Contents

How to attract birds to your garden

A decline in natural habitats means that our gardens are more important than ever for birds.

Advertisement

To attract birds, your garden needs to be attractive to them all year round. A bird-friendly garden not only offers food but water, shelter, nesting sites and protection from predators.

If you’ve put out food but birds aren’t visiting your garden, work out how you can make it more attractive – are there places for birds to shelter or take cover from predators, for example? And be patient – it can take time for birds to routinely visit your garden.

More garden birds content:

  • Top 10 plants for birds
  • Making fat cakes for birds (video)
  • Building a bird box (video)

Here are some ways to attract birds to your garden.

A bird-friendly garden not only offers food but water, shelter, nesting sites and protection from predators.

Provide natural food sources

Vivid-red berberis berries

Feeding birds with supplementary foods is very useful but it’s important to provide natural food, too. Berries and seeds are especially important. Lawns are a feeding ground for many birds, including robins, blackbirds and song thrushes. Find out how to grow your own bird food.

Provide shelter

Mature ivy growing over a support

Birds need shelter from the cold, especially on cold, winter nights. Dense, evergreen conifers, trees and shrubs are especially good, as is mature ivy. Some birds, including tits and wrens, will shelter in empty nest boxes, snuggling together for warmth.

Provide water

Pouring water into a bird bath

Birds need a supply of water at all times, to drink and to bathe in. Bathing is especially important in winter – it makes feathers easier to preen, keeping them waterproof and insulating. Shelter it from predators and keep it clean and fresh. Ensure it doesn’t freeze over in winter and defrost if needed with some hot water from a kettle. Find out how to make a bird bath.

Provide supplementary food

Placing fat balls into a wire bird feeder hanging from a tree in a snowy garden

Feeding birds in winter is essential – it helps them conserve energy and get through cold nights. But food shortages can happen at any time, so keep feeders topped up all year round – birds will rely on them. Put up a mix of foods to attract a range of species. Discover which foods suit different birds.

Provide nesting sites

A mature hedgerow

The type of nest box and its location will depend on the bird it’s for – watch our video on the different types of bird box. Put boxes in a sheltered spot, away from predators. If you can, provide natural nest sites, too, such as a dense native hedge – which will also provide food. Don’t prune hedges between March to July if birds are nesting.

Protect from cats and other predators

A tit on a wire bird feeder containing peanuts, hanging high in a tree

Birds won’t visit if they don’t feel safe. They like to be able to check for predators like cats and sparrowhawks, and need somewhere to retreat to quickly. Put feeders next to some cover, such as a tree, hedge or climber-covered fence. A prickly shrub beneath a bird feeder can help to deter cats. Move your bird feeders from time to time to break up the routine of predators like sparrowhawks.

Practise good hygiene

Scrubbing a wire bird feeder, wearing rubber gloves

Be sure to clean bird feeders, tables and baths regularly, to avoid a build up of bacteria and fungal spores that could kill visiting birds. Read our advice on cleaning bird feeders.

Old bird feed

Pouring peanuts into a wire bird feeder from a bag

Don’t let bird food go off. If your feeders are taking an age to go down, just put out small amounts of fresh food at a time and keep the rest in airtight containers. Feeding rates will rise during cold weather, when you can increase the supply.

Quality feed

Bird feeding station, with fat balls, peanuts and bird seed Advertisement

Buy good quality bird food. It’ll cost a little more, but is well worth choosing bird seed from reputable brands. Cheaper mixes will contain ‘fillers’ such as millet or wheat, which are loved by pigeons but that most garden birds won’t or can’t eat.

Bird-specific advice

  • Starlings love to feed on grubs in the lawn, so don’t use pesticides, and put up special starling nestboxes
  • House sparrows enjoy sunflower hearts. They’ll also benefit from nestboxes with 32mm diameter holes
  • Greenfinches like feeding from hanging feeders. Keep their feeding areas clean to prevent diseases. Wearing gloves, use a weak disinfectant to clean feeders and swish them out with hot water
  • Blue tits, finches and other tits will devour sunflower hearts. Offer bug nibbles for long-tailed tits
  • Thrushes wil enjoy a fruity mix on the ground – leftover, windfall or damaged apples are ideal
  • Robins love mealworms, either on the ground or on a table. Dried ones are fine, although fresh make a welcome treat

It’s hard to find a gardener with a bad word to say about wild visitors such as lady­birds, hedgehogs and bees, but birds? They can be a mixed blessing. Every veg grower has a moan about wood pigeons ripping brassicas to shreds and every pond owner mourns fish lost for ever to the sharp beak of a heron. But birds can play a vital role in the garden’s ecosystem, as pest controllers of everything from snails to aphids, and as consumers of wind­fall fruits, they also bring joy to even the dullest plot: I defy anyone to watch a gang of blue tits assailing a peanut feeder or hear a blackbird singing without their spirits lifting.

Making your garden a haven for birds isn’t just about hanging up a bag of peanuts when the weather turns nasty, though. There are lots of ways to give bird populations a boost, from creating new nesting places to introducing plants and trees rich in nuts and berries. Here’s how.

Food

The wisdom once was that birds should be fed only in winter, but now the experts advise putting out food all year round: it won’t reduce the amount of insects they dispatch, but will encourage more wildlife to your garden. The range of seed mixes, fat balls and peanuts can be bewildering, so keep it simple and buy a mix that includes sunflower seeds, canary seed, hemp and husk-free oats. (If you’d rather not attract pesky wood pigeons, avoid food with lots of wheat, which they love.) A good tube-style feeder will set you back a few pounds from the RSPB , but a more stylish egg-shaped porcelain feeder is easier on the eye, if not the pocket.

