Many of us enjoy feeding birds in our gardens but if we are not careful we can attract undesirable visitors to share in the bounty.
The old myth that in urban areas we are never more than six feet from a rat is unlikely to be true but I don’t think any of us want to encourage rats by providing food for them, and many of us want to avoid attracting other animals including grey squirrels. So here are a few tips from my experience.
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Storing bird food
The first thing to consider is how you store bird food. I usually buy large sacks of peanuts and seed and keep them in a shed in the garden.
In the past I made the mistake of keeping the sacks in large plastic dustbins, thinking they would be kept dry and air tight. Unfortunately the grey squirrels found the bins and ate through them to get at the seed inside.
Once they located this abundant food source they also gnawed through the wooden walls of the shed to allow easy access. My solution was to buy galvanised bins and I put a heavy weight on top to stop the squirrels lifting the lids. Once they stopped coming I could repair the shed and everything is fine.
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Grey squirrels will gnaw through anything that isn’t very sturdy, this includes bird feeders. I have long since given up using plastic bird feeders, squirrels don’t just take seed from these feeders but they eat around the holes to allow easier access. Now I only buy feeders with metal tops, bottoms and access holes, they are more expensive but better value long-term.
You can buy squirrel-proof feeders and some of them do work. To deter the squirrels I hang my feeders from a taught, thin wire which stretches, like a washing line, between two posts. The squirrels really don’t like to run along a thin wire but the posts have to be far enough apart to prevent the squirrels jumping onto the feeders. My squirrels can jump about six feet!
A feeder with a tray on the bottom prevents seed falling to the ground and attracting rats.
Stop food building up on the ground
Rats and mice are attracted where seed drops to the ground. Birds can be quite fussy feeders often looking through the mixed seed, flicking anything they don’t want aside to get at the bits they like most.
It is those discarded seeds that can build up and attract rats. You can get large purpose built trays to fasten underneath seed feeders or even larger ones to hang underneath, these help catch the waste before it hits the ground.
If you put your feeder on top of a pole you can use a large tray built around the pole to collect seed and deter squirrels simultaneously. I have seen people use a dustbin lid to achieve this effect, and though this isn’t the neatest of solutions it does appear to work!
Choosing the right feed
Another way around this waste problem is to provide single-seed feeders. I have a feeder with sunflower hearts in and there is no waste from this because all the seeds are the same. Sunflower hearts are better than the whole seed because birds discard the husks creating a build-up of waste underneath the feeders.
Peanuts are a clean food with little waste though I do find it best to half fill peanut feeders to avoid the nuts getting mouldy, particularly in damp mild weather.
I sometimes put out food on the ground such as apples for the blackbirds and thrushes but it’s a good idea only to put out what will be eaten during the day and remove any left-over food at dusk, because this is when the rats will be most active.
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Keep feeding areas clean
Cleanliness around feeding areas is essential. Feeders and bird tables should be kept clean for the health of the birds but a messy feeding area will attract more pests.
Where to put bird feeders
Avoid putting out food close to rat-friendly spots in the garden such as holes in walls, dark spots under trees and gaps under sheds. Hanging feeders over the middle of a lawn will be better than close to the edge because rats are reluctant to cross wide-open spaces, they much prefer running along the edges of walls, in dark places.
It’s also better for the birds if feeders are not too close to vegetation where cats might be lurking.
I tend not to feed birds in summer and autumn when natural food is plentiful. I always think that this is the time of year when rat numbers will be building up and I don’t want to offer them any encouragement.
If you are developing a problem with rats then try bringing in all your feeders overnight. If that doesn’t help then move the feeders somewhere else where the birds will find them but the rats might not, if that fails it might be best to have a temporary break from bird-feeding.
Providing a cleaner rat-free environment will make it safer for the birds as well as enhancing the pleasure we get from watching them. Hopefully these simple guidelines will help achieve that.
Visit our British birds section for more on caring for birds in your garden
Look after vulnerable garden birds by making sure they are well fed during cold months. Buy a range of bird seed and feeders from Saga Garden Centre.