What To feed Wild Birds In Winter

By Andy McIndoe

Here’s a brief summary to help you choose the right food for your feathered friends and encourage more of them into your garden.

How wild bird feeding has changed over the years! When I was a boy the birds were given breadcrumbs, a few stale crusts, bacon rind, and if they were lucky a few peanuts (groundnuts) in their shells threaded on cotton.

Occasionally they might have got half a coconut, or a small portion from a packet of swoop, the only bird seed that was readily available.

Those who took bird feeding seriously might have made their own fat snack from bird seed, or breadcrumbs, in melted bacon fat moulded in a mug and hung up on a piece of wire coat hanger, but that was the exception rather than the rule.

Today wild bird feeding is big business and a pastime enjoyed by a large proportion of adults and children. The range of feeds and feeders is bewildering and it is difficult to know what to choose. Do you buy on price? Are you persuaded by the packaging?

Is it worth paying more for a designer feed that looks more appetising than your breakfast muesli, or is it better to buy loose food from somewhere that sells it from bulk packs.

Bird seed mixtures

Premium bird food

Cheap seed mixtures contain a lot of wheat. This is often flung aside by the birds as they sort through for the tastier seeds. Watch them and you’ll see what I mean. Lentils, split peas and beans are also often added to bulk up seed mixtures. These look nice, but only larger birds can eat them dry. Pigeons will love wheat and lentil-rich mixtures, but finches, tits and the smaller birds will give them a wide berth.

Some mixtures also contain bits of dog biscuit. These are often green or pink fragments which look good, but are only eaten when wet, if at all. Mixtures containing high proportions of small seeds are the ones to go for to attract the smaller birds and it is worth paying the higher price for these if you want to see them at your feeding station. Mixtures with pieces of whole nut are good for winter feeding and will be appealing to tits.

Peanuts (groundnuts)


Peanuts are an excellent source of fat and are enjoyed by a wide range of small birds, including tits, nuthatches, sparrows and some finches. Never use salted or roasted peanuts and always buy peanuts are specifically for wild bird feeding from a reputable source. Some groundnuts can have high levels of a natural toxin which is harmful to birds, hence the importance of buying the right ones.

You will need a mesh feeder that is made specifically for peanuts. If they are a problem in your area, buy a squirrel-proof one. My only reservation on these is that they are a deterrent to spotted woodpeckers, which also love peanuts.

Fat balls and fat snax

Fat balls

Once you start feeding with fat balls they will be regular requirement at your feeding station. Birds love them and they are a good winter staple. Again it is worth buying the better quality ones that are packed with energy-rich seeds. Also invest in a good quality cage feeder that holds a credible number (6 or more) fat balls. The ones which hold two or three won’t last very long.

Some fat balls come in plastic nets, suggesting that you hang up the nets and the birds feed through them – don’t. The nets are a threat to wild birds and should be removed before feeding. Better still buy them un-netted in bulk tubs.

Sunflower seeds

Sunflower hearts

Sunflower seeds are a good all-year round food. They are high in oil and protein and extremely nutritious. Black sunflower seeds are better than striped ones, which have a lower oil content. Sunflower hearts may look more expensive, but don’t forget the birds discard the outer shell anyway, so you might as well save them the trouble and the mess.  Serving up sunflower hearts will quickly make your feeding station the most desirable in the neighbourhood. You will often find the sunflower hearts will be taken in preference to the peanuts.

Nyger seeds


Often confused with the seeds of nigella, which they resemble, small, black nyger seeds are popular with finches and siskins. You will need a feeder that is suitable for fine seeds. Nyger seeds will pour out of a standard seed feeder. In my experience birds will ignore them completely for a few days, but once they get the taste for them they will become a firm favourite.

Dried mealworms

meal worms

Dried mealworms were incredibly popular, and are certainly enjoyed by many birds, especially robins. They need to be presented on a bird table or feeding platform, rather than in a feeder. They are expensive to buy and seem to have declined in popularity. Fresh mealworms are a great natural food than can be used throughout the year, but it is not appealing to handle or store. Dead or discoloured mealworms should never be used, unless purchased as dried stock from a reputable source.



Flaked maize is often present in bird seed mixtures and is appealing to blackbirds. Porridge oats are appreciated by lots of birds, but always present them dry in small quantities. Cooked, unsalted rice is a good winter food, again in small quantities.

A few dos and don’ts

  • Never put out food scraps randomly. These may be harmful to wild birds and attract vermin
  • Always wash bird feeders thoroughly from time to time to cleanse them of harmful bacteria.
  • Always provide a supply of fresh water for birds to drink.
  • You must be consistent with your bird feeding if you want regular feathered visitors in your garden.
  • Feed all year round (both summer and Winter) as your local birds will come to rely on your food.
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