Wild Bird Feeding Basics
By: Julie Day
A yellow goldfinch couple shares the thistle feeder with a red house finch.
Whether your home is a 5-acre farm or a 5th floor apartment, you can bring yourself a little closer to nature by attracting and feeding wild birds. Getting started is easy, and once you have some “regulars,” you’ll be able to learn what they like and how to keep them visiting. Pretty soon, you’ll feel you know your birds personally and can experience the joy of watching them feed, sing, and tend their nests.
A brown thrasher enjoys a suet feeder.
Types of Bird Feeders
To start, all you need is a bird feeder filled with seed that’s attractive to the birds in your area. There are several different types of feeders available:
- Hopper feeders are usually made of metal, wood, or plastic. A large hopper or container holds the seed, with holes or levered dispensers to allow the birds to access the seed on a small tray or spout. Hopper feeders will accommodate many types and sizes of birds and are a good choice for beginning bird watchers. The downside is that the seed is exposed to the elements and to plundering critters.
- Tube feeders have perches and feeding ports around a hollow tube. They’re designed for smaller perching birds and may be geared for specific types of birds. For example, finch feeders have small openings to dispense tiny thistle seeds and short perches that discourage other birds. Since birds have to reach in the tube for seeds, they are more squirrel-resistant than open feeders.
- Platform feeders are open and flat, sometimes with a roof to shield rain and drainage holes to prevent flooding. They can accommodate large crowds of birds (as well as other critters!) and can either be placed high, for perching birds, or near the ground, for ground-feeding birds. Platform feeders can be used with any kind of bird food, such as seed, peanuts, or even bits of fruit or suet.
- Suet Feeders are usually made of wire mesh and designed to hold cakes of suet or other fatty food. Suet cakes are made from rendered beef fat mixed with seed or fruit and allowed to harden. They may be purchased premade, or you can make them yourself. Suet feeders are particularly useful during the winter when birds need to increase their fat intake in order to stay warm.
- Mesh Feeders come in various shapes and sizes and can be made of wire, plastic, or fabric. Birds feed by pulling seed through holes in the mesh. Peanut feeders are wire mesh tubes with large openings for dispensing shelled peanuts. Sock-shaped fabric feeders often come prefilled – just hang and enjoy. Other feeders are designed for specific proprietary seed or food cakes.
- Nectar feeders are different from other feeders in that they use a liquid, rather than solid, food and are specifically designed to attract either hummingbirds or orioles. Nectar feeders consist of a reservoir which is filled with a liquid solution of sugar and water, with small perches and feeding openings for hummingbirds’ long bills or larger openings to accommodate oriole beaks.
Wild Bird Food
Birds eat a variety of seeds and fruits. Here are some ideas for choosing the right food for your birds:
- Black-oil sunflower seed is the most popular seed and attracts many different types of birds. It’s a great choice if you’re choosing just one type of seed.
- Safflower seed is also a popular choice, since it’s favored by cardinals while considered not as palatable by both squirrels and grackles.
- Mixed bird seed usually contains seeds such as sunflower, safflower, millet, and cracked corn. It’s good for attracting a variety of birds, but be sure to buy a high-quality mix since discount mixes often contain filler grains that birds don’t like. If you find that your birds are discarding seeds in order to get to their favorites, try refilling the feeder with just the seed they like.
- Nyjer or Thistle seed attracts finches, chickadees, doves, pine siskins, and white-throated sparrows.
- Peanuts are popular with cardinals, chickadees, jays, nuthatches, and sparrows.
- Suet is a good choice for cardinals, chickadees, nuthatches, starlings, woodpeckers, and wrens.
- Fresh or dried fruit is popular with bluebirds, cardinals, cedar waxwings, orioles, thrushes, and woodpeckers.
- Nectar is most often used for hummingbirds and orioles. Boil a solution of one part sugar to four parts water for several minutes then allow to cool. Replace unused nectar every few days.
Taking turns for an evening snack.
Hanging Bird Feeders
Bird feeders can be hung from trees, set on the ground, or attached to poles. Specialty feeders are available with suction-cups for attaching to windows, or even for installing in a windowsill to bring the birds even closer. It may take birds a while to find a new feeder, so don’t give up. Here are some tips for placing your feeder:
- Place your feeder where the birds are nesting and roosting. Feeders closer to shrubs and trees – particularly evergreens – are usually more popular than feeders out in the open.
- Protected locations will also be more popular, as the birds can feed out of the wind and rain.
- Keep in mind that squirrels can jump up to 10 feet, so allow a little space around your feeder and consider adding a squirrel baffle to deter them.
- Place your feeders within 3 feet of your windows. Not only can you enjoy the birds better, but the reflection in the glass will help prevent birds from flying into the window.
- If there are cats in the neighborhood, place your feeder high and away from hiding and pouncing spots.
- The area under your feeder will naturally be littered with seed hulls and bird droppings, so place your feeder where the litter won’t matter, and move it every few months to discourage mold and bacterial growth on the ground.
- Refill and clean your feeder regularly. Make sure you place it within easy reach.
- Make sure the feeder is in a place where you can see and enjoy it!
Mourning doves prefers to feed on fallen seeds or low platform feeders.
Bird Feeder Maintenance
Follow these tips for taking care of your birds and their feeders:
- Discard any seed that is wet or moldy.
- Empty and clean your feeder regularly, using a weak soap-bleach solution. Be sure to rinse several times to remove all residue, and dry thoroughly before refilling. Most seed feeders can be cleaned once a month or so. Nectar feeders have to be cleaned and refilled every few days.
- How to Make a Suet Bird Feeder
- Hummingbirds in the Garden
- National Bird Feeding Society
- Whatbird.com (interactive bird identification guide)