6 bird-feeding mistakes you’re probably making, according to experts

The way we feed birds in our garden has been contributing to their decline.

There are many ways we can attract wildlife to our outside spaces, from not mowing our lawns as much, to growing butterfly-friendly plants. But when it comes to our feathered friends, sometimes our best intentions can accidentally lead to bird-feeding mistakes – from using the wrong food to not cleaning their feeders. 

We’ve spoken to experts to reveal the common bird-feeding mistakes you’re probably making. But there’s good news: there are simple ways you can make your garden a safer place for birds. We’ll tell you how.

Bird eating from a yellow bird feederCredit: CJ Wildlife (pictured: Suvila Feeder in yellow)
Feeding garden birds properly is vital to some populations’ survival

1. Not keeping feeders clean

Dirty feeders cause disease to spread

Common chaffinch sick with trichomonosisCredit: Shutterstock / Ballygally View Images
A sign of trichomonosis in chaffinches is matted plumage and uneaten food around their beak

Findings from the 2023 RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch reveal that a parasitic disease called trichomonosis is decimating our bird population. Bird food, feeders and drinking water in our gardens are contaminated with this disease. Birds badly affected by it, such as greenfinches and chaffinches, are in decline as a result. But there are things we can do to combat it.  

“Remember to clean your feeding stations regularly, as this is something that is often overlooked,” says Dani Hawkins from CJ Wildlife. “Many parasites thrive on filthy feeders, including trichomonosis. So, feeders need to be cleaned to ensure that bacteria doesn’t mount up and make our birds sick.” 

Clean bird feeders once a week

Helen Moffat of the RSPB advises people to clean bird feeders once a week. “Use a mild anti-bacterial cleaner, such as washing-up liquid, and nothing as harsh as bleach-based products,” she adds. “There are some purpose-made cleaners out there too. Save cleaning equipment to use just for this job and do it outside where possible – anything you can do to make the process as hygienic as possible.” 

The RSPB also advises that if you see sick birds where you are feeding, temporarily stop feeding for at least two weeks and leave bird baths dry. 

How to spot poorly birds in your garden 

Not sure what a bird sick with trichomonosis looks like? The RSPB says that signs may include fluffed-up plumage, laboured breathing and lethargy (the bird might not fly away if you approach, for example). Birds with trichomonosis might also regurgitate food and have difficulty swallowing. They may have a swollen throat or stretch their necks in discomfort. 

The RSPB says finches may have matted, wet plumage around the face and beak, and uneaten food in and around the beak. Visit the RSPB website for further information if you’re concerned.  

2. Leaving too much food out

Little and often is best

bird sitting on bird feederCredit: Chris Gomersall RSPB Images
If your bird feeders are very busy, then you can fill them up more

Another way to reduce the risk of bird disease spreading is eliminating the build-up of food waste.  

“It’s better to put food out little and often,” says Helen Moffat from the RSPB. “The issue around overfilling is that food can go off, particularly in hot or wet weather. You don’t want to put out vast amounts unless you know your garden birds are going to eat it all fairly quickly. 

“When birds need lots of energy for nest-building and then to feed broods, you might find that your feeders are emptying almost as quickly as you can fill them, in which case, fill them right up.”  

She adds that if you are just starting to put food out, birds can take a while to find new sources, so put out smaller amounts until you find the right level that works.  

It’s also wise not to leave food out overnight, as this can also attract rodents to your garden. 

Think about birds’ food shortages 

“While people often put out seed mixtures for birds in winter, food shortages can occur anytime of the year,” Rob Stoneman, director of landscape recovery for The Wildlife Trusts, tells us. “Extreme weather, which caused drought and wildfires last summer, affects food sources for lots of animals – including birds.” 

Keeping an eye on local and regional weather conditions with this in mind will help you decide if you need to put additional sources of food out for the birds. 

3. Feeding bread to birds

Bread can lead to malnutrition

bird eating from peanut butter feeder hanging from a treeCredit: CJ Wildlife (pictured: Rio Peanut Butter Feeder )
Specially formulated peanut butter is a much better source of nutrition for birds

We’ve probably all been there. Rather than throwing stale bread away, we’ve broken it up and thrown it out for the birds. But regularly feeding bread to birds can lead to problems for them. 

“Bread is high in carbohydrates, and therefore does not provide the right balance of nutrients that birds need to thrive,” says Dani Hawkins of CJ Wildlife.  

“Garden birds require a protein-rich and high-calorie diet. Ideally, they should be eating a combination of insects such as mealworms, seeds such as sunflower hearts, peanuts and fat.” 

“Garden birds require a protein-rich and high-calorie diet”

Hawkins adds that while bread isn’t directly poisonous, too much of it can act as an “empty filler”. This means that over time it will leave birds suffering from conditions associated with malnutrition. “Unfortunately, once malnutrition has set in, it can be incredibly difficult to reverse the effects.” 

