The best way to encourage birds to your garden is to provide their basic needs – food, water and shelter. This can be achieved in a practical way with feeders, bird baths,  bird tables and nesting boxes. But don’t neglect the plants in your garden either, shrubs and trees are vitally important natural habitat and food sources.

Types of feeders you can buy

Bird feeders range from simple nut dispensers to elaborate feeding stations. Many are squirrel proof, some discourage larger birds such as pigeons and others are designed for different types of seed and food. Don’t forget that birds expend a lot of energy seeking out food, so keep feeders stocked throughout the year.

Gardman feeders and feeding stations are designed to contain various types of food, attract specific species of birds and deter marauding squirrels. They are a great innovation if you don't have anywhere suitable to hang the feeders as they come complete with a pole and stabilising leg. The Premium and Deluxe feeding stations also make attractive garden focal points and have branches and feeding trays on which to hang and place food.  By putting out various types of food, these feeding stations will attract many different birds.

If you are looking for something a little more robust there are different heavy-duty feeders that are designed for various seeds and nuts while there is another that is specifically made for Gardman make a range of feeders designed to be squirrel proof, they certainly can't reach the food or destroy the feeder by biting through it.

Small bird feeding from a wild bird feeder

Other squirrel resistant feeders include lattice style globe cages that also deter larger birds, so smaller species can fly inside the protective cage and feed in safety.

For birds that are ground feeders, there's a micro-mesh tray to keep the food dry and fresh. Amongst others, these feeders will attract plenty of Blackbirds, Thrushes and Dunnocks.   

Most tubular shaped feeders are either constructed from a square or diamond mesh that is ideal for housing peanuts, allowing the birds to perch and peck through, or they are clear plastic cylinders with feeding ports spaced around the tube. These more contained feeders are for seed as opposed to peanuts. The peanut feeders will attract all tits, woodpecker whilst the seed feeders will attract goldfinches, robin, woodpecker nuthatches. Most are constructed to be squirrel proof, robustly made and cleverly designed to deter rodents.

To keep bird feeders clean you can also buy Wild Bird Feeder Hygiene Spray which cleans and disinfects. It is odourless, non-toxic and contains no alcohol.

Who makes the best bird tables?

In truth, the list could be endless, but I have highlighted a few of the leading manufacturers below.

Riverside  Woodcraft (based in Elford, Staffordshire design and manufacture a splendid range of single and double bird tables which are striking ornaments in their own right and also handsome garden furniture. They are handmade from FSC certified timber, taking inspiration from many diverse subjects. Bird tables add structure and interest to your garden as well as offering birds a safe haven.

Rowlinson timber bird tables are also made from sustainable softwood and are premium quality, with the option of a wooden or slate roof. Easily assembled, there are four sturdy traditional styles to choose from.

Chapelwood bird tables are also extremely well built, the timber is treated with non-toxic preservative, and anti-rust fixings ensure that the table will be a useful garden feature for many years to come.

What types of bird food are available?

To attract a range of birds take time to find out what they prefer to eat. Good seed mixtures will contain millet and other small seeds that sparrows and finches like; flaked maize will be eaten by blackbirds; tits and greenfinches prefer fatty peanuts that must be bought from a reputable source. Look out for mixtures that are marketed for specific species such as robins, finches or tits or buy certain seeds, perhaps thistle to attract goldfinches, chaffinches and siskins.

No mess - no grow seed blend

Petface offer a No Mess - No Grow blend of seeds that can be used all year round. It is a ‘husk free’ blend so there is no mess left on the ground, as there often is when the husks are left intact. To increase the user experience even further the seed is ‘steamed, flaked and kibbled’ during processing to make sure an uneaten seed does not re-grow as well as making it easier for the birds to digest. This, in turn, increases the nutritional value of the seed ingested by the birds.

It can be used on the ground, in bird tables and, of course, in seed feeders. It attracts Bramblings, Chaffinches, Great Tits, Greenfinches and Goldfinches amongst other birds. The name might be a mouthful, but it’s certainly not for our feathered friends!

Small wild bird feeding from a plant

Are sunflower hearts the best kept secret?

Now, these are my favourites! Well, maybe I should rephrase that and say these seem to be the favourite choice of the birds who visit my garden to feed. Maybe it’s location, maybe it’s familiarity, or maybe they just know they are not the cheapest seed around! Either way, I have always attracted plenty of different birds to the sunflower hearts feeder. Sunflower seeds were always a favourite but left such a mess on my lawn below so when just the hearts became available I was quick to put them out, and have never regretted it. Sunflower hearts are the edible kernel of sunflower seed and are packed full of high energy oil.

As well as the usual culprits I have attracted a Nuthatch (or a pair) along with a family of Greater Spotted Woodpeckers who hang acrobatically from the feeder and stretch their long neck and bill inside the squirrel proof feeder just far enough to make it worth their while.

They also attract the ‘posh birds’ as my wife calls them. Sitting elegantly upright at the feeding port Goldfinches are now a regular sight in our garden, and they are very welcome too!

