There are many things that you can do to attract more birds to an outdoor space and in doing these things you can give something back to birding and to birds in general. My first piece of advice is to spend some time getting to know your ‘bird neighbourhood’, as this foundation knowledge can help you to provide the right food for them. For example, if your most abundant bird family are finches then seed mixes are the best food to be providing. I learnt quickly that although most of the birds that visit my feeders are partial to a seed mix, they also love to tuck into a suet block or ball.
After realising the popularity of suet-based products with my garden visitors I decided to stock up on them. I felt this was a nice way for me to give the birds something back and to strengthen my connection with them. I put out three ‘fat’ balls in a plastic-mesh feeder and bought a cage for a suet block with a few different ones to try out in it. The following morning I was woken by an absolute cacophony of screeching and cackling from my back garden. I ran down the stairs to see what it was, clutching at my dressing gown as I whipped it round my shoulders.
There were eleven Starlings writhing across my feeders and feeder poles – fighting and snapping at each other as they decimated the suet block and balls. I watched them in amazement as they devoured every bit of it and fought over every crumb that dropped to the floor. It was great that they were using and accessing the food I had provided for them but at the same time I became very wary of the cacophony they were making at seven o’clock in the morning on a Sunday. Thinking about my neighbours, I opened the patio door and as I did so the Starlings all took flight at the same time in a flurry of wings, speckles and iridescence. This gave me an opportunity to rapidly remove the offending suet items and stow them away indoors. Ok, so suet products would have to be used sparingly in my garden from that day on.
I was speaking to someone once about their own garden bird feeders and they regaled me with some fantastic tales of Marsh Tits and even a Great-spotted Woodpecker visiting them. I asked what I should put out to attract such exciting visitors and they said “peanuts and sunflower hearts”. Shortly after when buying some bird feed I decided to try out some different products and I took their advice, filling up one feeder with peanuts and one with the hearts along with my usual seed mix. The peanuts didn’t prove to be particularly popular and stagnated in their feeder for a few weeks before I decided to remove them.
The sunflower hearts, on the other hand, would be full in the morning when I left for work and then empty upon my return. It took several refills until the weekend when I could stake out and identify the culprit(s). I sat on a dining room chair, cup of tea in hand and watched the feeding station from my front row seat by the patio door. A handful of House Sparrows, two Blue Tits, a lone Great Tit and then a Coal Tit that I have written about before, seemingly appeared from nowhere, deftly extracted a heart, popped up onto the fence and seemed to stash it inside a woody crevice. I watched it repeat this action three times before zipping off over my next door neighbour’s garden. Watching and sharing this moment was beautiful and was one of those little nuances that one doesn’t often get to see. I thought to myself about what a fantastic and intelligent way of preserving food this was and respected the moment even more because of this observation.
In 2016 feeding birds in your garden was ‘formally’ recognised as an activity that benefits your wellbeing. Daniel Cox, a researcher at the University of Exeter published a paper that researched the very topic. In his research he found that his participants overall wellbeing improved when they noticed birds in their garden. He also discussed feelings of ‘connectedness with nature’ through doing this. Another aspect he looked into was whether maintaining and watching bird feeders over time could help with reducing stress levels. His research pointed towards increased self-reported feelings of relaxation so yes it could be interpreted that garden bird feeding does in fact help reduce symptoms of stress. Interestingly, when asked on social media how they felt they gave something back to birding – from sixteen respondents eight of them discussed feeding birds in their gardens and providing a water source for them.