Birds tend to feed best when foods are presented at three different levels (ground, bird table and bird feeder) but selecting the best feeding format for each of these levels can make the difference between a garden full of healthy birds and a garden without birds.
Feeding ground feeding birds can be as simple as scattering a few handfuls of seed across a lawn, or, perhaps placing a small pile of seed where a Wren or Dunnock might find it - at ground level, close to a wall or shrubs. In winter, we're presented with the challenge of frosty ground and of course snow.
When there's snow on the ground, the relatively effortless activity of sprinkling the seed is not effective and we need to employ the tactic of elevating the seeds and foods off the ground. In an emergency, I have used an upturned dustbin lid with reasonable (short-term) success. In the mid to long-term, though, it becomes clear this isn't a solution that's fit for purpose as issues like lack of drainage soon affects the quality of seed.
I like to use a ground feeding tray as it a). keeps food off the snow in winter, b). has a mesh steel feeding base, which offers supreme drainage, c). can actually be used all year round - which means the birds get used to feeding from it, and d). it's more hygienic than placing seed onto the ground. Other options are available and I encourage experimentation...
A good bird feeder is like a good car. Everything works as it should and it's completely reliable - whatever the weather.
There are thousands of different bird feeders on the market and finding the right one for your garden and garden birds can be quite tricky.
I'll try to simplify the process: the first thing to consider is where one would hang a feeder. If you're lucky enough to have a number of trees in your garden, the world's your oyster as just about any hanging feeder will work fine. That said, a brief DIY survey to ensure low branches are strong enough to support a bird feeder plus birds plus gale force wind is in order. Birds always seem happier when feeders are sited amongst trees so, it's worth persevering and finding a solution to suspend feeders from branches. I find the Hangright Feeder Wires (see below) work a treat.
If there aren't any trees in your garden - don't worry. Just select a bird feeder that can be pole mounted or better yet invest in a bird feeding station.
Assuming your trees can support any size, shape or weight of bird feeder the next thing to think about is seed feeder or peanut feeder.
The answer: both.
Both have their merits; a peanut feeder is perfect for woodpeckers, tits and sparrows and they're easy to fill and maintain. Selecting the food for a peanut feeder is simple: peanuts or peanuts. If you have squirrels in (or around) your garden - select a squirrel resistant/proof feeder every time...
Peanuts and seeds provide variety and a varied diet (presented in different feeding formats) attracts and retains lots of different birds.
Selecting a seed feeder is a little trickier, though; I encourage some research and the best place to start is by visiting the seed feeder category.
For large gardens and for feeding lots of birds life can be made easier with the introduction of a feeder capable of storing large volumes of seed. Take for example the new Big Easy Seed Feeder.
I have been field trialling this bird feeder for several months in my garden and it's big, it's tough and it's easy to clean - everything it claims on the label. The benefits to me have been that I make fewer refill trips to the feeder, which is worth consideration given that stepping into a frosty garden in winter isn't always a pleasant experience.
The largest six port version holds an impressive 2.2litre (depending on seed mix) of seed which is enough for several days of active consumption.
The Big Easy can be pole mounted and sited wherever the ground is soft enough to drive in a spike, and a useful accessory (which I completely endorse) is its feeder tray. This keeps seed off the ground and - when the weather is at its worst - I would say that it's completely in order to put high-energy foodstuffs like suet balls and suet pellets on the tray to provide extra calories.
For birders looking to feed just one food and get maximum impact visually and in the sheer numbers of birds in the garden should consider Sunflower Hearts as they're easy to feed and the birds love their high oil content. I find the Sunflower Hearts Feeder (below) perfect for cheering up a bare, leafless garden in winter.
A brief story about variety adding extra spice...
Two weeks ago at my new home I was feeding peanuts and Huskfree Advance and I was quite pleased with the selection of birds venturing onto the feeders; the peanuts were being consumed (as usual) by Blue Tits, Great Tits and a few vulnerable looking Coal Tits; the Big Easy was filled to the brim with Haith's Huskfree Advance and had even managed to seduce a Nuthatch from my neighbour's garden.
"That's my Nuthatch," my neighbour assured me as we exchanged bird knowledge over the fence. I'd heard about people claiming Robins, but never Nuthatches. I didn't object, though, as I sometimes have to remind myself that they're not actually "my" birds either.
Anyway, whilst we were having this conversation I could hear the unmistakeable chirruping of a Long-tailed Tit. I'm the first to admit that I'm no expert at identifying bird calls, but this one was even for me unmistakable. "Do you own the Long-Tailed Tit?" I asked.
"There aren't any," he replied.
Two days later after hanging out our new Great British Suet Balls from a suet feeder I spotted not one but four Long-Tailed Tits happily feeding from them. I can't wait to see my neighbour...
The moral: a variety of food and a variety of ways to feed the food attracts a wide variety of birds...(even if some of them are our neighbours!).