Robin seed and insect blends

This will normally contain tasty, oil-rich and therefore high energy ingredients that are ideally suited to that very British bird, the Robin. These ingredients will probably include dried mealworms, sunflower hearts, suet pellets and selected smaller seeds. They make for a varied and balanced diet that suits these cheeky birds.

Robins are ground feeders so put in a ground feeder basket or on a bird table where they will also attract other very British ground feeders like the little Wren and that superb songbird, the Blackbird. Make sure you scatter the food than pile it up for them.

Why choose nyger seed?

If you love to see those very colourful Goldfinches in your garden then this specialist feed is for you. And it can attract small flocks of Goldfinches at a time, so prepare to be dazzled. As the nyger seed is so fine you will have a purchase a special nyger seed feeder that has small micro ports to contain the very fine seed. It’s definitely worth the investment, particularly when these gorgeous birds flock around to feed in your garden during those bleak winter months.

Nyger seed is full of energy-rich oils and is particularly appreciated during cold spells but can be fed year round. It also attracts Dunnocks, Siskins and other species of wild birds.

Peanuts for wild birds

An open jar of wild bird peanut butter inside a makeshift bird feeder

Like me, you might have started feeding the birds in your garden by hanging up a net of pre-packed peanuts. Very simple, and very effective as there was no need to buy a feeder. They were called Pek-A-Nut (I think) and you can still get them, though the brand has possibly changed. You can also get larger peanut feeders that hold more and look a little more user-friendly for the birds.

Peanuts are high in protein and oil so they make a great high energy food all year round. Always use a feeder, even if it’s the simple net form, as whole peanuts can cause a choking hazard to wild birds. The Tit family are all drawn to peanuts along with Nuthatches, Sparrows and the Great Spotted Woodpecker.

You can also get Peanuts crushed down into a jar of Peanut ‘Butter’. This is a fairly recent addition and a novel and clean way to feed the birds. Simply unscrew the top of the Peanut Butter jar, discard the top and place the jar on its side in the specially designed Peanut Butter feeder. See our photograph for further detail.

Other bird foods are also available

Suet and fat balls are excellent food sources for the long winter months and these can come with added cereals and seeds to provide a very effective energy boost. Suet is also used to fill Coconut shell feeders which are ready to be hung outside immediately, and with no fuss. Also, consider dried mealworms, Robins love these and they can be put out throughout the year attracting other insect-loving birds too, such as wagtails. If you want great value, choose a high energy mix, look out for the ones with a low cereal content or added fruit and fat.

Black sunflower seeds are loved by the Finch family as well as all the Tit family.

Experimenting with different types of bird food, at different times of the year is always fun as you never quite know what unusual birds you might attract to your garden.

To prevent unwanted rodents taking an interest and to keep the food fresh, don't leave out too much food and clear away any that isn't eaten.

If you want to explore more or want to buy related products or gifts visit our Bird and Wildlife Care products.

Birdbaths and water

A small wild bird bathing in a bird bath on a warm day

Birds need water for both drinking and bathing. You may already have a pond that is great for encouraging wildlife, adding other water features including a birdbath will only enhance your garden’s appeal.

Birds need to drink as well as eat, seed-eating birds especially will love some water to go with the food you may well put out for them.

They also need to bathe, keeping their feathers in top condition.

Selecting the right bird bath for your garden is as much subjective as objective. There are many styles of stone bird baths to choose from. Modern or traditional, the ‘correct’ choice will be one that fits best into your garden design or theme.

Traditional styles are probably best represented by Haddonstone bird baths which are made from a unique form of limestone with a surface texture similar to Portland stone. In a number of ways the cast stone is superior to quarried stone, it often matures and develops character much earlier, is environmentally sustainable and much cheaper than quarried stone.

The Arcadian stone bird bath and Baluster stone bird bath are elegant and smoothly curved examples, while if you want something more decorative go for the Hazelwood or Memorial styles. If they aren’t elaborate enough, the Georgian Stone Bird Bath has a strigilated baluster stand decorated with leaf mouldings, fancy enough for the poshest birds.

Borderstone is another company who offer modestly decorated yet attention-grabbing ornaments such as the Chalice bird bath whose etched form stretches up to the sky from a narrow base and the intriguingly named Twisted stone bird bath, an unusual and visually striking ornament. These handsome pieces offer the artistic refinement to enhance any contemporary situation

The disarmingly basic English Garden Granite Bird Bath from Stone & Water proves that granite’s combination of colour and texture makes it such an attractive material for garden designers. Ideal if you need a solid piece, devoid of any decoration but with great presence, to fit into a sparse manicured landscape.

Perhaps completely opposite in interpretation and application, the rustic bird baths from Borderstone feature representations of tree trunks, with a sculpted woodpecker already drinking from the bowl of one. Smart Solar’s ‘Wood Nymph’ bird bath has the eponymous female decorating the stem of a self-contained water feature with an integral pump.

Once you have a bird bath that is a perfect fit for your garden, the best position is a spot that has some shade during the day and from where the birds can see any approaching predators. Keep the water fresh, free from ice and clean it regularly to prevent any chance of disease.

There’s a choice between contemporary or traditional designs, woodland or artistic, some with fountains and the added attraction of running water that may be solar powered for extra ecological benefits.

