Ever wanted to make your own bird food for your garden’s feathered friends? This article provides an overview on the dietary habits of various bird species, as well as recipes and tips for making homemade bird food.
Freezing temperatures, snow and scarce food supplies – for most wildlife, the barren winter months are a challenging time. Many garden owners lend a hand to little garden visitors by providing them with some extra food. Birds in particular appreciate the help, but ready-made, shop-bought bird food has a few disadvantages. Not only is it often quite expensive, but it also sometimes contains the seeds of the ragweed plant (Ambrosia artemisiifolia), which is known as a major cause of seasonal allergies in humans. So, if you want to be on the safe side and also save a few pennies, why not make your own bird food? Read on to find out how to make your own bird food, like fat balls and seed mixes, and what you need to bear in mind when doing so.
- What do birds eat?
- How to make your own bird food
- What not to feed birds
- How and where to feed birds
What do birds eat?
Making your own bird food is a great way not only to help birds, but also to observe them up close. But if you look closely, you will soon realise that not all birds eat everything you put out for them. Like humans, birds have distinct tastes and dietary needs, and different bird species prefer different types of food. If you choose to make your own bird food, you need to know about the following bird species so that you can cater to as many as possible.
Tip: Another way of helping the birds in your garden is to plant a bird-friendly seeds.
1. Granivorous birds
Seeds are probably the first type of food that springs to mind when you think of feeding birds. Birds that primarily eat grains and seeds are known as granivores. Many native bird species, such as the sparrow, finch, and hawfinch, prefer hard grains as their primary food source and are able to eat them thanks to their powerful beaks. Generally speaking, granivorous birds will eat almost any type of seed, but sunflower seeds, linseed and hemp seeds are preferred.
2. Birds that eat soft foods
In contrast to granivores, birds that have small, pointed beaks that are not powerful enough to crack open large seeds and grains prefer feeding on soft foods. While these birds usually prefer to feed on insects and berries, they will also eat fruits and smaller seeds, such as poppy seeds for instance. Birds that fall into this category include robins, wrens, blackbirds, and starlings.
3. Omnivorous birds
Omnivores like woodpeckers, tits, and nuthatches are the easiest birds to cater for. Although they usually prefer soft foods, they will also eat larger grains and other seeds. When you feed omnivorous birds, you will notice that they peck at both the soft food and the grain mixture.
How to make your own bird food
Whether you prefer feed mixes or fat balls, making your own bird food is surprisingly simple. With these easy recipes, you can easily cater to almost any kind of bird in winter using just the food from your cupboards.
1. How to make your own bird seed mix
You can find bird seed mixes in almost any garden centre or DIY store. Unfortunately, these often contain ragweed seeds, a plant known to cause severe allergies in humans. So, to be on the safe side, it is better to create your own seed mix. About one third of the mixture should consist of untreated sunflower seeds. Add a quarter of hemp seeds. Both sunflower and hemp seeds are bursting with energy due to their high oil content, making them ideal food sources in winter. Fill the rest of the mixture with other ingredients such as unsweetened oat flakes, chopped hazelnuts or walnuts. You could also mix in smaller seeds like millet or poppy seeds, and seeds from native plants, such as thistles, are also very popular with birds.
Ingredients for DIY bird seed mix:
- ⅓ sunflower seeds
- ¼ hemp seeds
- Fill the rest with smaller seeds, oat flakes and chopped nuts
2. Make your own soft food mix for birds
Soft food mixes for birds are more difficult to find because many of the ingredients preferred by birds that eat such foods are highly perishable. As a result, it is best to make your own soft food mix for birds.
Rolled oats and bran flakes are often used as the base for soft food mixes as they have a longer shelf life. Refine the mixture with fruits, berries and unsulphured sultanas. We recommend using seasonal and untreated ingredients as these are more sustainable options. Stored apples can easily be kept through the winter, and berries such as medlar (Mespilus germanica), firethorn (Pyracantha coccinea) or sloe (Prunus spinosa) only begin to ripen at the beginning of winter. Alternatively, dry berries in the summer months to use later in bird food. You can cut fruits such as apples (Malus) and pears (Pyrus) open, but there is no need to chop them up as the birds will peck out suitably sized pieces on their own.
You can also add dried mealworms or other insects to the soft bird food; insectivores like robins and wrens are particularly fond of these protein-rich delicacies. Smaller seeds such as poppy seeds or thistle seeds are also popular additions.
Ingredients for soft food mix for birds:
- Oats and dry breakfast cereals as the base
- Unsulphured sultanas
- Fresh fruit
- Fresh or dried berries
- Dried mealworms
- Small seeds
3. How to make fat balls for birds
Fat balls, depending on their composition, are suitable for both granivores and birds that eat softer foods. Fat balls have a high energy content, making them ideal for wild birds, especially during the harsh winter months. While fat balls can be bought in most shops, industrially produced fat balls often contain low-quality fat or ragweed seeds. You can avoid this by simply making your own fat balls. They are not only easy to make, but fun too as the design possibilities are endless.
To begin making your own fat balls, melt 300 g of solid fat. A frequently asked question is which fat can be used to make fat balls for birds. In theory, any solid at room temperature fat can be used, but suet, butter, or lard are recommended. If you’re looking for a vegetarian option, coconut oil is a good choice. However, use coconut oil with caution because the production and transportation of coconut oil is not considered sustainable. Insect fat is the best option for making homemade fat balls. It is not only a more sustainable option, but it also better matches the natural diet of wild birds.
