Horticulture Magazine

How To Attract & Look After Birds In Your Garden

Robin on tree branch

You may be wondering, “why are there no birds in my garden?”

Fret not, even if there are none visiting at the moment, there are ways to lure them in. The first step in most cases is to provide them with something to eat.

And don’t worry, you’re not stuck if you live in a city. This guide will tell you how to attract birds to an urban garden, too.

This guide focuses on three main things: food, water, and shelter.

Here’s what we’ll cover:

  • How to identify visiting birds.
  • Attracting birds to your garden with a bird feeder.
  • How to set up a bird feeder.
  • Which food attracts what birds.
  • Attracting birds to your garden with a bird bath.
  • Attracting them with a nest box.
  • And attracting them with plants.

And here’s what you might need:

  • A bird feeder.
  • A bird bath.
  • A nest box.
  • Bushes or shrubs with berries.
  • Plants that attract insects.

Let’s get started.

How to identify visiting birds

First up, here are some tips and resources for identifying the birds that come to visit.

If you aren’t a keen ornithologist, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) have a great bird identification tool. Just plug in the particulars of a bird, and the tool will tell you what you’re looking at.

There are also tons of bird-spotting books available online, at libraries, and often at charity shops.

According to the RSPB, here are the most common garden birds that you’re likely to see:

  • Starlings
  • House sparrows
  • Blackbirds
  • Blue and great tits
  • Robins
  • Greenfinches
  • Collared doves
Male greenfinch on branch
A male greenfinch taking a break

Attracting birds to your garden with a bird feeder

Let’s be honest, most creatures are motivated mainly by food. Thankfully, birds aren’t much different.

Setting up a bird feeder in a prime location is often a good first step in attracting birds into your garden.

When setting up a feeder, finding the sweet spot is important. It should be close enough to a tree or bush that a bird can quickly make a getaway, but not too close that lurking cats could leap from their cover and attack before a feeding bird has a chance to react.

With this in mind, don’t be offended if birds don’t flock to your new feeder straight away: it can take them a while to get used to things, and to feel confident (and safe!) approaching something they don’t recognise.

To maximise the chance of birds visiting, keep your feeders clean. You wouldn’t eat food from a place that others had used as a toilet, so you shouldn’t expect birds to do so.

How to make a bird feeder

If after reading the previous sections you’re scratching your head, here are some ideas on how to build a bird feeder (or set up a pre-bought one).

You have almost unlimited flexibility when making a DIY bird feeder for your garden. We’ve seen guides to make them from bowls and plates, teacups, wine bottles, jars, shoes, wooden spoons, and all sorts.

DIY plastic bottle bird feeder
A DIY bird-feeder made using a plastic bottle

As long as there is somewhere for a bird to stand, and somewhere for food to be stored, you’ve got a functional bird feeder. But there are a couple of things to bear in mind:

  • Some bird feeder designs automatically replenish the seed from a container that animals can’t access. This can protect against one hungry animal clearing the lot, or from the wind distributing your feed all over the garden.
  • An open bird feeder will attract other animals too: squirrels are notoriously fond of bird seed.
Squirrel grabbing the bird feeder
Cheeky squirrels see bird seed as easy food

Which food attracts what birds?

Again, this information comes from the RSPB, who are the British authority on all things birds.

First, a few things not to give birds:

  • Milk.
  • Margarine or vegetable oil.
  • Salted, dry roasted, or otherwise flavour nuts.
  • Dessicated coconut: this can expand and kill birds.
  • Any cheese other than mild ones.
  • Cooked porridge oats: they get sticky and can seal a bird’s beak!
  • Mouldy foods: while some moulds are safe, others are deadly. It’s probably best to avoid them all rather than take the chance.

Bird seed mix

This is the first place many people look, and different mixes will contain different ingredients. Here’s what to look out for:

Small seeds will attract house sparrows, finches, collared doves, dunnocks, and reed buntings.

Maize is the favourite of blackbirds.

Sunflower seeds and peanuts will attract greenfinches, all types of tits, dunnocks, robins, and possibly wrens. Make sure they are plain and unsalted.

Barley grains and wheat are the favourite of pigeons, doves, and the occasional pheasant.

Nyjer seeds, which you may not have heard of, are popular with siskins, goldfinches, sparrows, nuthatches, and even woodpeckers.

And here’s what to avoid:

Lentils and split peas are too big to be eaten dry by most bird species.

Lumps of dog biscuits are the same: these are only suitable for birds when they’ve been soaked, which they probably won’t be in a feeder.

Not all birds will be attracted to the bird mix in your feeder. Here are some other options.

Fat balls

We’ve all seen birds hanging jauntily upside down from a fat ball on a winter morning. If you want to bring this unusual sight to your garden, here’s what to do.

Simply hang the fat ball from a branch after removing it from its mesh bag (if relevant) and wait for the birds to come.