Protect your birds from prowling cats by planting something prickly and ground-hugging around the bird table or feeder – Berberis darwinii, say; birds will eat the fruits in autumn, too. Alternatively, Pam Lewis, of the Dorset wildlife garden Sticky Wicket, weaves feeding “cages” out of willow stems to surround her bird feeders and create a safe haven. Clean bird tables and feeders regularly, or you may end up doing more harm than good: a build-up of bacteria from old food can kill birds.

Water

You may have remembered to put out food, but a supply of clean, unfrozen water is just as important, both for drinking and bathing. The RSPB advises using a sloping bath with water 2.5cm-10cm deep, which will allow different species to bathe in comfort. It helps to add a flat stone or two to give birds an easy way in and out. Try to position the bath some­where prominent where it won’t be a chore to clean, and refill regularly. Stone bird baths are the traditional if pricey choice, but birds won’t turn up their beaks at a dustbin lid sunk into the soil and filled with water. For something inexpensive but stylish, try the aged ceramic bird bath from Crocus (£14.99). If you want to splash out, the white porcelain Eva Solo bird bath, shaped like a drop of water, would make the perfect centrepiece for a small wildlife garden (£89.95).

Plants

It’s no use peppering your lawn or patio with feeders and baths if there is no place for birds to check out the lie of the land (or wait their turn in the queue). Swaths of sterile decking, manicured, empty lawns and bare fences are anathema to the likes of blue tits, thrushes and wrens. Cover in the form of shrubs, trees and climbers is vital. Think mixed hedges of hawthorn, holly, dog rose, goat willow and honey­suckle, ivy-covered arches and pergolas, and house and fence walls draped in shrubs that offer shelter and a fruity treat for the birds – try Pyracantha ‘Soleil d’Or’, Cotoneaster frigidus ‘Cornubia’ and rambling roses that will produce lots of rosehips, such as the white, single-flowered Rosa ‘Pleine de Grâce’. Dot lawns with specimen trees such as the bird cherry (Prunus padus) or, for small gardens, a crab apple such as Malus ‘John Downie’. Sticky Wicket’s Pam Lewis recommends Leycesteria formosa (pheasant berry) and the ornamental quince, Chaenomeles speciosa ‘Moerloosei’, and I love teasel (Dipsacus fullonum) – a bold, architectural plant that doubled the bird count in my garden, attracting crowds of goldfinches who feed on its spiky seed heads in autumn and winter.

Nesting

So you’ve organised food, water and cover, but what about places to nest and roost? Dozens of species will make use of nestboxes. It’s worth putting up new boxes as soon as you can, because birds use the winter to scope out spots to breed come spring. Now’s also a good time to take down existing boxes, remove any old nests and rinse the boxes with boiling water. New ones come in every conceivable material and style, from the white gothic nestbox from the Natural Collection (£34.95) to the Ernest Charles’s maintenance-free woodcrete box (£21.95). It’s not hard to make your own, either – see the National Nest Box Week site for instructions.

Give birds a helping hand with nest-making by putting out extra nesting material for them to grab. Try a terracotta pot full of sheep’s wool from the RSPB shop (£9.99) or a wreath of nesting materials from Wiggly Wigglers (£18), or make your own with wool scraps, pet hair, feathers and grasses loosely tied to a framework of twigs or even stuffed in the crooks of trees.

Finally, if you want to help track Britain’s changing bird population, join this weekend’s RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch.

This article contains affiliate links, which means we may earn a small commission if a reader clicks through and makes a purchase. All our journalism is independent and is in no way influenced by any advertiser or commercial initiative. By clicking on an affiliate link, you accept that third-party cookies will be set. More information.

Attracting Birds to your Garden

It’s wonderful to watch and identify all manner of birds who have chosen to pop into the garden for a drink and a stickybeak. From tiny, cheerful little wrens and pardalotes, to the cheeky parrots, gorgeous honeyeaters and bossy wattlebirds, it’s good to share space with our feathered friends. Just like a pot of basil and a shady spot, nothing makes a garden come alive like the twitter and chatter of a variety of Australian birds. They are essential in the garden, and not just to keep us backyard birdwatchers entertained, and there are many ways to attract them!

Get To Know The Neighbours

First things first: you need to know what kind of birds could be expected in your garden. There is no point designing a habitat for a bird that hasn’t been seen in your neighbourhood for ages – or ever! Contact local bird watching groups to get an idea of what you should be attracting, and what is common to your area. You might be surprised. Some suburban gardens have been visited by over 46 species of bird over the years… that’s impressive, and, with the right planning and processes, you may just be able to have that as well!

What about the cat?

Before adopting strategies to attract birds to your garden it’s worth thinking about cats. Are you enticing birds to their death? Suburban, rural and feral cats together kill many thousands of birds each night across the country. So if you or your neighbours own cats some thought is required.

Studies on suburban cats have reported different results on the role of cats as opposed to change in habitat in the decline of bird species diversity in suburbs. Reports of the numbers of birds killed and the effectiveness of attaching bells to the cat’s collar vary. What is clear, however, is that suburban cats do kill many thousands of birds and the bells are probably not making much of a difference. Interestingly, there is new idea, backed by research, that when cats wear a rainbow-coloured cloth collar, somewhat similar to that worn by clowns, with reflective strips, bird kills are significantly reduced. Apparently, because birds have highly developed eyesight this collar alerts them to the presence of a cat. Maybe worth a try?

What About The Water?

A source of water is absolutely essential in attracting birds and can significantly increase the number of species you will see. But like owning a cat, providing water is not without issues, and there are a couple of things that need to be considered when providing H2O.

