How to make your garden more attractive to garden birds

This weekend is the RSPB’s Big Garden Bird Watch, an opportunity to help the conservation charity understand how UK birds are doing. Taking part is easy: all you need to do is count how many species of bird land in your garden during a one-hour period between 27th and 29th January 2023 and tell the RSPB what you have seen.

Blue tit on peanut feeder
Photo credit: APeriamPhotography
Taking part will help the bird charity understand how UK birds are faring against a backdrop of environmental challenges. It is well known that increasing suburbanisation of the countryside is having a negative impact on our beleaguered wildlife. Your birdwatch results will help the RSPB monitor more exactly how UK birds are coping with this nature emergency.

Beyond such citizen science, there are many ways you can help UK birds to flourish. In this article, we take a bird’s eye view of the garden, outlining some of the ways you can attract birds, not just for this year’s birdwatch, but for the longer-term.

Creating a bird garden

Our gardens are an increasingly important bird habitat; mini nature reserves, providing a vital source of food and nest sites. While it is true that the interests of gardeners and bird-lovers may sometimes collide, nonetheless it should be possible to strike a balance and create an aesthetically pleasing garden that also caters to the needs of a wide variety of bird species.

Birds, like all living creatures, have a basic need for food, water, and shelter. Each of these can be provided in the short-term through feeding stations, bird baths, and bird houses. In the longer-term however, it is better to invest in creating a more favourable habitat for birds, thereby transforming your garden into a haven for bird life.

Feeding garden birds

Feeding the birds in winter is especially important as natural food sources can be in short supply. Feeders should be placed sufficiently far away from garden borders and fences to prevent predators such as cats from ambushing birds whilst feeding. At the same time, they should be placed close enough to cover for birds to be able to dart to and from foliage while feeding.

Table showing different food types and the bird species that they attract
Table 1. Food types to attract different bird species

The type of food you put out will affect the species that visit. Finches, for example, are particularly keen on sunflower hearts and will devour them from a feeder or bird table; members of the tit family will eat seed, suet and peanuts from a feeder or table. 

It is important to reduce availability of certain dry foods such as peanuts during the nesting season, as parent birds can feed these to offspring, inadvertently choking them. Mealworms are a good alternative source of protein during this period.

It is essential to provide a source of water, particularly for seed-eating birds which lack the same moisture content in their food as insect-eating species. You can provide bird baths or create a garden pool that will also attract insect-chasing birds; remember to include shallow sloping sides so that birds can access the water easily to drink and clean their feathers (especially important in winter).

A robin enjoying a bath
Photo credit: Gord Horne

Shelter for garden birds

Putting out feeders and bird table scraps will entice a variety of birds to visit your garden. But if you want to go further and create a garden habitat where birds will roost and raise their young, then you will need to provide shelter, either in the form of man-made nest boxes, or by cultivating plants that will provide adequate shelter from predators and the weather, and cover for nesting.

Plants to attract garden birds

Birds will choose to roost and nest in your garden if there is plenty of cover in the form of trees, hedges, and shrubs. Planting varieties that provide a source of food will attract the greatest number of species. Herbaceous plants and annuals can provide additional food and shelter and will help maximise the potential of your garden as a bird haven. Below we list some of the best varieties and the bird species they attract.

A pair of blue tits investigating a next box hole
Photo credit: stefbennett

Trees and hedges for garden birds

Trees attract insects and produce fruit, seeds and nuts loved by many bird species. Choose native trees such as oak, birch, hawthorn, and willow; goat willow catkins will attract the first insects of spring, at a time when other food sources for birds may be scarce.

In the autumn, alder, beech, and hazel will produce seed, whilst wild cherry, rowan, and elder will provide fruits and berries; apple trees are a great option to attract insects and provide fruit.

House sparrow amongst apple blossom
Photo credit: Linas Toleikis
Hedges that include species such as hawthorn, yew, holly, and wild privet will offer protection from predators, food, shelter, and of course nest sites.

Shrubs to attract garden birds

It is not just trees and hedges that can be a great source of food and shelter for birds. Berry-bearing shrubs such as berberis, mahonia, cotoneaster, pyracantha, viburnum opulus, and Symphoricarpos (more commonly known as snowberry or waxberry) are all great options for encouraging birds such as blackbirds, thrushes, tits, fieldfares, starlings, waxwings, and redwings to spend more time in your garden. Climbers such as honeysuckle or ivy (flowering and fruiting late in winter), are invaluable and can attract bird species such as long-tailed tits to nest.

Herbaceous plants and annuals for garden birds

In the flowerbed, go for plants with seedheads to attract seed-eating birds such as members of the finch family (goldfinches, bullfinches, and chaffinches) and tits (blue tits, great tits, and coal tits). Sunflowers, forget-me-nots, michaelmas daisies, pansies, snapdragons, teazels, and ornamental or wild thistles will encourage seed-eating birds to spend time in your garden. Insect-eaters such as robins and dunnocks will be drawn to aphids on plants such as aubrieta and nasturtiums.

Blackbird enjoying ivy berries
Photo credit: savoilic

Provide a lawn area for garden birds

Join Plantlife’s annual No Mow May campaign and give your lawnmower a rest this spring. As well as providing more nectar for bees and other pollinators, it will allow plants such as clover, dandelion, groundsel, knapweed, and thistles to flourish, all of which can help the local bird population, which feeds on their leaves and seedheads.

Garden birds provide a huge amount of enjoyment through their antics at the bird feeder and elsewhere in the garden. There are many ways you can make your garden attractive to a variety of bird species. By providing food, places to nest, drink, and bathe, you can ensure that birds will visit your garden regularly throughout the year. Through careful planting and some judicious laziness when it comes to weeding and tidying, you can create a garden that achieves an ideal compromise between wildlife and horticulture, providing much-needed habitat for UK birds.