Backyard Bird Feeding
Backyard bird feeding is a convenient way to enjoy wildlife.
According to a recent Census Report, over 65 million Americans, young and old, have given
it a try.
What has made watching birds the fastest growing hobby in the
country, second only to gardening? What ever it is, watching birds, like watching fish or
other animals, seems to make people feel good.
How do our "hand-outs" affect the birds? Little research
has been done on that question. But we do know that some birds -- cardinals, mockingbirds
and tufted titmice -- have extended their winter range northward, perhaps because of an
increased availability of food at feeding stations. There is no indication however that
backyard bird feeding has had a negative effect on wild bird populations as a whole.
Backyard bird feeding can, however, have an adverse effect on an
individual bird. There may be a higher incidence of disease and birds injured by flying
into windows. You can take precautions to minimize these problems.
No matter where you live, you can put food outside your door, and
some creature, feathered or furred, will show its appreciation and make an appearance.
That's all it takes. Once you get started, it's hard to stop.
Before you know it, you're learning bird names. After awhile, you'll
start to recognize individuals and the messages in their behavior and song.
When you get to the point where you want to attract and
"keep" a particular species, what you do will be determined by where you live,
and the time of year. For example, on any winter day, you're likely to see a cardinal at a
sunflower feeder in Virginia, a goldfinch at a thistle feeder in Massachusetts and
hummingbirds at a nectar feeder in southern California.
How can you find out which birds to expect? A bird field
identification book has pictures of different birds and will help you find the names for
the birds you're likely to see.
When the ground is covered with snow and ice, it's hard to resist
just tossing seed out the door. But it's healthier for the birds to get their
"hand-outs" at a feeding station, off the ground.
Regardless of the season, food that sits on the ground for even a
short time is exposed to potential contamination by dampness, mold, bacteria, animal
droppings, lawn fertilizers and pesticides.
It's best, for the birds' sake, to use a feeder.
You can start simply with a piece of scrap wood, elevated a few
inches above the ground. Add a few holes for drainage and you've built a platform feeder.
It won't be long before the birds find it.
Whether you buy one or build one, eventually you'll find yourself
looking at commercially manufactured feeders. There are literally hundreds to choose from.
How do you make the "right" choice? What makes a feeder "good?"
Where do you want to watch your birds? From a kitchen window... a
sliding glass door opening on to a deck... a second story window?
Pick a location that has year-round easy access. When the weather's
bad and birds are most vulnerable, you may be reluctant to fill a feeder that isn't in a
convenient spot near a door or accessible window.
Also consider the "mess" factor. Pick a location where
discarded seed shells and bird droppings won't be a clean-up problem.
Put your feeder where the squirrels can't reach. Those cute little
rodents seem to like sunflower and peanuts as much or more than acorns. Squirrels become a
problem when they take over a bird feeder, scaring the birds away, and tossing seed all
What's worse... frustrated squirrels have been known to entertain
themselves by chewing right through plastic and wooden feeders.
If you've seen squirrels in your neighborhood, it's safe to assume
they will visit your feeder. Think long and hard before you hang anything from a tree
limb. Squirrels are incredibly agile, and any feeder hanging from a tree, with or without
a squirrel guard or baffle, is likely to become a squirrel feeder.
In the long run, a squirrel-proof feeder or any feeder on a pole
with a baffle is the least aggravating solution. The most effective squirrel-proof feeder
is the pole-mounted metal "house" type.
If you must hang a feeder, select a tube protected with metal mesh.
Most plastic "squirrel-proof" feeders, despite manufacturers' claims, may
eventually succumb to rodent teeth.
If you have the "right" situation in your yard, a pole
with a baffle should suffice. Any wood or plastic feeder can be effective when mounted on
a pole with a plastic or metal baffle, if the pole is at least 10 feet or more from a tree
limb or trunk.
Once you've determined you're going to put your feeder, you're ready
to go shopping. In addition to good looks, think about...
- ...how durable is it?
- ...will it keep the seeds dry?
- ...how easy is it to clean?
- ...how much seed will it hold?
- ...how many birds will it feed at one time?
- ...which species will use it?
There seems to be no end to the material used in making bird
feeders. You can buy "disposable" plastic bag feeders; feeders made of cloth,
nylon, vinyl and metal netting; clear, lexan, colored and PVC plastic tubes; ceramic and
terra cotta; redwood, western cedar, birch, pine and plywood; sheet metal and aluminized
steel; glass tubes and bottles.