Firstly, is it safe to swim? Are birds who visit your bird bath (or equivalent) able to gain access, have a drink and a paddle without fear of getting picked off by predators such as cats? Bird baths or ponds (preferably multiple drinking sites) need to be located so that, if startled or threatened, the birds can dart for cover in an adjacent “prickly” bush. Elevated bird baths – either on a stand or suspended from a tree – can help make birds safer.

Secondly, bird baths should be shallow enough to allow birds to stand in them to clean their feathers. It’s also helpful to choose baths that have sloping sides or to put stones at the edge to provide gradual access to the water.

Thirdly, the water has to be continuous. Birds remember where water sources are, and will seek them out, so ensure they are full all year round, and make sure you get someone to top them up for you while you are on holidays. The Bird Observers Club of Australia recommends that a shallow bowl, kept topped up, is ideal, and preferred by birds over deep ponds. Ideally, backyards should have a couple of water sources, each located by plants that will provide a nice bit of cover for smaller birds. They should be regularly cleaned out as well, to avoid transfer of disease and illness.

Is there a need to feed?

There is much debate about encouraging birds to your backyard through feeding! In the northern hemisphere, bird feeding is quite acceptable, but in Australia the view has been that, as tempting as it may be to put a bowl of budgie seed on the porch and watch the birds flock, this really doesn’t do the birds any favours. In fact, store bought seed mixes can make native birds a bit unwell (despite what the packet may say), but this is only one reason that feeding is discouraged by the majority of bird fanciers.

Birds can become extremely dependent on handouts at your house, and, as you take your annual holidays to the beach, your regular customers are suddenly without their main source of food for a couple of weeks, leading to… well, I think you know how you’d feel without food for a couple of weeks!

In addition, supplementary feeding creates further imbalance in delicate ecosystems, altering the natural behaviour of birds, favouring more aggressive birds in the backyard (while smaller birds in mixed feeding groups are more prone to predation) and assisting the spread of disease between birds. In short, it’s a contentious issue. Although throwing meat out for the Kookaburras or Magpies or putting out seed may seem to be encouraging birds to your garden, there will be no change in the diversity of species in the yard. In short, if you have Turtle Doves and Noisy Miners now, you’ll have more after feeding and perhaps even get introduced birds such as Common Starlings, Blackbirds, Indian Mynahs or House Sparrows.

Picking the Plants and Studying the Strata

So food may be out and the water’s in! Lets have a look at the flora required to encourage feathered fauna. Essentially, a backyard brimming with botanic biodiversity is the one most likely to attract a variety of birds, especially if the plants are locally native. We’re not suggesting you rush out and plant a whole swathe of enormous gum trees, although having some of these nearby does indeed help encourage the birds. The most important element of planting a bird habitat is to make sure all strata layers are accounted for. Strata layers are the differing layers of vegetation that essentially make up a habitat. As different birds (and other animals) live in different layers of vegetation, the more variety you can provide in the size and selection of plants you grow, the greater the variety of animals you may see turning up at your place. Different vegetation levels provide a diverse supply of food, shelter and safe spaces for birds, so consider a decent mix of ground covers, grasses, shrubs of varying sizes, and a couple of locally native tree species.

It’s important to recognise that, like us, birds have different likes and dislikes when it comes to having a feed. Some birds are insectivorous, and will happily gobble away at all manner of creepy crawly critters, where as others are nectar lovers and seed swallowers. It’s important, when planning your plants, to account for all appetites, and select plants that provide nectar, host insects, and provide shelter, as well as planning for vertical and horizontal structure.

The following is a list of Australian native plants that are recommended within the backyard bird garden. That said, it’s a great idea to check with your local indigenous plant nursery, bird observers group for their recommendations. As always, it’s incredibly important to avoid invasive plants, especially those with bird attracting fruits. Where species name only is mentioned, it is important to source locally native variations of these plants.

Grasses – Provide seed, shelter and nesting material

  • Poa labillardieri – Common Tussock Grass
  • Themeda triandra – Kangaroo Grass
  • Austrodanthonia sp. – Wallaby Grass

Groundcovers and Wildflowers – Provide nectar, seed, shelter and host insects

  • Dichondra repens – Kidney Weed
  • Kennedia prostrata – Running Postman
  • Banksia sp.
  • Grevillea sp.
  • Hibbertia sericea – Guinea Flower
  • Chrysocephalum sp. – Everlastings

Shrubs – Provide nectar, seed, shelter and host insects

  • Acacia sp. – Wattle
  • Correa sp.
  • Bursaria sp.
  • Leptospermum sp.
  • Melaleuca sp.
  • Callistemon sp. – Bottlebrush

Trees – Provide nectar, seed, shelter, nesting sites and host insects

  • Eucalyptus sp. – Gum Tree
  • Leptospermum sp.
  • Melaleuca sp.
  • Acacia sp. – Wattle

Can the Chemicals

Alright, the plants sorted, so what else do we have to do to encourage beautiful birds to our patch? Well, it’s more a case of what not to do, especially when it comes to chemicals in the garden. Not all of us are completely at ease with “creepy-crawly-slimy-slithery-furry-flying” critters and insects in the garden, and tend to declare chemical warfare at the first sign of insect inhabitants. In order to keep a biodiverse, bird-friendly backyard, we need to seriously consider what chemicals we are using, and why. Insects and invertebrates (little tackers without backbones) are an incredibly important part of any ecosystem, and this includes mosquitoes, cockroaches, ants and spiders.

