Wild Bird Seed - learning
The best way to learn about wild birds is watching them! Once you have put food out, wait and see who comes to eat it. Make notes if necessary or take photographs, so you know which wild birds eat which food.
Group the wild birds by their preferred diet; who eats mostly mealworms and other protein-rich foods? Who likes fruit, who prefers seeds?
The RSPB advises making sure that wild bird feed is put out early in the morning and later in the evening before dark, especially during winter and autumn. At these times in particular, birds need quick energy boosts both to boost their energy level after the night or to store some for the night ahead. Putting food out in winter probably saves the lives of millions of wild birds every year, and the RSPB advises that you also feed them all year round. Raisins, currents and sultanas are excellent sources of energy for many wild bird species and can be bought quite cheaply in a supermarket in large bags; remember that products specially for birds can be 'value added' and therefore pricey, so just buy the dried fruit sold for human consumption, the larger the amount, the cheaper it becomes. California raisins are the plumpest, but whatever the origin, ensure the fruit is not too dry or the birds will dehydrate if they can't access water. Dried fruit can be soaked for a few hours, or overnight, to sensure it is succulent and full of juice.
A good idea is to plant bird-friendly trees and shrubs for continuous food supply all year. Holly and ivy are excellent winter food for woodpigeons, thrushes and blackcaps. Rowan or birch are fine in a small garden, a larch, willow or ash is great if you have a larger garden. Spindle berries play a vital role in keeping robins alive over winter. Remember that wet summers usually mean less berries to sustain wild birds through winter, so if summer has been wet – and we are having a lot more wet summers now with climate change – provide food during winter to supplement the wild food they can find. Trees also provide perching and nesting sites, and nut eaters will find tree fruits another useful source of food.
It helps birds a lot to have lots of different types of plants in your garden including evergreens, fruit trees, cottage garden plants such as annuals and perennials, and of course wildflowers, seeds for which can be purchased these days along with cultivar seeds. These plants attract insects which many birds then feed on.
Seeds are often quite scarce in early spring, so keep filling the seed feeder for chaffinches, greenfinches and other seed eaters during May.
Long dry summers harden the ground, and blackbirds, thrushes and robins can have difficulty catching worms if the ground is too hard, so if the summer conditions are dry, put food out for them until the earth is softer. Mealworms are a favourite with all of them, live or dried, especially when they are feeding their young. They also like any fat you have, and you can make your own fat balls with some waste fat and bird seed. Most birds will eat bread, from robins to crows, but don't put out too much as substitute for 'real' bird food, especially in dry weather as it can cause dehydration if eaten to excess without adequate water available. Keep a bird bath topped up at all times as birds need water to drink and bathe in. Try a dustbin lid or a terracotta or plastic plant pot tray as a birdbath. Sink it into the ground, or raise it on three bricks, to keep it stable. Keep it clean and only fill with clean, fresh water. Be careful not to use too deep a container or young, inexperienced birds could drown. Large shells are also a good idea, set firmly in the soil they fill naturally when it rains, and can be filled up with the sprinkler when you water the garden when it's dry.
It helps to have a relaxed approach to gardening if you want bird visitors. Garden organically, avoiding chemical sprays and slug pellets which can kill birds, and to encourage smaller creatures and insects which are food for birds; you don't need to kill pests if you have plenty of wild bird visitors as they will regularly clear your garden of these. If you tidy up immediately after plants have flowered, birds can't use the seeds, so think about letting plants die back naturally and then tidying them up later in the year when the birds have eaten the seeds. If you have any fruit trees, it's good to leave fallen fruit for the wild birds to feast on.
See an excellent guide to wild bird recognition complete with pictures here.