You can make your own fat balls, too. Just pour melted fat over a selection of nuts and seeds (see previous section). You want about 1:2 parts fat:mix.

Note: you shouldn’t use leftover fat from cooking, as oils from foods mix in with it and this can be problematic for birds. Do not use margarine or vegetable oil: birds need lots of saturated fat, which these products take deliberate steps to avoid.

Live food

Potentially not for the faint hearted!

Buying or breeding mealworms and other types of insect can attract robins, blue tits, pied wagtails, and wrens.

Just make sure the worms are fresh, otherwise you risk making the birds unwell.

orange thrush eating a mealworm
An orange thrush eating a mealworm

Because of the creepy crawlies involves, this option definitely isn’t for everyone.

Pet food

Some birds love the moist chunks of dog and cat food. The theory is that it acts as a substitute for warm wiggly worms in the depths of winter, when the topsoil is too hard for birds to penetrate.

Leaving a bowl of food out can attract blackbirds, magpies, gulls, and even cats! If you live in an area with lots of roaming cats you may find this option counterproductive, as birds will likely be scared off by the cats you attract.

Other foods

Grated cheese can attract robins, wrens, and dunnocks.

Cooked, unsalted rice is a great winter food and will be enjoyed by all species.

Uncooked rice will attract bigger birds and, despite myths, will not expand in their stomach and cause them to burst.

Breakfast cereal in small quantities, because large amounts quickly become soggy mush.

Attracting birds to your garden with a bird bath

Now that dinner is taken care of, you can start to think about satisfying birds’ other needs. Namely, giving them something to drink.

All species need to drink water, and some birds also use it to clean themselves and bathe in.

Whether you decide to buy a bird bath or build your own, it’s quite a simple job. All you need is a watertight bowl, something to raise it off the ground slightly, and some water to put in it.

When choosing the bowl, make sure it has:

  • Shallow sloping sides (more like a dustbin lid than a washing up bowl).
  • A depth of 10cm maximum.
  • A width of 30cm or more.

As with bird feeders, make sure your bird bath is out of cat pouncing distance. Birds need to feel safe while bathing!

robin in bird bath
Robin’s love to bathe in garden bird baths!

You can line the bowl with small stones to give the birds a bit more purchase.

Once your bird bath is ready you can expect to see blackbirds, starlings, robins, sparrows, wood pigeons, and more.

Attracting birds to your garden with a nest box

Another option for attracting birds is to give them somewhere cosy to sleep. You may see a nest box called a bird box or nesting box.

This provision is vital for some bird species. According to the RSPB, about half of the UK’s barn owls now nest in boxes.

Again you need to decide whether to buy or build. Building one is a simple job: you just need some wood, a saw, a hammer, and a few nails.

If you decide to build, we recommend using the nest box schematics available on the RSPB website.

A few things to consider when setting up your bird box:

  • Make sure the box is deep enough, and that the entrance hole is high enough to protect small birds from falling out or being dragged out by a cat.
  • Include drainage holes so that any visiting birds don’t drown.
  • Sparrows will nest in colonies, so you can make a “sparrow terrace” by having a few nest boxes alongside each other.
  • Face the box northeast so that it is protected from the strongest sunlight.
  • A height of between two and four metres is suitable for most species.

Attracting birds to your garden with plants

We’ve covered food, water, washing, and sleep so far. One more option is to lure birds into your garden with plants.

Choosing plants with fruits and berries, or plants that attract insects, adds a few more dishes to the menu available to birds visiting your garden.

The RSPB say that thrushes in particular are attracted to gardens with berries on offer. They give this list of thrush types that you can expect to see:

  • Fieldfares
  • Redwings
  • Mistle
  • Song

You may see blackbirds, as well.

Choosing plants that are popular with insects will attract birds, too, as it brings another food source to your garden. This can be a good workaround for people who don’t fancy buying or breeding mealworms as bird food!

Here are a few suggestions of plants that tick these boxes. For insects:

  • Yarrow
  • Lemon balm
  • Marigolds
  • Dill
  • Cosmos
  • Alyssum
  • Fennel
  • Mallow
  • Lobelia
  • Buddleia
  • Marjoram
  • Lavender
  • Dandelion

And plants with berries:

  • All types of currants
  • Elderberries
  • Holly
  • Juniper
  • Raspberry

These lists are far from exhaustive!

There you have it…

After reading this guide you should have a firm idea of the things you can do to attract interesting birds to your garden, whether that’s a few acres of woodland or a small urban patch.

The main things to focus on are food, drink, washing, and sleep. Much like humans, birds will visit places where they know they can get a good meal and somewhere comfortable to hang out.

The tips in this guide have the combined advantage of making your garden a nicer space in general, too. Everyone wins!

Check out Rattan Direct’s guide to the RSPB Bird Watching Weekend for more info on attracting birds to your garden!

Good luck with your newfound bird-watching opportunities.

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