We have all heard of the butterfly effect, where a minor action in one location can have devastating “knock-on” effects elsewhere. Well, apply this to your backyard, where the sprinkling of ant granules or the spraying of pesticides could have a detrimental impact on not only the target insect, but a whole host of important invertebrates, with a further knock on to the critters that feed on these guys. A US study performed a few years back looked at about 80,000 dead birds that had been handed in to the Parks and Wildlife authorities in one state. Studies found that the bulk of these birds had been killed by pesticide poisoning, totally an astounding 65 million birds killed in the US each year. And it ain’t much better here! Current studies into the rate of bird death from chemical poisoning is expected to reveal similar results. Think carefully about chemical use, and, where possible, avoid it altogether. After all, a couple of holes in a few leaves is all part of nature!

So, what are you waiting for? Attract those birds, and get recording. Keep a bird identification book and a diary handy to record those sightings, and become active in a local bird group – it’s great fun, and you’ll be amazed how addictive it is!

Want more info? Check out these links:

A mild winter has boosted the number of small birds visiting UK gardens, with the long-tailed tit returning to the top 10 most commonly seen species for the first time in seven years, according to results from the world’s largest garden wildlife survey.

Recorded sightings of the tiny, sociable tit rose by 44% on 2015 figures and the species was seen in more than a quarter of participants’ gardens. Other small garden bird species that are thought to have benefitted from the warmer weather include the great tit and coal tit.

Per cent change from 2015

About 519,000 people across the UK counted 8.2 million birds for the RSPB’s 37th Big Garden Birdwatch. The annual survey asks members of the public to spend an hour counting the birds in their gardens and local parks during the last weekend of January, to help compile a snapshot of the UK’s bird populations.

The house sparrow remains the most commonly seen garden bird, with an average of 4.2 birds per garden and was seen in 61% of gardens, followed by the starling (2.9 birds, 39% of gardens) and blue tit (2.8, 79%).

RSPB conservationists said an increase in sightings of the long-tailed tit, alongside other smaller garden birds such as the coal tit (up 25% since last year) and great tit (up 15%), could be attributed to the mild weather in the months leading up to the birdwatch.

The winter of 2015-16 is on track to become the warmest ever recorded in England and Wales, and the third warmest on record for the UK as a whole, according to preliminary figures from the Met Office released earlier this month. The UK mean temperature from 1 December to 24 February was 5.6C – well above the long-term average of 3.7C.

Small birds such as the long-tailed tit, which weighs little more than a 50p coin, are more likely to be killed off during cold weather – partly because of their size but also because as the insects they rely on for food are hard to find in frost and snow. From the late 1970s to the mid-1980s, a series of bitter winters caused the population to plummet, but a long run of mild winters brought the species into the top 10 garden birds for the first time in 2009.

Milder conditions are likely to have contributed to a higher survival rate this year, according to RSPB conservation scientist, Dr Daniel Hayhow: “The increase in long-tailed tit sightings, along with other smaller garden birds, just goes to show that in the absence of very cold weather these species can survive the winter months in much great numbers.”

Per cent of gardens where species were spotted

Longer term, the increase may also be explained by the way long-tailed tits and other smaller birds have adapted to feeding on seeds and peanuts at bird tables or from hanging feeders. Since 2006 the average number of long-tailed tits seen in UK gardens has increased by 52%, while great tit numbers have gone up by 13% and coal tit by 9%.

In other garden bird figures released this month, the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO)’s Garden BirdWatch showed that cold, wet weather in the spring of 2015 resulted in a particularly poor breeding season for blackbirds, great tits and blue tits, with numbers all well below average during the second half of 2015.

Clare Simm, from the BTO, said: “While numbers of some of our common garden birds were low, the good news is that we had a mild winter and overwinter survival should have been high, boosting numbers at the start of 2016.”

Top 10 birds to look out for this winter

Birds can be a real delight to watch in winter.

They can be our own resident species or those that have travelled from overseas to enjoy our (relatively) milder climate. To aid your enjoyment of our feathery friends, we enlisted the help of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) to compile a list of top spots.

Here is the RSPB’s Jamie Wyver’s guide to the top 10 birds to keep an eye out for this winter. Some will involve getting out and about, which shouldn’t be a hardship on a beautiful winter’s day but many should be easily seen in your nearest green space or even in your garden.

Redwing

The redwing is our smallest thrush, arriving in large numbers from Iceland, Scandinavia and other northern parts for the winter. It’s easily distinguished from the song thrush by its bright eyestripe and red patch under the wing. Like all other British thrushes (except the blackbird) the redwing is on the UK Red List, in recognition of recent population declines. Look out for redwings in the countryside between October and March.

Fieldfare

The fieldfare is one of our larger winter thrushes, with a blue to grey hood. Like the redwing, this bird explores the British countryside in flocks in search of fruit and berries, between October and March. Look out for fieldfares in hedgerows and orchards.

Brambling

The brambling is a small, colourful finch which can be found amongst flocks of chaffinches. Bramblings breed in Scandinavia and west Siberia, flying south and west for the winter. They’ll come into gardens in search of seeds and nuts.

Waxwing

The waxwing is a colourful seasonal visitor from northern countries, appearing in large numbers in years when there’s a shortage of berries in their native lands. A favourite food source is the rowan tree, which leads the waxwing to be frequently found in supermarket car parks where rowans are often planted. The tinkling calls of a waxwing flock sounds like sleigh bells, making this a true bird of winter.

Siskin

The acrobatic siskin, a finch, can be found high in trees feeding on seeds. Over the last fifty years siskins have become frequent visitors to gardens, feasting on the seeds and nuts hanging from bird tables. This is a pretty, green little bird most often seen in winter.

Blackcap

Traditionally blackcaps are summer birds, but more and more of these warblers are overwintering in the UK and may turn up in gardens to feed on insects and berries. The male has a distinctive black cap, while the female sports one chestnut brown in colour.