How long a feeder lasts depends on how much effort you put into
maintaining it, the effects of weather, and whether squirrels can get to it.
Water can get into any feeder regardless of how careful you are to
protect it. Seed will spoil when it gets damp or wet. Cloth, vinyl, nylon and metal
netting feeders are inexpensive, but they do not protect your seed. You can improve them
by adding a plastic dome.
Most wood, plastic, ceramic and solid metal feeders will keep seed
dry, but water can get into the feeding portals. Look for feeders with drainage holes in
the bottoms of both the feeder hopper and the seed tray.
Even bowl-type feeders and trays with drainage holes will clog with
seed and bird droppings. Add rainwater and you have an unhealthy broth. Look for shallow
plate-like seed trays. The purpose of a tray is to catch dropped seeds while allowing
spent seed shells to blow away.
Any zookeeper and cage bird owner will tell you, when you feed birds
in a confined area, you have to expect bird droppings, feathers, an occasional insect or
two and left-over food mess.
While you don't have to wash the feeder daily, you should clean it
Diseases like salmonella can grow in moldy, wet seed and bird
droppings in your feeder tray and on the ground below. It's a good idea to move your
feeders (just a foot or so) each season to give the ground underneath time to assimilate
the seed debris and bird droppings.
Keeping your feeders clean should not become a major undertaking.
The degree of maintenance required is directly related to the types of birds you want to
A thistle feeder for goldfinches should be cleaned about once a
month depending on how often it rains. Feeding hummingbirds requires cleaning at the very
least, weekly, preferably more often -- two or three times a week. Sunflower and suet
feeders may need to be cleaned only once a month.
Feeders made of plastic, ceramic and glass are easy to clean. Wash
them in a bucket of hot, soapy water fortified with a capful or two of chlorine bleach,
then give them a run through your dishwasher.
Use the same regimen with wood feeders, but substitute another
disinfectant for the bleach so your wood won't fade.
The ideal feeder capacity varies with your situation, and the types
of birds you want to attract.
If you feed hummingbirds, big feeders are not always better. One
hummingbird will drink about 2 times its body weight (less than an ounce) a day. Early in
the season, hummers are territorial and won't share a feeder. A sixteen ounce feeder can
be wasteful, or indeed lethal, because artificial nectar (sugar water) can ferment in the
hot summer sun.
If you see only one hummer in your yard, a two ounce feeder is more
than enough. On the other hand, if you live in the southwest, and have 34 hummers in your
yard, a sixteen ounce feeder may not be big enough.
If you opt for a large volume seed feeder, be sure to protect it
from the weather and keep it clean. If after months of use, the birds suddenly abandon
your feeder full of seed, it's time for a cleaning.
If too many birds at your feeder becomes a problem, you can control
their numbers by putting out smaller amounts of seed, by using specialty seeds, or by
using restrictive feeders.
If you fill your feeder only when it's empty, the birds will look
for food elsewhere. They'll return as long as you continue to fill it.
You can virtually eliminate visits by birds you'd rather not see by
offering seeds they won't eat. Be selective in your choice of seeds.
If you use more than one type of seed, put them in separate feeders.
This will reduce wasted seeds, as birds will toss unwanted seeds out of a feeder to get to
Birds that visit your feeder have very specific preferences, Most
prefer sunflower. Some prefer millet. A few prefer peanuts. None seem to prefer the other
grains used in the mixes: corn, milo, red millet, oats, wheat and canary seed.
If you want to feed only cardinals, doves and white-throated
sparrows, switch from black oil sunflower to safflower. If you want only finches and an
occasional dove and white-throated sparrow, try niger thistle. If you want only jays,
titmice and white-throated sparrows, try peanuts.
Another way to discourage unwanted birds is to use specialty feeders
that for the most part, allow only "select" birds to feed.
The most non-selective feeders are the tray, platform or house
You can encourage small birds with feeders that restrict access.
Wood feeders with vertical bars and feeders covered with wire mesh frustrate the larger
Tube feeders without trays also restrict access to small birds.
Remove the perches, and you've further selected only those birds capable of clinging --
finches, chickadees, titmice and woodpeckers.
Add vertical perches to tube thistle feeders, and you'll limit
accessibility primarily to the goldfinches.
