Feeding preferences of garden birds

I was back in Norfolk last weekend for a brief visit, and it was just my luck that the weather was cold and extremely dull… Apart from walking the dog, most of my time was spent indoors watching the occasional snow showers.

However, having recently acquired a GoPro, this was a great opportunity for me to experiment and get to grips with how it worked.

Before Christmas my dad built a station for our bird feeders and at this time of year the garden birds have really been appreciating it – watching them from inside the house inspired me to set up the camera and attempt to gather footage of them feeding.

After a few failed attempts I managed to set up the GoPro so that I could control it from inside the house using WiFi – this was brilliant as it meant I could conserve battery and only film when there were birds present.


I was really pleased with how the videos turned out, however while I was observing and filming I noticed things about the feeding habits of the visiting birds which led me to do more research and write this blog post.

Something which I had not really considered before but became glaringly obvious to me as I watched, was that different species of bird showed preferences for visiting certain feeders. This would of course make sense as diets vary between species, however once I began to think about this my curiosity on the subject grew.


The table below shows the natural diets of our garden visitors and the feeders I observed them on (we provided the birds with fat balls, a seed mix and peanuts).

Species Natural diet Choice at feeders
Blue tit Insects, larvae, fruits Fat balls, seed mix, peanuts
Blackbird Fruit, seeds, small insects, small molluscs Ground feeding only (crumbs from fat ball feeders)
Robin Mainlyinsects Seed mix and ground feeding below fat balls
Hedge sparrow Grain, seeds, young plants, fruits, earthworms, insects Ground feeding only (crumbs from fat ball feeders)
Starling Insects, fruit, seeds Fat balls
Long tailed tit Insects Fat balls
Greenfinch Seeds, insects Peanuts


Something that I find particularly intriguing is that items like fat balls clearly don’t occur naturally in the habitats of these birds, but do prove to be a popular choice – there must be a reason behind this…

All of the species that feed on the fat balls also eat insects as part of their diet. In February, insects are quite hard to come by, so the birds must have some alternative – this is my theory for why fat balls are so popular.

If we look at the nutritional content of insects, we can see that they contain a high proportion of protein and fat – fat balls also contain significant amounts of these substances, so provide the birds with the correct nourishment.


Certain brands of fat balls also have added calcium – a mineral that is found in some insect exoskeletons. The correlation between the nutrition provided by insects and fat balls suggests that this could be the reason why most of the birds I observed fed on the fat balls.

However, this does still leave some questions unanswered – why, for example did the greenfinch (whose natural diet consists of seeds and insects) not show any interest in the fat balls, but instead visited the feeder containing peanuts?

It is likely that due to me only having a limited amount of time in which to film and observe the birds, I may have missed an opportunity to see this.


Another factor to take into account is that not every bird is suited to feeding from different types of feeder: the robin cannot perch on a feeder at all, so either has to hover momentarily or feed from the ground. This means that this species is restricted to seeds or crumbs dropped from the fat ball feeders, as it would be unable to access the peanuts or to remove pieces of fat ball for itself.

The more I thought about the feeding preferences of the garden birds, the more interested I became. I still have many unanswered questions, such as how the birds know to choose the correct feeder, and whether this is a learned habit or if (after many generations of birds being fed by humans) it is becoming an innate behaviour.

The video below shows some of the clips I gathered with the GoPro:

Sources I used in this blog post:

The RSPB: www.rspb.org.uk

Ark Wildlife: www.arkwildlife.co.uk

Top Insect: www.topinsect.net


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