Whooper swan

Almost as large as our resident mute swan, the whooper swan has a V-shaped yellow mark on its bill. Whooper swans, named after their distinctive trumpeting calls, spend October to March on our estuaries and wetlands. Whoopers can be seen in Scotland, Northern Ireland, northern England and parts of East Anglia.

Bewick’s swan

In winter Bewick’s swans are found mainly in eastern England, around the Severn estuary and in Lancashire. They arrive in mid-October having spent the summer on their Siberian breeding grounds. The Ouse and Nene Washes (Cambridgeshire), WWT Martin Mere (Lancashire) and WWT Slimbridge (Gloucestershire) are good places to see these swans. They’re smaller, with slightly less yellow on the bill, than the whooper.

Brent goose

Two distinct races of brent geese arrive in the UK each winter: light-belled and dark-bellied. These are small geese, around the size of a mallard. A favourite food for brent geese is eel grass, which grows in estuaries. Look out for brent geese along the coasts of northern, eastern and southern England and Northern Ireland.

Water rail

Water rails are shy, reedbed dwelling bird which becomes more visible in winter as they skitter across frozen ponds. A relative of the coot and moorhen, this bird may venture into gardens in particularly harsh conditions in search of food.

As many of these brilliant birds can be seen in your garden, here’s some advice from the RSPB on giving nature a home.

Follow Jeremy Coles and BBC Earth on Twitter.

Like BBC Earth on Facebook and follow us on Instagram.

European robin guide: diet, habitat and species facts

The robin is, without doubt, one of our favourite garden birds. It seems to trust us, staying close when we’re in the garden and even taking food from our hands.

Advertisement

To celebrate this delightful relationship with our feathered friends, here is our expert robin guide, including where robins nest, what they eat and how to attract them to your garden.

A robin in the snow. © Andrew Howe/Getty

Do robins migrate?

Most British robins are sedentary, defending their territories year-round, with many females also establishing their own winter territories.

However, a handful head south to winter on the Continent, joining other robins passing through in the autumn on their way from Scandinavia and northern continental Europe.

Singing robin. © Wouter_Marck/Getty

Interestingly, it has been shown that many migrating robins are faithful to both their summer and winter territories, which may be many hundreds of kilometres apart.

Where do robins go in summer?

As most robins don’t migrate, they don’t really disappear over the summer – they just become a bit less visible. When food is more readily available during the summer, robins are more likely to forage out of sight in the woods rather than coming to your bird table in the garden.

The exception is robins that spend the winter here to escape harsher weather in Russia and elsewhere in northern Europe. These robins migrate back to their breeding grounds in spring.

Robins are good at coping with cold and snow, but far northern Europe can still be a bit too much in winter. © Andrew Howe/Getty

How long do robins live?

A robin’s lifespan is just 13 months on average due to high mortality among robins in their first year. Once they’ve passed that barrier, they stand a much better chance of surviving for quite a while – the record currently stands at 19 years.

Why do robins have red breasts?

The robin’s red breast is part of what endears it to us, providing a welcome flash of colour on a winter’s day.

But its evolutionary purpose is for a more serious role, with male robins using it to settle territorial disputes, especially during the breeding season.

Robin in spring. © Nataba/Getty

Are robins aggressive?

Robins are very territorial birds and will viciously attack other robins that on their patch. A dispute starts with males singing at each other, trying to get a higher perch in order to show off their breast most effectively. This usually ends the challenge, with one individual deferring to the other.

Sometimes it can escalate to a fight, which can result in injury or death.

In some populations, up to 10 per cent of adult mortality is due to clashes over territory. This is the reason why robins are born without a red breast, and don’t acquire it until their first moult.

Juvenile robin fledgling that won’t have a red breast for a while yet. © Gary Chalker/Getty

Do female robins have red breasts?

Yes. Red breasts in female robins don’t seem to serve the same competitive purpose as they do in males, but they haven’t evolved to look significantly different from each other.

There’s no reliable way to tell whether a robin is male or female in the field. © Paul Mansfield

What do robins eat?

Robins eat a wide variety of food, including worms, seeds, nuts, suet, invertebrates and fruit. They’ll readily come to garden bird tables, especially in winter, and a combination of suet, mealworms and seeds will go down particularly well.

Robins will happily come to garden bird tables to feed. © abadonian/Getty

When do robins nest?

If the weather is mild, they can breed as early as January, though it is more usual for them to start in March.

Robins are prolific breeders, often producing between three and five broods a year, each containing four or five eggs.

Robin nest with five eggs. © Brais Seara/Getty

These broods can overlap, with the male feeding the chicks of one clutch while the female sits on the eggs of the next. This enables the population to bounce back readily from any overwinter population losses.

Robin chicks hatch after being incubated for 13 days and fledge 14 days later.

Robin feeding a nest of hungry chicks in a plant tray at a garden centre. © Bill Allsopp/Loop Images/Getty

Where do robins nest?

Robins will nest almost anywhere. Recorded nest sites include plant pots, a pigeonhole in a desk, the engine of a WWII plane, and in the body of a dead cat.

My personal favourite has to be a robin managing to make its nest on an unmade bed while the bed’s owner was downstairs having breakfast. Thankfully, the robin picked a tolerant person who left the nest undisturbed until the chicks fledged.

A female robin with her chicks, nesting in a garden BBQ. © Les Stocker/Getty

Why are robins so tame?

British robins readily associate with gardeners, but elsewhere in Europe they are shy and retiring birds of thick woodland cover, says Mike Toms from the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO).

It may just be because continental robins, the migratory northern populations of which winter around the Mediterranean, have long been exposed to hunting in the southern part of their range, leaving the species particularly skulking in its habits, while in Britain we do not share the tradition of trapping and shooting small birds.