If starlings are a problem at your suet feeder, you can discourage
them by using a suet feeder with access only at the bottom. Starlings are reluctant to
perch upside down. Chickadees and woodpeckers don't find that a problem.
The species you attract is determined primarily by the seeds you
Black oil sunflower is the hands-down favorite of all the birds that
visit tube and house type feeders. White proso millet is favored by birds who visit
platform feeders (doves and sparrows). Ducks, geese and quail will eat corn.
Many of the cereal grains (corn, milo, oats, canary, wheat, rape,
flax and buckwheat) in mixed bird seeds are NOT favorites of birds that visit tube
Watch a feeder filled with a seed mix and you'll see the birds
methodically drop or kick out most of the seeds to get to their favorite -- sunflower.
Birds will also kick out artificial "berry" pellets, processed seed flavored and
colored to look like "real" fruit.
Seeds that wind up on the ground are likely to be contaminated by
dampness and bird droppings. If the birds don't eat them, rodents will.
The most effective way to attract the largest variety of birds to
your yard is to put out separate feeders for each food:
- starling-resistant suet feeder
- a house feeder for sunflower
- a bluebird feeder
- a wire mesh cage feeder for peanuts
- a nectar feeder
- a tube feeder for thistle
- a stationary or tray fruit feeder
- a house or platform feeder for millet
TUBE FEEDER WITH BLACK OIL SUNFLOWER
ADDING A TRAY TO THE TUBE FEEDER WILL ALSO ATTRACT
TRAY OR PLATFORM FEEDER -- WITH MILLET
TRAY OR PLATFORM FEEDER -- WITH CORN
PLATFORM FEEDER OR TUBE FEEDER AND TRAY -- with PEANUTS
NIGER THISTLE FEEDER WITH TRAY
HANGING SUET FEEDER
PEANUT BUTTER SUET
HANGING PEANUT FEEDER
Once you get your bird feeding station up and running, you may run
into problems with uninvited guests. These visitors fall into two categories -- those
interested in the seeds (squirrels and chipmunks, rats and mice, starlings and house
sparrows), and those interested in a bird for dinner (cats and hawks).
If you have trees, you will get to know squirrels. You may marvel at
their antics, until they take over your bird feeders. Then you'll either love them or hate
Those who love squirrels tolerate their visits, and may even
encourage them with special squirrel toys and feeders.
When a squirrel is at the feeder, you're not likely to see birds.
Squirrels will scare off the birds while they eat the seed, and sooner or later, they'll
eat the feeder too.
The simplest solution is the squirrel-proof feeder or pole, and
storing your seed in a metal garbage can.
Chipmunks, rats and mice can also become a problem where there's
seed spillage under the feeder. Don't use mixed bird seed, and if you don't have a
squirrel problem, add a feeder tray.
Crow, house sparrow and starling problems can be eliminated by seed
and feeder selection.
Cats are another story altogether. Feral cats and your neighbor's
tabby are a serious threat to nestlings, fledglings and roosting birds. Too often, the
presence of just one cat on the prowl near your feeder can take the enjoyment out of your
backyard bird watching experience.
When a cat sits drooling under your feeder, you're not likely to see
any birds. You're bound to feel much worse when you find a pile of feathers on the ground.
If your neighbor is reasonable, suggest a bell collar. If that
doesn't work, consider getting yourself a pet -- a dog. Birds don't seem to be bothered by
most dogs, but cats and squirrels are.
If there are no cats in your neighborhood and you find a pile of
feathers near your feeder, look for a hungry hawk perching on a tree nearby.
Don't get upset. Consider yourself fortunate to see one, right in
your backyard. Cooper's and sharp-shinned hawks eat birds and play an important role in
the natural community.
Don't put out poisons, or try to trap them, since all birds of prey
-- eagles, owls and hawks -- are protected by Federal law.
When's the best time to start?
There is no best or worst time. Start whenever you want to. The
birds can use your help in the very early spring when their natural seed sources are
scarce. In general, whenever the weather is severe, birds will appreciate a reliable
supplemental food source.
When's the best time to stop?
If you enjoy feeding birds, there is no reason to stop. You can do
it year-round. Feeding the birds throughout the summer will not make them
"lazy," or "dependent." If you keep your feeding station clean,
there's no reason for you to stop feeding suet, sunflower, millet, fruit and nectar.
Is it best to stop feeding hummingbirds after Labor Day?