Bread also contains considerably fewer calories than birds need to survive. Hawkins says that they may not have enough energy to stay warm during winter, sustain young chicks or evade predators. 

“A chick with a stomach full of bread can freeze to death overnight.” 

Don’t panic, though, as much of the damage done by bread can be reversed if you change your bird-feeding habits. 

You should avoid putting out fat and whole peanuts during the warmer months when birds have chicks in the nest, as these items can pose a choking threat, the RSPB tells us. 

What should birds be eating?

The best food for birds is specially formulated with our feathered friends in mind, says Hawkins.  

The Wildlife Trusts’ Rob Stoneman recommends seed mixtures high in protein, with foods like black sunflower seeds and dried fruits, which will help adults feed young birds preparing to leave the nest.  

High-calorie options, such as CJ Wildlife’s peanut square cake, fat balls or peanut butter for birds are all easy and affordable ways to make sure your garden visitors are getting plenty of calories. A high-energy seed mix, such as CJ Wildlife’s High-Energy No Mess Bird Seed, is an all-round favourite of many bird species, while dried mealworms are loved by robins in particular. 

Shop CJ Wildlife’s Top 10 bird foods

4. Forgetting to provide water

A bird bath is important for their feathers

blackbird drinking from bird bathCredit: Chris Gomersall RSPB Images
Don’t forget to replenish bird baths with fresh water

Watching birds splash about in a bird bath will bring joy to just about anyone. Bathing regularly helps birds to keep their feathers clean so they can keep flying properly. But providing fresh water is more important than you might think. 

Helen Moffat from the RSPB says a big bird-feeding mistake people often make is forgetting to put out fresh water for the birds. 

“Birds need to drink and bathe daily – especially in hot weather,” she says. “So fresh water can literally be a lifesaver in the summer.” 

It’s important to also keep this water clean – change it every day and make sure you don’t site it too near your feeders, as it could become contaminated with food. It’s a good idea to give the bath itself a good scrub regularly too, especially if it receives lots of visitors. 

5. Putting feeders in the wrong place

Birds need protection and cover

birds eating from caged bird feederCredit: CJ Wildlife (pictured: Peanut Guardian Feeder)
Place bird feeders near to shrubs, trees and bushes where they can seek cover

If space allows on your property, it’s useful for birds to have a safe place to feed from (and bathe!) comfortably.  

“Birds like cover,” says Helen Moffat at the RSPB. “So put your feeders near to areas where birds can quickly flit back and forth.” 

If your garden is also visited by lots of neighbourhood cats, then consider how close they can get to the birds, too. 

“It’s important to put bird feeders in places where birds feel safe from predators, so make sure they aren’t too low,” says Rob Stoneman of The Wildlife Trusts. 

Your lawn can help to feed birds 

One major grass-cutting mistake people make is mowing their lawns too short. The Wildlife Trusts encourages people to let their grass grow long in spring, which will help provide habitat for insects – a vital food source for birds.  

“Building a pond is also a brilliant way of helping wildlife at home and even the smallest water feature can be transformational for birds, bugs and small mammals,” adds Stoneman.  

The Wildlife Trusts and RHS are running a campaign called ‘Bring your lawn to life’ to encourage gardeners to reimagine their lawns and help wildlife. For more information, visit wildaboutgardens.org.uk 

6. Not using the correct feeder

Different species have different needs

robin on a bird feeder covered in seedCredit: Chris Gomersall RSPB Images
Robins prefer table feeders, and eating lower to the ground

Not all birds feed in the same way, so your best efforts at nurturing your feathered friends might not be as successful as you’d hoped. 

“Ensure that you use the correct type of feeder for the birds in your garden, or that you want to attract to your garden,” says Dani Hawkins from CJ Wildlife. 

“Blackbirds and robins are ground feeders, and prefer tables or lower surfaces, whereas tits and sparrows prefer to feed from hanging stations. Setting up an array of feeders will help you care for a wide range of birds.” 

Buy the National Trust ground bird feeding table for £16.99
The Apollo 3 port seed feeder is £24.99 at CJ Wildlife

Did you know?  

There’s a quick window safety tip that could save millions of British birds from crashing into our houses each year. Read our article on how window stickers can deter birds from flying into our windows, and how to apply them properly for the best results.  

Rosanna Spence

Written by Rosanna Spence she/her

Published:

Rosanna Spence has been a journalist for nearly 10 years, reporting on a huge array of topics – from microwaves to cocktails, sustainable buildings, the Caribbean islands and beyond. She’s interviewed chefs at the helm of Michelin-starred restaurants and chatted to countless CEOs about their businesses, as well as created travel guides for experienced travellers seeking life-changing adventures. Throughout her career, she has created content for Business Traveller, i-escape.com, Pub & Bar, BRITA, Dine Out and many more leading titles and brands.

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