What to Feed Birds In Winter (And What Not To)

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Want to know what to feed garden birds in the winter in the UK? Read on for all the details on what to feed and what not to feed our feathered friends.

When the mercury plummets our little feathered friends need our help in finding food and water. With the news that wintering bird populations in the UK are in sharp decline, it’s more important than ever to feed birds where you can.

However, before you put any food out, there are a few dos and don’ts about feeding garden birds that perhaps not everyone is aware of. 

As the goal is always to help, not harm wildlife, I’ve put together a little handy guide on what to feed birds in the winter. This will ensure your well-meaning efforts don’t unintentionally cause any harm to your garden birds.

What To Feed Birds In The Winter

how to feed wild birds in your garden

Here are all the details you need on what to feed the birds that visit your garden this winter:


When buying bird seed for garden birds look for a high-quality mixed bag of seed. Mixes that contain sunflower seeds, maize, and peanut granules are great, as well as ones containing small and large seeds. These kinds of mixes make them suitable for a wide variety of garden birds.

It is best to avoid mixes containing a high quantity of pulses. These include split peas, lentils, beans, as well as rice. This is because smaller species of garden birds (who tend to need food the most in winter) are unable to eat these items.

If you’re feeding seed to the birds, bear in mind that you’ll need some kind of feeder. Birdseed can be placed loosely on a bird table. Alternatively, pop it in a bird feeder. Don’t sprinkle the seeds directly onto the ground as you’ll attract rats.


Mealworms are appreciated by most garden birds all year round, especially robins and blackbirds – providing a great source of easily digestible protein. Buy good quality mealworms from a local pet shop or garden centre, or from the RSPB, and pop them on your bird table.

If you are especially committed you can breed your own mealworms. I’m the first to admit that I feel a little bit squeamish about breeding them, so I am happy to continue purchasing them from a shop!

Fat Balls – Feed To Birds In Winter Only

feeding wild birds fat balls

The words ‘fat balls’ always make me giggle, but in all seriousness, fat balls are a great source of food and energy for garden birds in the winter.

Fat balls tend to be made of lard/suet, nuts, cereals, and sunflower seeds. As such they are densely packed with essential energy and fats for birds. I find they really solve the question of what to feed birds in the winter.

Great Tits love fat balls, as do other tits, sparrows, starlings, blackbirds, and black caps – so you’ll attract a range of different birds to your garden.

You can make your own fat balls, or you can buy fat balls cheaply in pet shops and garden centres. 

When you buy fat balls in smaller quantities, they tend to come packaged in mesh bags. However, you should never hang the mesh bag in your garden as the mesh can trap birds’ feet. 

Instead, take them out of the bag and put them into a fat ball holder. If you don’t have a holder, you can set them on your bird table.

Fat balls are most appreciated by garden birds in the winter when fatty food sources are hard to come by. However, you should not put fat balls out in the summer months. Here they can rot in the heat, and make birds ill.


Contrary to popular belief, bread is not the best food to feed wild birds. It tends to fill them up with little nutritional benefit. 

Instead, bread is best given to birds only as part of a varied assortment of food on your bird table. Any kind of bread is fine, but brown is preferable, and all bread should be soaked in water first.

Putting out large chunks of bread during the breeding season (spring and summer) should be avoided at all costs in case of natural food shortages. If a natural food shortage occurs birds may feed bread to their hatchlings – potentially causing them to choke and die.


nut feeder

Nuts are a great source of fat but can pose a choking hazard to birds. As such, they should always be put out in your garden in a special nut feeder (as above). These types of feeds only allow birds to take little nibbles of nuts, avoiding the risk of choking. Alternatively, you can crush them into very small chunks, and spread them on your bird table.

Other Household Food Scraps

Some household food scraps are fine to feed birds with during the winter. This includes soft fruits, porridge oats (uncooked), grated cheese, cooked pasta and rice, soaked currants, raisins and sultanas, biscuit crumbs, and pastry crumbs.

Finely chopped unsalted bacon and fats from other unsalted meats are all ok. Potatoes – mashed, baked, or roasted – are also welcomed by birds.

Fresh coconut is fine, but desiccated coconut should never be given to birds.

Anything salted should be avoided on your bird table. Margarine or soft fats should also be avoided, as should anything mouldy or off.

You can also use soaked cat and dog food, as well as tinned pet food. However, it is worth bearing in mind that the use of these may attract cats.

Food scraps should always be placed on a bird table as sprinkling on the ground can attract rats and mice.


Now we’ve established what to feed birds in the winter, it’s important to talk about water. All birds appreciate it if you can put out a supply of fresh drinking water by your bird table in a shallow container for drinking. In winter, this will freeze over quickly, so do try and change it regularly.

Other Useful Tips For Feeding Wild Birds in Winter

Garden birds eating seed in winter.

There are a few other useful tips to know if you plan on feeding birds over winter.

Keep Things Clean When Feeding Birds

Clean your feeders, tables, water pots, and bird baths regularly to prevent the spread of disease in wild bird populations. A mild disinfectant liberally diluted in water, or diluted white vinegar, will do the trick.

Keep Things Safe

I would always recommend avoiding the use of ornamental mirrors in your garden. This is because mirrors can confuse birds, and they may fly straight into the mirror. This runs the risk of the bird breaking its neck and potentially killing it.

Similarly, if you are feeding birds very close to your house it is also advisable to place stickers on your windows to deter birds from flying straight at your window.

Have Patience

Once you start feeding garden birds for the first time it will take a little while for the birds to find it, so don’t expect swathes of birds instantly! Here’s a guide on how to attract wild birds to your garden if you are struggling!

Stay Consistent

And finally, once you start feeding birds, it is best if you can consistently feed them, especially in winter, as they may come to rely on your offerings.

If you want to continue feeding them come spring, then here’s what you can feed birds all year round, as their nutritional needs change throughout the year.

I hope you’ve found this guide on what to feed birds in the winter useful! Have fun and do remember to report back here and let me know what birds you have seen in your garden!

ps: here’s how to attract bees to your garden too, to make your garden a wildlife haven.

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Blue tits eating from a fat ball feeder, with a blue text box that reads what to feed wild garden birds in winter.

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