In January, Nic Wilson of dogwooddays was astonished to see a female blackcap in the garden during the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch. It was a new species for her and, even better, it turned up at just the right time to be counted! She also has regular winter visits from redwing, feeding on next door’s cotoneaster, and waxwing in the birch trees behind her house.
Here are Nic’s top tips for attracting birds to your garden, including plants that they particularly love…
How to attract birds
In the winter and early spring it’s crucial to provide food for birds, to help them survive the colder months. This can be in the form of seeds and nuts – in our garden the finches love sunflower hearts and starlings flock to feed on the fat balls – but berries, seedheads and overwintering insects also offer hungry birds sustenance in the garden.
Winter is also an ideal time to plan simple changes to your garden that will encourage birds to visit throughout the year. It’s estimated that there are 400,000 hectares of garden habitat across the UK, and this could make a real difference if it were used creatively to support birdlife.
Stock up feeding stations
The RSPB advise us to feed birds throughout the year, but winter is a key time to keep bird feeders topped up and ensure that there’s plenty of fresh water to drink. In colder months, fill feeders and bird tables with sunflower and niger seeds, or a quality wild bird seed mix.
Peanuts are a good food source, but they shouldn’t be provided whole. Only purchase peanuts from a quality retailer who guarantees that they’re free from aflatoxin, a natural toxin that can kill birds. Fresh mealworms, fatballs (remove any nylon meshbags first) and fruit – soft apples and pears cut in half, or bananas – are also ideal winter fare. It’s essential that feeders are kept clean or you can do more harm than good.
Growing your own seed-bearing plants is a great way to feed birds throughout the year. Sunflowers provide huge heads of seed, while poppy, teasel, allium, echinacea, phlomis and many other garden favourites also have seeds that can be left over winter to attract birds like finches to the garden. As I write, a charm of goldfinches has descended on our verbena, bouncing on the seedheads as they pick out the seeds.
Provide nesting places
Supplying bird boxes is the easiest way to encourage birds to nest in the garden. We regularly hosted blue and great tits as they nested in boxes my children had made with their grandad.
Hedges and trees are important as they offer sheltered spots for birds to nest. Just be sure to avoid cutting hedges in the breeding season (early March – end of August) to protect any nests that might be in use during this period.
The more insects in your garden, the more birds will be attracted to feed. Avoid chemical products and use organic growing methods to encourage healthy ecosystems that will support large numbers of minibeasts.
A perfect, tidy garden isn’t ideal for wildlife – creating ‘wild’ areas with piles of logs, sticks and stones helps to encourage a range of insects. Leave stems and seedheads over winter to offer shelter to insects during the cold winter months.
Bring on the berries
Trees and plants with berries offer rich pickings for birds, and they add colour to the garden during the bleakest months. More unusual garden birds like fieldfare, redwing, mistle thrush and waxwing love to visit berry-laden shrubs, giving us fabulous views of these beautiful birds. Try planting:
If your garden is too small for trees or large shrubs, try climbers like honeysuckle ‘Hall’s Prolific’ or ivy ‘Glacier’ that grow vertically and provide nourishing berries for the birds throughout the autumn and winter.
Nic Wilson is a writer, garden designer and Garden Media Guilds Awards nominee (Beth Chatto Environmental Award, 2019). She enjoys growing flowers and unusual fruit, vegetables and herbs, and loves to encourage nature into the garden. She blogs at www.dogwooddays.net, and Guardian Country Diarist based in North Hertfordshire.
She works for BBC Gardeners’ World Magazine and her writing has featured in anthologies, journals and magazines including The English Garden, The Garden (RHS Magazine), BBC Wildlife Magazine and the John Clare Society Journal.