Summer feeding

Mon, 12/06/2017 - 12:48 -- jim

Putting out food for our garden birds seems like such a natural, everyday activity for many of us, but it’s fascinating to stop and think about the reasons why we feed birds.

­­Putting out food for our garden birds seems like such a natural, everyday activity for many of us, but it’s fascinating to stop and think about the reasons why we feed birds, and what has influenced our habits today. We used to have a tradition of only feeding birds during the winter months, and in fact this is still the case in other northern European countries, but due to a better understanding of the benefits of bird feeding, many of us are now accustomed to putting out food for the birds year round.

It used to be believed that the only times birds needed extra food was during cold winter weather, when they need fuel to make it through the freezing nights. However, we now understand that while birds aren’t facing such immediate risks during the warmer months, extra calories are still useful during the hectic breeding season, when they need to defend a territory against rivals, rear one, two or even three broods of chicks, and replace their feathers ready for winter.

Back in the early days of bird feeding, many birds would generally only visit garden feeders during the winter, as during the summer months they would return to nest in more natural environments. While this is still the case for many birds, which are seen in much lower levels at feeders during the summer, others are now well adapted to living their whole lives in garden environments. Birds such as Blackbirds, Robins, Dunnocks, Blue and Great Tits, Wrens and House Sparrows may remain in our gardens during both the breeding and wintering seasons, and will make use of bird feeders in every month of the year. For nesting females, in particular, a reliable food source is particularly welcome when they are incubating eggs or young chicks, as they can only leave the nest to feed for short periods of time. 

During the summer most birds will feed on insects, and insect-based foods such as mealworms are often snapped up at this time of year, but adults will also supplement their diet with energy-rich foods such as sunflower hearts and fat balls. When the fledglings leave the nest they are often dependent on their parents for a few weeks, and at this time high-energy foods are welcomed by the whole family!

Clearly, birds will turn to garden feeders when they need food, but use them less, or not at all, when their needs are met elsewhere. The best way to assess how much to feed during the summer is to keep an eye on how fast the food is going down; if the food is not being eaten quickly, reduce the amount to compensate or perhaps try a different kind. This means that uneaten food is not sitting in feeders for long periods, which can be unhygienic and potentially harmful to birds. Provided that food is fresh, there is no harm in providing food all year round, and it can be fascinating to watch how birds make use of bird feeders when they are raising their families.