Why other British birds are less confiding than the robin may be linked to feeding behaviour. Robins take most of their food from the ground, including invertebrates disturbed by larger animals. They may view us in a similar way, as they scavenge worms unearthed by the gardener’s spade. This behaviour persists because they have nothing to fear.

Robins have been hunted extensively in other parts of Europe. The one photographed here is caught in a mist net, but this robin is safe, as it’s been trapped by researchers to be ringed and will be released very soon. © Mike Powles/Getty

Why other British birds are less confiding than the robin may be linked to feeding behaviour. Robins take most of their food from the ground, including invertebrates disturbed by larger animals. They may view us in a similar way, as they scavenge worms unearthed by the gardener’s spade. This behaviour persists because they have nothing to fear.

Are robins active at night?

Robins are one of the first birds to start the dawn chorus and one of the last to stop singing at night, even in the winter when they sing to defend their winter territories.

An urban robin perched on wire at night. © Dean Kennedy/EyeEm/Getty

They are often mistaken for nightingales, despite being one of the most common night-time singers in Britain.

Nocturnal singing can be triggered by loud noises, like thunder or fireworks, a sudden shaking of the roosting tree, or by lights, such as floodlights, coming on.

Various studies have shown that artificial lighting has led to an increase in the nocturnal activities of robins, with many urban robins now singing at night.

Robins sing at different times in the city. © Andyworks/Getty

Do robins prefer city lights or quiet nights?

Male robins are aggressive and very vocal in defending good-quality territory, and in advertising themselves to potential mates. But how might this be affected by robins living in the city?

Using a taxidermy robin and a record robin song, researchers from Southampton University compared how male robins in a city park defended their territories with those more affected by urban light and noise.

The robins with territories closer to lit paths and noisy roads showed less aggression to the fake robin and song, meaning they are lower down in the dominance hierarchy. The researchers concluded that artificial night-time lighting and more daytime noise resulted in robin territories that were of a lower quality.

European robin on an autumnal garden lawn. © CreativeNature_nl/Getty

“This new study reminded me of one on robins 10 years ago,” said Dr Rupert Marshall, who studies birdsong at Aberystwyth University. “Although artificial light was present in all territories, it was urban noise which predicted the timing of the song, leading them to sing at night to avoid the din.”

Do robins keep feeding overnight?

Robins don’t just sing in the evening, they are also adapted to foraging in low light levels.

Research from the BTO’s Shortest Day Survey suggests that this could be due to the fact that robins have relatively large eyes compared to their body size, meaning that more light can enter the eye.

This adaptation may have led to urban robins feeding under street lights.

Robin on a garden spade. © Ben Queenborough/Getty

It would be interesting to find out if light pollution affects how early they, and other species, feed in the morning, especially during the winter when birds have an urgent requirement to refuel after a cold winter’s night.

When did the robin become associated with Christmas?

A Victorian Christmas and New Year card from 1874 showing a smiling Christmas pudding topped with holly surrounded by two adult robins and six excited newly-hatched fledglings/Getty

The robin became Britain’s bird of Christmas largely because Victorian postmen, who wore red tunic, were known as robin redbreasts. Robins began to appear on Christmas cards and other festive missives as a symbol of the red breasted messenger.

Advertisement

Find out more about the history of robins in the festive season

It’s easy to attract birds to your garden, however small and close it is to a city, but the variety of species will increase with its size, how bird-friendly it is and its proximity to countryside or well-wooded parks.

Advertisement

Some birds such as nuthatches are never far from mature trees, whereas predators, such as sparrowhawks and tawny owls, penetrate deep into some cities.

The key thing is to ensure that you meet the needs of your birds all year round, and that you accommodate the changing requirements of both residents and seasonal visitors.

A garden robin in the snow. © carlp778/Getty

While planting bushes with berries is good for thrushes in the autumn, they will soon strip the crop. So think laterally – if you live near a wholesale fruit market, buy trays of substandard apples for them to feed on when the berries have gone. Fat blocks are important in the winter and will attract flocks of starlings.

Dense cover will entice nesting dunnocks, robins and wrens, and nestboxes are good for tits and other hole-nesters. During the summer, thriving insect populations benefit tits and sparrows.

If you have periods when there are very few birds in your garden, think about what you can do to make your patch more attractive at that time of year. Don’t be impatient – activity generally builds up over the years as more birds get into the habit of visiting a garden. One of the best ways to ensure that they return is to make sure your feeders are always full.

Nuthatch and Blue Tit on a full peanut feeder. © Mike Powles/Getty

FOOD, A HOME AND SECURITY: The basics of life will bring the birds to your garden

Source your seeds

Buy bird food from reputable sources. This ensures that the seeds can provide the required levels of energy and have been grown with the environment in mind. Experiment with different sorts of feeders and seed mixes. For example, greenfinches adore sunflower feeders whilst goldfinches prefer niger seeds. See the last section of this feature to find out more about this.

Goldfinches eating niger seeds from a garden feeder. © Robert Muckley/Getty

Avoid bad foods

Don’t just put out peanuts, don’t buy multi-purpose pet food and don’t feed the birds bread in large quantities as it isn’t nutritious and is an empty filler. If you do, try to only put out breadcrumbs that are soaked and not stale.

Never put out desiccated coconut as it swells up inside a bird’s stomach. Also avoid providing sugary treats and cooked oats, which can dry and solidify around beaks.

Install a birdbath

Urge your birds to see your garden as a one-stop shop for their daily routine. Water is particularly vital for seed-eating birds that have dry meals and need to be able to wash them down. Keep an eye on your birdbath to ensure it doesn’t freeze over in winter, and when defrosting it do not use salt – this can kill the birds.