When melting the animal fat, do not let it boil, otherwise it will let off an unpleasant, rancid odour. Once the fat has melted, add two tablespoons of cooking oil and about 300 grams of grains or soft food mix. As mentioned above, granivores like sunflower seeds, hemp seeds and chopped nuts, whereas birds that eat softer foods prefer oat flakes, bran flakes and sultanas. You can also add mealworms to your homemade fat balls as a protein-rich ingredient.
Next, shape the hot mixture into the desired shape before it cools. To do this, lay some biscuit cutters out onto a baking tray lined with tin foil or baking paper and then fill. Once cooled, carefully poke a hole through the fat balls with a wire to hang them up. Alternatively, you can add a fabric ribbon to the form before filling so that you can hang it up.
Round biscuit cutters are perfect for making your own fat balls. Alternatively, you can make a feeding bell using a plant pot. Simply insert a twig through the drainage hole at the bottom of the pot and secure it with a wire – the birds will later use the twig to hold onto. Pour the melted fat and grain mixture into the pot. Once cooled, the flowerpot can be hung upside down. You can also pour the same mixture into pot saucers or feeding bowls and let the birds feed from these on the ground.
Recipe for making fat balls for birds:
- Melt 300 g fat (suet, lard, insect fat etc.)
- Add 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil
- Add homemade feed mix (either grain-based or soft-food-based)
- Shape into the desired shape (e.g., with a biscuit cutter) or pour into a suitable container
- Allow to cool and serve to birds
What not to feed birds
While those who feed birds have good intentions, unsuitable food can make birds ill or even have fatal consequences. Spiced or salty foods, including spiced nut mixtures, are not suitable. Birds do not tolerate these and they can lead to gastrointestinal problems. While bread is often used to feed birds, it can have devastating consequences. In the worst case scenario, it can swell in the birds’ stomachs and be fatal. Unprocessed linseed, rice or chia seeds can also do the same thing. Do not put out mouldy, spoiled and rancid food as this is not only inedible for us, but for birds too. Be sure to clean the feeding spot regularly, especially where fresh foods such as fruit or berries are put out as these can rot quickly. It goes without saying that moth-infested food should not be fed to birds.
Bear in mind that the food you put out for birds can be dangerous for other animals like our beloved pets. Sultanas, for instance, are very popular with birds, but are not recommended for households with dogs. As little as 10 to 30 grams of sultanas per kilogram of body weight is enough to poison our canine companions. Instead, dog owners should use alternatives that are safe for their four-legged friends, such as dried berries. Similarly, rowan berries (Sorbus aucuparia) and elderberries (Sambucus) are popular amongst birds but can lead to poisoning in humans if consumed raw. Since children are easily attracted to brightly coloured berries, it is better to use safe alternatives here too.
How and where to feed birds
Not only do different bird species prefer different foods, but they also have different feeding place preferences.
Birds that feed on soft foods are usually also so-called ground feeders. They prefer to eat their food directly from the ground. For hygienic reasons, however, the homemade bird food should not be directly scattered onto the ground. Instead, put the bird food on a small bowl or plate. Slightly elevated bird tables are also suitable. However, it is important to ensure that no water collects in the bird feeder in order to prevent mould from growing.
Granivores and omnivores such as sparrows and tits, on the other hand, prefer the shelter of trees. Hanging bird feeders, for instance feeding columns or fat balls, are therefore best.
But don’t worry – you don’t need a thousand feeders in your garden to feed all the birds. Almost all bird species are happy with classic bird houses. The straight floor allows the ground feeders to engage in their classic searching and pecking behaviour. At the same time, the roof and the elevated position provide granivorous birds with sufficient cover and a good outlook. So, if you have a large enough birdhouse, you can feed your homemade bird food to both types of feeders.
Finding a suitable feeder
Fat balls, silo bird feeders or the classic birdhouse? With so many different feeding methods available, it is hard to know which feeders are suitable for feeding birds in winter. Above all, it is important that the feeder stays dry and clean, so make sure you choose a birdhouse with a large enough roof. If possible, homemade fat balls should also be placed somewhere they will not get wet (for example, in a suitable fat ball holder).
Always make sure the feeding place is kept clean. The most hygienic options are so-called silo feeders or feeding columns as with these the food does not come into direct contact with the animals or their droppings. When it comes to traditional bird houses, opt for one where it is possible to remove food remains regularly and wash them out with hot water.
Classic fat balls in nets are not safe for birds. They can get tangled in the fine netting and, worst case scenario, strangle themselves. Making fat balls yourself and hanging them in a feeder or with a single fabric band in a dispenser eliminates this danger.
Finding the right location for feeding birds
On top of needing a suitable type of bird feeder, choosing the right location for feeding birds is just as important and will determine whether they feel comfortable in your garden. Always make sure the bird feeder is at least two metres away from the nearest pane of glass to help prevent birds from flying into them. In addition, choose somewhere with a clear view so that the birds can quickly spot and escape potential predators, such as cats or birds of prey. Bird houses should be placed high enough so that cats cannot simply jump in, and not near trees or walls so that these predators cannot use them to climb up into the birdhouse.
Summary: Where and how to feed birds
- Birds that eat soft foods prefer to eat from the ground
- Granivorous birds prefer feeding up in trees
- Bird houses are suitable for all birds
- Keep bird feeders dry and clean
- Fat balls in nets are not suitable for feeding birds and can be dangerous
- A suitable location for feeding birds is two metres from the nearest pane of glass, somewhere with a clear view and cat-proof