Natural food

The most natural way of providing food for birds is to grow it. If your garden plants have fruit, berries, hips, seeds and nuts, they'll be a larder for birds, particularly in late summer and autumn.

The plants in your garden will also harbour birds' other natural food source - insects and other invertebrates. These are especially important during the breeding season. Features such as long grass, flowers, hedges, trees, dead wood, compost heaps and ponds all encourage invertebrates and therefore birds.

Providing food

Vary the mix of foods to encourage a good mix of birds. Garden birds come in different shapes and sizes and all have different preferences. Sunflower seeds are popular with greenfinches, whereas goldfinches prefer niger seed. Kitchen scraps add variety to a bird's diet. In winter fat balls provide a great calorie boost for hungry birds, and in the breeding season putting out mealworms will provide an excellent protein source for birds with hungry chicks to feed.

Use a variety of feeding techniques and locations to attract as many birds as possible into your garden. Bird feeders are likely to attract many finches, tits, sparrows and even great spotted woodpeckers, but for any larger birds a bird table is a good addition. Many birds, such as thrushes and blackbirds, feed on the ground, while treecreepers benefit from food smeared into cracks in treetrunks.

Safety

Some food can be harmful to birds, so take care what you put out. Salty foods should never be put out, and dried foods such as desiccated coconut can be fatal as they swell in birds' stomachs. Dry bread should be moistened first for this reason. Choking is another potential hazard, mainly for young birds. Whole peanuts should not be used during the breeding season. Birds are susceptible to food poisoning too, and raw meats or mouldy food should not be provided.

Hygiene is important, and feeding stations should be cleaned regularly, with uneaten food replaced when it starts to spoil. Ideally the location of feeding stations should be changed regularly, to prevent bird droppings from accumulating and spreading disease.

Be careful to site feeders in places that cats can't reach, and with good all round vision to allow the birds to keep up their vigilance. If feeders have to be near vegetation, then a prickly bush, or one clipped closely around the base, should be unsuitable as an ambush point for felines. Sparrowhawks and other natural predators may also be discouraging to some wildlife gardeners, but these are unlikely to cause significant damage to populations. To many it is a real thrill to have a hunting sparrowhawk visit the garden, and is a clear sign of an ecosystem functioning well.