Garden bird guide: how to care for birds and what to feed different species

Help your garden birds stay healthy throughout the seasons with our expert guide on caring for wild birds, the best foods to feed different species and tips on how to attract birds to your garden

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How to help your garden birds stay healthy

Feeding birds in your garden can be a really rewarding experience, but there can be some unfortunate consequences. We all know that bird feeders attract birds, but encouraging birds to congregate together and share food can aid in the spread of avian diseases.

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Keep bird baths and feeding stations clean to avoid spreading diseases/Credit: Getty

Good hygiene is vital. Birds, like us, are susceptible to many illnesses, but we can help keep these at bay by making sure that feeders, tables and bird baths are cleaned regularly. Sweep up and discard crumbs from beneath feeders frequently and if you can change feeding sites every so often to avoid a build-up of droppings, even better. The birds will thank you for it by staying healthy, while feeders and tables will last longer with regular spring cleans and maintenance. Wear gloves when doing this and let the feeders dry in the fresh air.

Greenfinches seem to be particularly susceptible to a disease called Trichomonosis. It is caused by a microscopic parasite that blocks the infected bird’s throat and stops it from being able to swallow. Unfortunately there is no effective treatment that can be given to birds in the wild and infection usually results in the bird dying of starvation.

What can I do to help a sick bird?

Unfortunately wild birds cannot be treated for disease because it is too difficult to ensure that the medicine goes to the right birds in the right dosages. It is also difficult to diagnose a bird from observation alone.

The best thing you can do is to temporarily stop feeding birds in your garden and disinfect everything. You do not want birds to congregate together in your garden as this will allow the disease to spread to healthy individuals. This means removing feeders and emptying bird baths. Once you stop seeing dead/sick birds you can start feeding again.

What is the best feed for different bird species? 

Blackbird

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Common blackbird has a wonderful singing voice/Credit: Getty

The female is actually brown and occasionally you get white individuals. One of our most familiar birds, it has a wonderful song. It loves earthworms, so live mealworms are a great favourite, as is blackbird muesli, made from dried fruit, oats and sunflower hearts.

Blue tit

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Blue tits like peanuts and suet nibbles and are a great way to keep garden pest numbers down/Credit: Getty

This cheeky little bird readily feeds and nests in gardens. Blue, yellow and white with a piercing call, it is always welcome and, being an aphid eater, it is a great pest controller. Keep it visiting with peanuts and suet nibbles.

Chaffinch

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A male Chaffinch [Fringilla coelebs] perched on a small branch/Credit: Getty

Less agile than the greenfinch, chaffinches often lurk beneath feeders waiting for crumbs. Frequently attacking their own reflection when establishing nesting territory, the males are multi-coloured birds with an unmistakable song. Primarily seed eaters, chaffinches also like fruit and suet.

Great tit

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Larger than the blue tit, the grey tit is an insect lover/Credit: Getty

Considerably larger than its cousin the blue tit, the great tit has an unmissable glossy black-and-white head. It sings a complicated range of notes with a scolding churr when displeased. Also an insect lover, it will compete with the blue tit for mealworms, peanuts, sunflower hearts and suet nibbles.

Robin

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One of the UK’s most recognisable birds – the robin/Credit: Getty

Traditionally pictured perched on spade handles, there are no prizes for guessing that the robin loves worms. Our national bird, it entertains us with its melodious song all year round. Loves mealworms, suet sprinkles, sunflower hearts and oats so it’s easy to keep this ‘Christmas’ bird in your garden.

Starling

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The starling has a wide variety of calls and whistles/Credit: Getty

Sometimes seen as a bully boy at feeders, arriving mob-handed, the starling is a gregarious, glossy black bird with white spots. A great mimic, the starling has a wide variety of calls and whistles. Its numbers have plummeted so welcome it; it will eat just about anything.

Goldfinch

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The delightful goldfinch is a recent arrival to feeding stations/Credit: Getty

A more recent arrival at bird feeding stations, the goldfinch is making up for lost time. Sometimes flocks of this yellow, brown and black, red-faced bird with a delightful twittering song will descend on to feeders. Originally attracted by nyger seed, it will eat sunflower hearts and small seeds, too.

House sparrow

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A female House Sparrow [Passer domesticus] perched on a wire fence/Credit: Getty

The house sparrow is one bird that everyone knows, although it is becoming rarer. It has been hit by loss of food and habitat and its population has plummetted by two thirds since 1970. It lives in small flocks, chirruping away constantly, and loves seed, suet and mealworms – and bathing in dry, sandy soil.

Dunnock

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A Dunnock [Prunella modularis] perched on a bramble/Credit; Getty

Similar to a small, female house sparrow with fewer markings and a more slender beak, the dunnock is the mouse of the bird world, content to creep beneath feeders and bird tables gathering crumbs. This LBJ (little brown job) has a rather lovely musical warble, more than making up for its drabness.

Greenfinch

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A female Greenfinch [ Chloris chloris] perched on a twigA female Greenfinch [ Chloris chloris] perched on a twig/Credit: Getty

Olive-green with lots of yellow, the male greenfinch is stunning. Dominant at bird feeders but a sporadic visitor, it will leave plenty for the other birds. Hit by disease in recent years, it will appreciate your help, and loves seeds, with sunflowers being favoured.

Song thrush

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Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos) perched on a lichen covered branch./Credit:Getty

Singing from the treetops, this bird is hard to ignore. Soft brown in colour and with a fabulously speckled breast, it sings with an huge range of notes, repeated in phrases of three. Keep this thrush singing with oats, sultanas and mealworms.

Wren

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Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes) perched on a branch in a tree./Credit: Getty

A charming, tiny reddish-brown bird with an upright tail; what the wren lacks in size it makes up for with its voice and industriousness. A rattling warble of clear, shrill notes gives way to the loud ‘tic-tic-tic’ of its alarm call if you venture too close. Give it the energy to build its lovely little nest by supplying fine breadcrumbs, minced peanuts and oatmeal.

Where are birds nests usually found?

Nests can be found anywhere well hidden and protected in gardens, parks and the countryside. Some birds, like the long-tailed tit and the house sparrow, prefer to build in trees up to 20m high, whereas the robin makes its home closer to the ground, buried in ivy and tree roots. Finches also like to be lower down in bushes and low trees.

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Pigeon nesting in a tree/Credit: Getty

Different species make their nests out of different materials; swallows and house martins, for example, build their nests out of wet mud plastered onto walls or beams. Blackbirds make their home from twigs and leaves which they stick together with mud and moss high up in the trees. 

Most species use their nest purely for laying eggs and raising chicks but some, such as tits, tawny owls and woodpeckers, will use them to sleep all year round. 

Spotted a nest in your garden? Great – keep an eye on it and you may hear the cheeping of baby hatchlings soon. Just make sure you don’t get too close or touch the nest or the eggs. 

What should I do if I find a baby bird? 

Fledgling birds normally leave their nests at around two weeks old, where they flop down onto the ground. It often seems like they have been abandoned by their parents, but this is usually not the case.

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Hungry robin chicks calling out for food/Credit: Getty
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It is best not to disturb baby birds if they are spotted away from their nest. If the birds are found on the ground they should be left alone. Taking them away from their parents at this point in their lives will do more damage than good. If you are worried, keep an eye on the baby for a while – it’s more than likely its parents will return with its meal. If you intervene it may cause the mother to reject the baby, causing much more pain for the little one and the parent.