Many garden birds will use bird baths and ponds to bathe. © scooperdigital/Getty

Make them feel at home

Reduce the opportunities for predators like cats and sparrowhawks by placing feeders where the birds can spot danger easily. Avoid using garden netting, especially during the breeding season, and place feeders away from your house to minimise the risk of birds colliding with windows.

Let them build their own

It’s great if your birds use the nestboxes you’ve put up, but it is even more satisfying if they create natural nest sites. Provide hedges with dense cover to allow them to do this.

Plant fruit or berry-bearing trees

Birds will be encouraged to visit your garden for shelter, nesting and to feed if you plant trees such as rowan, holly, hawthorn and honeysuckle and shrubs such as cotoneaster, berberis and pyracantha.

Rowan berries are a valuable source of food for winter visitors like the fieldfare. © Nataba/Getty

Watch what happens

To see whether your work has been effective, monitor the changes in bird numbers in your garden. What is the impact of very cold weather, for instance, on the numbers and species of birds using your garden? This will help you to plan future changes to the way you manage it. Join the BTO’s Garden BirdWatch project – it will also help you to see how well you are doing compared to others.

Have binoculars handy

Interesting birds can appear and disappear frustratingly quickly, so have a pair of binoculars to hand so you can grab them easily when you spot something.

Keep cats away

If you have problems with cats, electronic deterrents should repel them from bird feeding areas. Place feeders away from low cover that could conceal a cat – they are sit-and-wait predators and rely on cover to sneak up on their prey.

Don’t let cats near your bird feeders unless there’s plenty of glass in between! © Backyard Production/Getty

Clean your nestboxes

Check your nestboxes each winter. Remove old nests and clean the boxes with hot water to kill parasites. Re-attach them securely – you don’t want the box to fall when it’s in use.

Change nestbox location

Choose a diversity of nestbox types and move those that prove unsuccessful. If you’re struggling to attract birds to a nest box, you might find that quite a small change in location or aspect can encourage birds to nest there. Do not use too many of one type of nest box, especially tit boxes: multiple options confuse them.

It doesn’t matter how fancy your nest box is if it’s in the wrong place or not clean. © Jrg Lcking/EyeEm/Getty

Sterilise feeders

Remove mouldy seed from feeders and sterilise them regularly to reduce the risk of spreading diseases. Clean them more frequently when there are lots of birds in your garden and/or when you suspect that some are sick – keep an eye out for lethargic birds sitting around with their feathers fluffed up.

Feed your birds twice daily in severe weather

If you can, adjust the quantity given to the demand, so you don’t attract unwanted rodents. Stick to your feeding routine once you’ve started as the birds will become accustomed to it and rely on you. By feeding birds year-round you’ll give them a better chance of survival.

It’s much harder for robins and other small birds to find food in cold weather, which is just when they need food the most. © Mark Hamblin/Nature Picture Library/Getty

Position your bird feeders

Ideally the feeder should be about 2m away from cover, to create a safer feeding station. Nearby vegetation can provide a lookout point for the birds and a place to dash to if disturbed. Keep your feeder away from fences, overhanging branches and low-lying bushes that a cat can hide in.

Ensure the post supporting your feeder is smooth and straight as this will make it much more difficult for cats and squirrels to climb. Adding a sloped baffle to your feeder will keep squirrels off-balance.

Grey squirrel on peanut feeder. © Artmandave/Getty

Mount a feeding tray

The tray should be no more than 10cm off the ground (to preserve the grass) or scatter food on the lawn to attract ground-feeders such as thrushes, blackbirds, chaffinches and sparrows. If possible use a cage to protect the birds from predators.

Chaffinches are much more likely to come to food left out near the ground. © Jonathan Lewis/Getty

8 BIRDS TO ATTRACT TO YOUR GARDEN

By providing a variety of food-sources, positioning your feeders carefully and encouraging nesting, you will attract a wide range of common birds to your garden all year round, as well as a few surprises.

1

Dunnocks

Dunnocks are one of the less conspicuous garden birds, preferring dense cover both for feeding and nesting, though they are more visible when mating in spring.

Dunnock. © CreativeNature_nl/Getty 2

Jays

Jays scatter-hoard acorns, hazelnuts and peanuts in gardens, burying them in flowerbeds and lawns. They prefer areas with mature trees, especially oaks.

Eurasian jay. © Jose A. Bernat Bacete/Getty 3

Green woodpeckers

Green woodpeckers are rare visitors to gardens, but they will feed on fallen apples and berries and take seeds and nuts, especially when the ground is frozen.

Green woodpecker. © Michel Rauch/Getty 4

Fieldfares

Fieldfares will visit your garden to feed on autumn and winter berries. If you have any apple trees, leave some windfalls for them, or buy and put out low-quality apples.

Fieldfare feeding on rowan berries in Scotland. © Mark Hamblin/Getty 5

Siskins

Siskins are common garden visitors, especially if it has been a bad year for seeds, and enjoy sunflower seeds and peanuts. Redpolls will sometimes join their flocks.

A siskin on a bird feeder. © Simon11uk/Getty 6

Wood pigeons

Wood pigeons are increasingly common in gardens, where they forage under bird tables and on lawns for shoots and seeds. They breed from April until autumn.

Common wood pigeon on garden grass. © Les Stocker/Getty 7

Sparrowhawks

Sparrowhawks often target feeders in gardens, especially when they are rearing young, so make sure yours are positioned so that birds can see predators coming.

Male sparrowhawk on a mossy log. © Alan Tunnicliffe/Getty 8

House martin

House martin numbers have declined by nearly 40 per cent since 1970, most probably due to the lack of nest sites, so put up artificial nest boxes to attract passing birds.