There is no evidence that feeding hummingbirds after Labor Day will
keep them from migrating. In fact, it may help a weakened straggler refuel for the long
haul. Leave your nectar feeders out until the birds stop coming.
How long does it take for birds to find a feeder?
Sometimes it can seem like forever. It may take more time for birds
to find window feeders than hanging or pole-mounted feeders. If you're impatient, start
with a feeder full of hulled sunflower. If that doesn't get their attention, wrap aluminum
foil around the top of the feeder hanger. Sometimes all it takes is the reflection of
light on the foil to catch their attention.
My feeder is full of seeds. I haven't seen a bird in months. Am I
doing something wrong?
When birds desert your feeder, it may be simply that a lot of
natural food is available nearby. Or something may be wrong, such as your seeds are
spoiled or your feeder contaminated. Throw the seeds away and wash the feeder. Take a look
at where your feeder is placed. Be sure it's not vulnerable to predators.
Won't birds' feet stick to metal feeders and perches in the wet
Birds don't have sweat glands in their feet, so they won't freeze
onto metal feeders. There's no need to cover any metal feeders parts with plastic or wood
to protect birds feet, tongues or eyes.
Can birds choke on peanut butter?
There's no evidence that birds can choke on peanut butter. However,
birds have no salivary glands. You can make it easier on them by mixing peanut butter with
lard, cornmeal, and/or grit. Your birds will appreciate drinking water too -- a bird bath
Do wild birds need grit?
In the winter, you may see flocks of birds along roadsides after the
snowplows have passed. They're after the grit. Birds have no teeth to grind their food.
The dirt, sand, pebbles, and grit they eat sits in their crop and helps grind up their
food. Adding grit to your feeder is helpful year-round, but particularly in the winter and
spring. Crushed eggshells do the same thing, and in the spring have an added benefit. They
provide extra calcium during nesting season.
Won't suet go "bad" in the summer?
In the winter, raw beef fat from the local butcher is all you need
for your suet feeder. When temperatures rise, raw fat can melt, and get rancid. It's safer
to use commercially rendered suet cakes in the spring and summer months. Rendering,
boiling the fat, kills bacteria. And yes, it's okay to feed your woodpeckers year-round.
They will visit your feeders all summer long, and they'll bring their babies.
What is hummingbird "nectar"? Do hummers need nectar
fortified with vitamins and minerals?
Hummingbird nectar is nothing more than table sugar and water. You
can make your own by adding 1/4 cup of sugar to a cup of boiling water. Hummers eat
insects for their protein. There is no evidence that these tiny birds need vitamin and
mineral supplements. There is also no evidence that adding red food coloring to nectar
will harm the birds, but it probably is not necessary to attract them. Just put your
feeder near red flowers. Please remember, sugar water will ferment when left in the hot
sun. Fermented nectar is deadly. Do not put out a feeder if you are not willing to clean
it at least weekly, preferably twice a week.
How can I avoid bees at my hummingbird feeder?
Bees are usually a problem only in hot weather. It's inevitable that
bees will visit your hummingbird feeder. Little plastic bee guards may help keep them from
getting nectar but it won't stop them from trying. Don't take the chance of contaminating
your nectar by putting vegetable oil around the feeding portals. The safest solution is to
add a few small feeders away from where people are likely to be bothered by bees.
How close to your window can you put a feeder?
Birds will come right to your window. Sometimes it takes a while for
them to overcome their initial reluctance, so be patient. Don't worry that a feeder on the
window will cause birds to fly into the window. Birds fly into the window because they see
the reflection of the woods. Window feeders and decals can help break up the reflection.
If you find a bird that has hit a window, carefully pick it up and
put it in a box or a large paper bag. Put it in a dark, quiet corner of your house for a
couple of hours. If the bird recovers, take the box or bag outside and just let it go. If
the bird comes to, but seems injured, call your local wildlife rehabilitation center for
I bought some cracked corn coated with a red dye. Is it safe to
The red or pink coating is capstan, a fungicide used on seeds meant
for planting. If you buy a bag of cracked corn or other seed treated with capstan, return
it to the store. It can kill horses, other mammals and wild birds.
I bought a bag of sunflower seeds early in the spring. Over the
summer I noticed first worms, then moths. What can I do to keep the bugs out?
It's natural for moths to lay their eggs in sunflower seeds. The
eggs lay dormant as long as the seeds