and does it change from species to species? We've got some top tips from the RSPB...
Feeding birds: Seed mixes
Birds benefit from a mixture of natural and supplementary food - so having a lush, well tended garden will, in itself, encourage birds to your house. The best seed mixes contain lots of flaked maize, sunflower seeds and peanut granules. Mixes that contain chunks or large nuts are suitable for winter feeding only, as chicks in springtime may choke, and something like oatmeal is good for a variety of species at any time. Although wheat and barley grains are often included in mixes, they're only really suitable for pigeons, pheasants, doves and other ground-grazing birds; it makes sense that smaller birds will feed on finer seed mixes.
What to avoid
Mixes that include dried lentils, rice, beans and split peas will only be eaten by larger species, and look out for pink or green lumps - these are dog biscuits, which can only be eaten if soaked first. Avoid margarine, vegetable oil or used cooking fat - pure fat on the other hand, is fine. Be careful not to feed birds mouldy food as it can cause them to develop respiratory problems.
Some seeds and nuts are particularly beneficial for birds - black sunflower seeds, Nyjer seeds and peanuts have high oil and fat contents. However, never use salted or dry roasted peanuts! They are for humans only. You should buy bird peanuts from a reputable shop. 'Bird cake' and bars are also good for winter food: they combine melted fat (suet or lard) with seeds, nuts, dried fruit, oatmeal, cheese and cake. Fill an empty plastic cup with this mixture for a homemade bird feeder.
What else do they eat?
You can leave out meaty cat or dog food for birds, which is a sort of subsitute for things like worms. Soaked dog/cat biscuits are also an option - however, bear in mind that leaving out this sort of food may attract large birds like gulls (as well as neighborhood cats) to your garden. In addition, birds can eat mild cheeses, though never milk - and any breakfast cereal is suitable fodder for them.
What about feeders?
Bird tables are suitable for many species and most foods - a raised rim retains the food and a gap at each corner will allow rainwater to drain away; it also needs to be easy to clean. Nut feeders need to be made from steel mesh with holes large enough to not damage a bird's beak and small enough to keep other animals (like squirrels) out - think around 6mm. Seed feeders are transparent tube containers with holes for birds to access the seed mix, and these tend to attract birds such as tits, siskins and greenfinches. Some birds prefer to feed from the ground (like thrushes and dunnocks) but if you are scattering food do so in different areas around the garden so they're not fighting over it. Finally, never put out food in nylon mesh bags as the material can trap birds' legs and beaks.
What birds to look out for
According to the RSPB the birds you're likely to spot in your garden are starlings, house sparrows, blackbirds, blue and great tits, robins, greenfinches and collared doves. If there is growing fruit to be had you may see thrushes, and in many gardens, dunnocks, song thrushes and chaffinches can be spotted hopping around on the ground below the bird table.
If squirrels are pilfering your bird food, an obvious solution is to have a ground feeder with a mesh shield to stop other critters from getting in. A crafty DIY tactic to try is greasing your bird feeder pole to deter squirrels from climbing up!