House martins at a nest box. © Franz Christoph Robiller/Getty

Which bird foods attract which species?

Peanuts

  • Favoured by chaffinches, great spotted woodpeckers and nuthatches.
  • Don’t put these out in spring as they may choke young birds. Use high-quality nuts and check the mesh size of your feeder is about 6mm – large enough to prevent beak damage, but small enough to prevent the removal of large pieces of nut.

Great spotted woodpeckers love peanut feeders! © Tim Graham/Getty

Niger seeds

  • Favoured by goldfinches, robins and siskins.
  • Need a special type of seed feeder because the food is small.

Sunflower hearts

  • Favoured by garden finches (goldfinches, chaffinches, greenfinches), house sparrows, robins and siskins.
  • Rich in protein and unsaturated fats that don’t require the effort of removing the husks.

Mealworms

  • Favoured by blue tits, song thrushes, blackbirds and robins.
  • These live larvae are an excellent source of protein and ideal during spring to aid busy parents as they forage for a nest of hungry chicks.

Suet

  • A favourite blue tit feed, also loved by long-tailed tits and great spotted woodpeckers.
  • Calorific food best offered in colder months.

Blue tit at suet bird feeder. © Arterra/Getty

Mixed seed

Advertisement

  • Favoured by song thrushes, dunnocks and collared doves.
  • Suited to hopper feeders, trays or flat surfaces.

Bird-friendly gardens

Here are a few recommendations to lower the chances of cats catching your garden birds:

  • Where cats are a problem, avoid putting food on the ground, but use a bird table where cats cannot reach it.
  • Place feeders high off the ground but away from surfaces from which a cat could jump.
  • Place spiny plants (such as holly) or an uncomfortable surface around the base of the feeding station to prevent cats sitting underneath it.
  • Place an upturned tin or cone underneath the table to prevent cats from climbing the post (squirrel baffles are already commercially available).
  • Make the table-stand slippery using a metal post, or plastic bottles around non-metal posts.
  • Plant wildlife-friendly vegetation, such as prickly bushes and thick climbers in the garden to provide secure cover for birds. These should be close enough to where birds feed to provide cover, but not so close that cats can use it to stalk birds. This kind of planting may also provide food and nesting sites.
  • Position nestboxes where cats cannot reach them or sit close to them (preventing the parent birds from getting to the box).
  • The RSPB recommends the use of ‘Catwatch’ cat deterrent. Find out more information from the RSPB shop.

How to create a bird-friendly garden

In recent years the population of many common garden birds has been in sharp decline. Among the worst hit species are house sparrows that have declined by around 150 million birds in the past 30 years while starlings have seen their numbers fall by 45 million. It has never been more important to take steps to attract birds into your garden. In order to attract any birds into your garden you must first meet their basic needs: food, water, shelter and nesting sites.

Food
As well as providing different colours and textures to your garden, many flowering perennials and annuals feature long lasting seed heads that are adored by many seed-feeding birds e.g. Echinacea and Rudbeckia. Delay any cutting back of these herbaceous plants until late winter or early spring. Ornamental grass seed heads are particularly long lasting and are beloved by sparrows and finches.

Any shrub or tree that produces berries or seeds is an excellent choice in a bird friendly garden. Most berries begin to form in early autumn just when birds need to build up their fat reserves for the coming winter.

If possible it is best to plant a range of as many different kinds of plants as possible. Excellent choices include Cotoneaster, Ilex (Holly), Pyracantha, Sorbus (Mountain Ash), Malus (Crab Apple), Yew, Gaultheria, Ivy and Mahonia.

As well as providing natural sources of food for birds it is particularly worthwhile to also provide supplementary feeding spots. Bird tables and bird feeding stations are a great way to provide plenty of food for garden birds.

Once you start to put out food in your garden you will start to notice that birds are a creature of habit, so will return daily and will rely on you heavily in harsher weather. Make sure you top up feeders to stop them running out, and use fat balls and other suet based foods to give the birds a real boost in the early mornings. As well as wild bird seed mixes, other high energy foods which will attract a wider range of garden birds include; peanuts, niger seed, sunflower seed and mealworms. Adding kitchen scraps such as unsalted bacon rinds, raisins and hard cheese to your bird table will also make your garden particularly popular!

Water
Birds need to have access to a supply of water all year round. They need to bathe and keep their feathers in good condition, and they need to drink it too. Ponds provide water for birds and attract additional wildlife to your garden. However, it is likely they may freeze over throughout winter and can be difficult to keep thawed during the day. Additional sources of water should also be provided if you do have a pond in your garden.

Bird Baths are a helpful way of providing water for birds and should be positioned in a sheltered position with shrubs nearby for perching and safety. They do need regular cleaning as they develop a build-up of algae, dead leaves and bird droppings. Remember to break up any ice in your birdbath in harsh weather, and if it is completely frozen remove all the ice and refill so that the birds always have access to some water. Refill your birdbath with clean, fresh water on a regular basis all year round.

Shelter and Nesting Sites
Birds need sheltered places where they can roost at night or shelter from predators or bad weather. Trees are ideal roosting spots for starlings and larger birds but small birds often prefer to shelter in shrubs and hedges. Dense climbers, conifers and evergreen shrubs provide protection against cold winds and can also provide useful nesting spots in spring.

It is possible to encourage birds to nest in your garden by providing them with nest boxes. Birds that are often found to use nesting boxes include Sparrows, Great tits, Blue tits and Robins. Nest boxes need to be positioned somewhere hidden away where they won’t be disturbed by humans or predators. Avoid sites near bird feeders as nesting birds would be forced to defend their territory from other birds seeking food. During winter, nest boxes should be cleared of any old nest material to prevent pests and diseases spreading to next year’s occupants.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *