If you’re only using hanging feeders to feed the birds in your garden, you may be disappointed to discover that some favourite garden birds won’t ever use them.
There are a couple of reasons for this. Many of the birds that are common in British gardens such as blackbirds, thrushes, and robins are what are known as softbills.
Softbill is an informal term used to describe a bird whose beak isn’t adapted well for cracking seeds or dealing with the tough outer husks of some grains. Softbills can be contrasted with hardbills, such as finches, that have strong, powerful bills and have evolved to feed on seeds and nuts.
The other reason is that softbills and others, such as sparrows, collared doves, and chaffinches, prefer to feed from the ground. In the wild these species would spend their time foraging in the earth or amongst leaf litter looking for insects, worms, and fallen seeds and fruit, and in your garden they will find it difficult to perch on or hang from a bird feeder.
Although it can be more entertaining to watch the acrobatics of birds as they feed from hanging bird feeders, to ensure softbills and ground-feeing birds don’t miss out then you’ll need to provide some food for them near the ground.
The simplest way to feed ground-feeding birds is to simply scatter some food on your lawn, patio, or deck. However, this can be messy and a good way of attracting rodents and other pests. Food scattered directly on the ground can also be hard to clear up and unless you use special no-grow bird seed it may even germinate and sprout, creating an unwanted patch of weeds in your grass.
A better way is to offer the food on a ground feeder. A ground feeder is a small tray that is slightly raised on short legs. The tray is often made of mesh to allow water to drain, and they sometimes include a roof to keep the food fresh and dry. Choose a ground feeder that has a raised edge to prevent the food from blowing away or falling off.
You could also improvise and use a small, shallow container such as a pet food bowl, large plant saucer, pie dish, or similar but be aware unless it has drainage holes or is covered, on rainy days the food could soon get very soggy.
Unfortunately, birds feeding at ground-level can be more vulnerable to cats and other predators so consider protecting the ground feeder with a wire cage. You can buy special ground feeding sanctuaries that fit over the feeder, or you could use an upturned hanging basket instead.
A cage over the ground feeder has the added advantage of preventing larger birds and squirrels raiding the food before smaller birds have had a chance to get their fill.
Every now and again move your ground feeder to a new position to prevent the grass underneath from drying out or dying. This will also help to keep the feeding area tidier. And once a week remove any uneaten food and droppings and give the feeder a thorough clean.
You can put any of the regular food you would usually feed to your garden birds on a ground feeder.
However, if you want to attract softbills then you’ll need to give them food that meets their dietary requirements.
Avoid nuts and seeds with hard casings or anything that they would need to crack into to get at the food inside.
Grains such as sunflower hearts, wheat, barley, oats, and maize are all small and soft enough for most softbills to tackle.
Kitchen scraps including grated cheese, breadcrumbs, unsalted bacon rind, and rice are all good choices, as are small pieces of fruit such as apples, pears, and grapes, as well as soaked dried fruit.
A common problem in softbills is iron storage disease, or, haemochromatosis, a condition where too much iron builds up in the body. Softbills have trouble synthesizing iron and eventually it accumulates in the liver impairing its filtering function which can cause severe illness or even death. It is therefore important that food left out for softbills contains low levels of iron.
Avoid citrus fruit and pineapple which have a high iron content. Although dried mealworms are popular, they also have relatively high levels of iron so don’t offer them in large quantities. A better option would be to feed live mealworms but if you are squeamish and prefer the dried variety then soak them until they are soft.
Some ground-feeding, softbilled birds such as wrens are notoriously shy and will rarely visit bird feeders, even those on the ground. If you want to encourage them into your garden plant wildflowers and berry-bearing shrubs, such as hawthorn, rowan, holly, and honeysuckle which will attract insects in the spring and summer. Softbills and ground feeders will also enjoy feasting on the fruits in autumn.