After feeding and bathing the birds will need somewhere to live. However, nesting boxes sited away from food sources will be an extra incentive for them to stay in your garden.

Nesting boxes

A green wild bird nest box with a brown roof attached to a tree

There are many nesting boxes available commercially. From the simple wooden box to decorative postbox and teapot nesters.

The good news is that various studies have shown that there's no doubt that nesting boxes are useful, increasing breeding success and enabling bird numbers to climb.

Other researchers have concentrated on whether the material used to construct a bird box matters. The Daily Telegraph reported earlier this year that whether the box is made from timber or concrete reinforced with wood fibre (woodcrete) does make a difference. Tits preferred woodcrete, possibly because those nests were warmer.

Incidentally, it seems that colour is also important. Tits have been shown to prefer green boxes to brown, but robins have more success in black ones.

How to make your own bird box

If you have some time and a few DIY skills they are not too difficult to make. This is a basic ‘Gardeners' World’ nesting box:

Cut a length of 15mm timber into six sections: back panel 45cm x 15cm, base 11cm x 15cm, front 20cm x 15cm, roof 21cm x 15cm and two side panels 25cm at one end and 20cm at the front (this is to accommodate a sloping roof).

The wood shouldn't be CCA pressure treated or be stained, painted or have had preservative applied.

Fix one of the sides to the base of the nesting box and then nail them to the lower portion of the back section. Turn the box on to the fixed side and nail the other side into position.

Using a wood drill bit make an entrance hole in the front, more than 125mm from the floor of the nesting box, then fix that panel into place. The diameter of the holes will attract different species, blue, coal and marsh tits prefer 25mm, 28mm will attract great tits and a 32mm hole is suitable for sparrows and nuthatches.

Now use self-tapping screws to position the top that should be sloping forward and overhanging the front. Drill a hole in the upper portion of the back section and use it to screw to a tree or wherever the nesting box is to be placed.

With natural nesting places fast disappearing, introducing nest boxes into your garden is a great idea at any time of the year. For many birds, the RSPB actually recommend setting up nest boxes in the autumn. However blue tits and other small birds do not seek out nesting sites until February or March.

David Hall's DIY bird box on a workshop table.

Height and positioning of bird boxes

How high to position the box depends on the species you want to attract. Boxes for tits, sparrows or starlings should be 2 – 4 metres (6½ft – 13ft) high on a wall or tree.

Well hidden boxes for robins and wrens can be lower, while you can place woodpecker boxes 5 metres high.

Just under the eaves of your house is a good place for house sparrow and starling boxes. Several can be located a short distance from each other but away from house martins.

Boxes should face between north and east. Choose quiet, sheltered positions, not accessible by predators such as cats and squirrels.

Avoid direct sunlight or the box may well become an oven. A clear flight path is important, and tilting the box forward to deflect rain is also a good idea. Don't use nails if you are fixing the box to a tree. Wire with some kind of protective covering is preferred.

By placing the boxes at different heights in various locations you should be able to attract a variety of species. Don’t be discouraged if none arrive in the first year but if this happens for several years there might be a good reason, so it will be worth relocating the box.

The best location for nest boxes

Where you locate the bird nesting box is important, the RSPB recommends that they face north and east. The location should be away from the worst of the weather and out of reach of predators. A metal plate around the entrance is another way of discouraging the latter.

Placing a nesting box near to a bird table is not a good idea as there is too much disturbance.

The number of nesting boxes in a garden depends on the species you want to set up home. Blue Tits, for example, are very territorial and won't tolerate nearby boxes but sparrows are what's known as colonial nesters and will willingly live in an avian Coronation Street.

Finally, it's generally accepted that you should remove the lid and clean out a nesting box each season in October or November, using boiling water not insecticides to eliminate parasites.

Basic wooden ones will suit tits, nuthatches and sparrows. Robins will love setting up home in a quirky teapot while a red letter box nester will appeal to both birds and provide a great talking point for human garden visitors.

Make your garden bird friendly

A small wild bird feeding from a monkey nut anti-squirrel feeder

Don’t forget that feeders, birdbaths and nest boxes should augment not replace a wildlife-friendly environment.

Plant as diversely as possible in your garden to attract the widest range of birds throughout the year. Consider nectar-rich flowers such as Foxgloves, Honeysuckles and Delphiniums and berry carrying shrubs like Pyracantha, Cotoneaster or Viburnum.

Let fruit trees, along with coniferous and evergreen trees, offer food and shelter in the autumn and winter.

Rowan Trees (Mountain Ash) are much loved by the Thrushes who gorge on their autumn berries, and what a welcome site that is on a cold October day.

Teasels (Dipsacus fullonum) grow up to 2 metres tall and display a fabulous seed head which is loved for foraging by all the Tit family as well as Goldfinches. Finches also love Thistles, which are becoming more popular as a garden plant anyway but the added attraction of more birds is another big bonus point for this range of plants.

For further information

Visit our other wildlife blogs for more information:

How to Encourage Hedgehogs to Your Garden       Winter Wildlife in Your Garden       Attract Wildlife Into Your Garden