Providing food is one of the most helpful things you can do for your garden birds, so long as you are thoughtful with your feeding.
The RSPB and the British Trust for Ornithology both suggest feeding birds all year round, but if we're talking survival, some times are more important than others. Garden birds can go hungry during the winter when food and water supplies are scarce, and parents will be in desperate need of food in spring when they have to provide for their young as well as themselves.
The RSPB advises that supper and breakfast are the most important meals for birds as they need an energy boost before and after a night's rest, especially in the colder months.
Invariably, the best thing you can do to provide food for your garden visitors is nothing. Birds love garden insects and other invertebrates so if you can bear it, let them in!
Fruit is a brilliant food source for birds and is most likely to be bountiful later in the summer and through the autumn. Leave your windfall apples and pears for the robins and blackbirds, thrushes and robins to enjoy, or store them somewhere dry and cool and put them out on the bird table or ground feeders in the colder months - they definitely won't mind the presence of the odd grub!
Holly and ivy are great for winter berries, and woodpigeons, thrushes and blackcaps love them. Stop robins going hungry over the winter by planting some spindle - their berries are a vital source of energy. You could also delay your annual pruning of herbaceous and berry-bearing plants until late winter to allow the seed-loving birds their fill.
A happy ecosystem brings happy birds, so let go of the perception of what's a weed and think in terms of what your wildlife wants. Nettles are insect attractants and insects attract birds. Brambles might be troublesome but they provide wonderful fruit and excellent cover for tits and other small birds.
In the colder months all our wildlife is busy fattening up to survive the winter, so fat balls will be popular additions to your feeding stations. Only make these in the winter though as warmer temperatures will melt the fat causing it to go off.
You can buy ready-made fat balls in various shops but as a cheaper option try making your own. Pop seeds or dry mealworms into your fat feeder mix to add protein and carbohydrate. Never use polyunsaturated fat or butter as these can cling onto birds' feathers.
If you do buy fat balls they may come in a nylon mesh bag. Always remove them from the bags as otherwise birds may get their claws caught in the mesh and hurt themselves or even starve if not found soon enough.
If you don't want to make feeders you could also put out some finely chopped unsalted bacon rinds or grated hard cheese.
Peanuts are high in fats and protein and are really popular with tits, finches, nuthatches, woodpeckers and sparrows; but it's important to make sure you supply the right kind to avoid harming your garden birds.
Avoid leaving out whole peanuts unless they are in a wire mesh feeder as whole nuts may choke young birds in the spring. Crushed peanuts will attract robins and dunnocks too.
If you are buying peanuts be sure to get them from a reputable supplier and check that they don't contain aflatoxins which are poisonous to birds. Also avoid salted peanuts as most birds can't process the salt and so may die from ingesting too much.
Push some peanuts into holes drilled into old logs or branches to set a challenge for your nuthatches and woodpeckers.
In spring, live, protein-rich food such as mealworms will be a godsend for busy parents deperately foraging to support their growing chicks. Robins and thrushes particularly love these wriggly treats and live or soaked feed is best to give them the moisture they need.
You can buy mealworms from suppliers, and these are especially important during spring and early summer. A blue tit will feed hundreds of caterpillars and insects to its chicks during the breeding season. Put mealworms out on tray or ground feeders.
If you can, put out live mealworms or soak dry mealworms first to provide birds with the moisture that they deperately need through the winter or when in the nest. Avoid using discoloured worms which may carry diseases such as salmonella.
Nyjer (niger) seeds are a big favourite of finches and siskins and are rich in fat. They are tiny and will fall straight through most feeders. Mix them with other seeds in a plastic feeder, stir them into your fat ball mix or put them on a tray.
Many birds adore sunflower seeds and they are rich in protein and unsaturated fats. Whole seeds require substantial effort for birds to remove the husks, using energy that they can't afford to waste. Put out sunflower hearts or kibbled (crushed) seeds in the autumn to save them the effort, and to save you from having to tidy up scattered husks!
Cut a fresh coconut in half, drain and hang it up for tits. Once the coconut has all been eaten the remaining shell can make a great container for home-made fat balls or other seeds. Avoid putting out desiccated coconut as this can swell up in birds' stomachs making them very ill.
Dried fruit, bacon rinds, cooked rice, spare dog or cat food, leftover grated cheese and the remnants from the bottom of your cereal packet can all be left out for birds so long as they are finely chopped. Avoid fat from cooking as this smears in a way which is not good for birds' feathers. Biscuits should be crushed and soaked where possible to avoid choking birds and to add moisture.
Never give birds milk as they cannot digest it. Avoid cooked oats but uncooked are fine.