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Attracting winter songbird migrants to your garden

This is a subject we’ve covered in previous years, but it always seems popular so we’re revisiting it again. So, for a start off, we’re really talking about two groups of birds here:

1.       The species which don’t breed in the UK and including Brambling, Redwing, Fieldfare and Waxwing.

2.       The species which do breed in the UK but whose numbers are swollen with an influx of birds from northern mainland Europe, and these include Chaffinch, Blackbird and Robin.

Although perhaps less exciting, let’s deal with the second group first. As we all know, mainland northern Europe is a whole lot colder in winter than the British Isles are. In fact so much so, that many species of bird – and ones we know as common garden species – head south and south west for relatively warmer climes and therefore more food. Generally speaking, the closer you live to the east and south east of the UK, the more likely you are to see Blackbirds, Song Thrushes, Robins, Chaffinches (to name but a few species) from the continent, but you could encounter them anywhere. But can you tell the difference? Generally speaking, no, and although there might be some subtle differences in a Robin’s plumage, all the species look the same as the resident birds in the UK (there’s much been said about male Blackbirds being different but no hard evidence for it).

These familiar species of birds may also just be passing through the UK, as some from Scandinavia will reach as far south as the Mediterranean. But many will stay, so if the one or two Blackbirds you usually see in your garden suddenly become five or six, then there’s a very good chance that these extra birds are from mainland Europe and perhaps counties such as Estonia, Finland and Germany. And, generally, speaking, it’s the sudden increase in numbers which can lead you to conclude that your new birds are probably migrants.

So how do you attract and try and keep these extra Blackbirds and Robins for the winter months? Well in our experience the absolute key is using a ground feeding tray with sunflower hearts, husk-free mixes and suet pellets. The reason being that neither species will comfortably use a hanging feeder (Blackbirds will try if desperate for food and Robins might use one with circular perch rings) and, anyway, both species are naturally ground feeders. And the need for seeds with no husk is vital, as Blackbirds (as with all Thrushes) aren’t able to remove a husk because their bill simply isn’t designed for it, and the same applies to Robins.

As an example of attracting and retaining continental Blackbirds, one of our Associates, Roger Hughes (who you may know from his monthly blog on this site) lives close to the east coast of Scotland and always gets a large influx of them come November time. And despite often freezing temperatures and snow on the ground come January, he’s able to keep around ten of the Blackbirds feeding in his garden with a good supply of sunflower hearts and suet pellets fed from a feeding tray.

The above also applies to Chaffinches whose numbers can be hugely inflated by birds from the continent and as a species typically prefer to feed on the ground. And this leads nicely onto those very special species of bird which don’t breed in the UK but visit us in winter, starting with the Brambling…

Bramblings are closely related to Chaffinches and will often form large mixed flocks of both species in the winter months – albeit Chaffinches will normally outnumber the Bramblings. Some observers would argue that Bramblings are more likely to use hanging feeders than Chaffinches (which can struggle a bit to hang on unless the perch is circular) and we’ve certainly seen some evidence of this. But either way, Bramblings can certainly be attracted and encouraged to stay in gardens with a plentiful supply of seed, either with the husk on such as VHF Mixed Seed, or largely without such as VHF Premium Finch Mix. And we’d recommend both hanging and ground feeding trays, and not just because Chaffinches are usually happier feeding on the ground, but because the sheer number in a typical flock will mean they can’t all get on the feeders – and will use up valuable energy trying.

And lastly those other special species: Fieldfare, Redwing and the truly stupendous Waxwing. The unfortunate thing is that, usually, none of these species can be attracted by putting out bird food – even ours J. However, in cold weather and especially when there’s snow on the ground, all three species will readily come into gardens in the search for fruit and berries – cotoneaster being especially popular. But if you don’t have any bushes or shrubs with berries on them, then the next best thing is apples. So cut in half and laid face-up is the best way, and if you’re fortunate enough to get either Redwing or Fieldfare and Waxwing then you’ll observe something very interesting: Fieldfares and Redwings, like their thrush cousin the Blackbird, will chisel out the fruit’s flesh until just the skin remains. Waxwings, however, will devour every piece and nothing will remain on the ground.

So whether it’s a common species such as a Blackbird or something more exotic like a Waxwing which finds its way to your garden from northern mainland Europe this winter, we’re sure you’ll do everything you can to help it get through the short days and ready for its return home next spring.