Bird Feeding Basics
Birds require only three things to encourage them to return to your location: fresh water to drink and to bathe, plenty of cover to nest and to hide and a variety of quality food to eat.
- Any feeder you buy should be easy to fill, empty and clean.
- Plastic feeders should be reinforced with metal around the feeding ports to discourage squirrels.
- Perches should be metal or a replaceable dowel.
- Wooden parts of feeders should be made of weather-resistant cedar or stained/painted to protect against moisture.
- Add a convenient water source, like a birdbath or a water feature, to your landscape to attract a larger number and variety of birds.
- Nest boxes or bird houses will encourage birds to stay and raise their families near your home. In addition, birds require protection from their natural enemies, so feeding areas should be out of the reach of cats and other predators.
Selecting Bird Feeders
Choose the kind of feeder that'll accommodate the specific types of birds you want to attract or the birds native to your area. You can attract more species and avoid feeder congestion if you choose more than one feeder.
Ground or Platform Feeders
These screen-bottomed trays sit close to the ground. They prevent the seeds and bird droppings from touching one another. You can also purchase ground feeders that have wire mesh to prevent rodents and large birds from stealing food. In order to prevent predators from getting the birds, ground feeders should be placed in open areas that are at least 10 feet from shrubs or trees. If you or your neighbors have cats that are outside, don't use this type of feeder.
Birds That Love Them: cardinals, doves, goldfinches, juncos, sparrows and towhees
Hopper feeders can hold several pounds of mixed seed that's dry and ready for hungry birds. They just hop on the feeder trigger to release the seeds. Hang hopper feeders from a tree branch, or use a pole about 5 feet off the ground.
Birds That Love Them: cardinals, chickadees, goldfinches, grackles, jays, nuthatches, purple and house finches, redwinged blackbirds, siskins and titmice
The best hummingbird feeder is one that's easy to clean and fill as it’s important to change the nectar regularly for the health of hummingbirds. Mount hummingbird feeders in the shade to help prevent the food from spoiling and within 3 feet of a window for best viewing. The birds will quickly get comfortable enough to feed and be watched up close. Keeping a feeder near your house also reduces injuries to birds caused by flying into the reflective window since they can't build up enough speed to hurt themselves. For more tips, see Hummingbird Feeders and Attracting Hummingbirds.
These feeders are specially designed to distribute nyjer (thistle) seed. They have tiny holes that make the seed available only to small-beaked birds. Place it on a 5-foot pole, or hang it from a tree. To protect your feeder from squirrels, use a baffle.
Birds That Love Them: goldfinches, pine siskins and redpolls
You can purchase a special feeder, or you can hang suet chunks in a mesh onion bag. Feeders can be hung from poles near other feeders or from trees. Some people make their own suet puddings by taking a large pine cone and stuffing a mixture of ground suet and seeds in the crevices.
Birds That Love Them: chickadees, nuthatches, titmice and woodpeckers really like it; creepers, warblers and wrens occasionally peck at it
If you’re having issues with squirrels eating all the bird food, consider a squirrel feeder. Stock them with blends that are especially attractive to squirrels and chipmunks. It can reduce competition for high-priced foods offered at bird feeders. Locate squirrel feeders far from bird feeders to further reduce temptation.
Sunflower and Seed-Tube Feeders
If you’re only going to hang one bird feeder, this is the one to purchase. Position it near a window so you can enjoy your guests. The feeder should be at least 5 feet off the ground. Reduce the risk of a bird colliding into the window by placing the feeder less than 3 feet from a window or more than 30 feet away. Select one that has metal ports around the seed dispensers to protect the feeder from unwanted visitors.
Birds That Love Them: chickadees, goldfinches, house finches, nuthatches, siskins, purple finches and titmice
To prevent squirrels from eating all the birds’ food, place your feeder on a pole in an open area. Pole-mounted feeders should be about 5 feet off the ground and protected by a cone-shaped baffle (at least 17 inches in diameter) or similar obstacle below the feeder. Locate pole-mounted feeders at least 10 feet from the nearest shrub, tree or other tall structure. If all of this doesn’t work, consider purchasing a squirrel feeder.
Make sure the selected feeder is maintained year-round, especially in harsh winter climates that make natural food sources hard to find. Birds typically burn more calories in winter to stay warm. For example, chickadees have to eat 20 times more in winter than in summer.
Squirrel-Proof Bird Feeders
Most homeowners struggle with keeping squirrels away from their bird feeders. Luckily, there are several types of squirrel-proof bird feeders designed to help, including ones that are outfitted with a metal cage with spaces big enough for only the birds to enter. These work well, however, they may keep some larger birds away from the food supply. Another popular model is the hopper-style bird feeder, which has a special spring-operated perch and feeding tray designed to stay open when birds perch on it but close under the weight of a squirrel.
Choosing a Bird Feeder Pole
If you want to mount your feeder in the yard so you can watch it from a window or porch, mount it on a pole. Some pole models can be forced straight down into the ground with your hands, but the best bird feeder poles have an auger at the end to secure the pole in the ground. To prevent squirrels from eating all the birds’ food, place the feeder on a pole in an open area. Pole-mounted feeders should be about 5 feet off the ground and protected by a cone-shaped baffle (at least 17 inches in diameter) or similar obstacle below the feeder. Locate pole-mounted feeders at least 10 feet from the nearest shrub, tree or other tall structure. If all of this doesn’t work, consider purchasing a squirrel feeder.
Selecting Bird Food
The benefits of bird feeding are two-fold. It provides a welcome supplement to a bird’s diet and offers hours of great bird watching for you. Bird food comes in several forms: nectar, seed and suet. What types of birds are you hoping to attract? This will affect the type of food you select. To attract more birds, find the best bird food for your feeder.
Ground-feeding birds like the medium-cracked corn but beware. The kernel tends to soak up moisture so it’s prone to rot. Use a watertight hopper feeder, or mix small amounts with millet on feeding tables. Small-beaked birds can’t consume coarse-cracked corn because it’s too large. Fine-cracked corn quickly turns to mush so it's best to avoid altogether.
Birds That Love It: crows, doves, jays, juncos, pheasants, quail, sparrows and towhees
Red millet is widely popular. But white millet is the food of choice for most small-beaked, ground-feeding birds.
Birds That Love It: cowbirds, doves, juncos, quail, red-winged blackbirds, sparrows and towhees
Milo, Wheat and Oats
Most birds don’t really like them. They’re often added into cheap bird seed blends. Birds discard them, which often attracts rodents.
Birds That Love It: doves, pheasants and quail
It’s often referred to as black gold because of its hefty price tag. It’s often confused with prickly thistle, a weed that goldfinches use to line their nests.
Birds That Love It: American goldfinches, house finches, lesser goldfinches and common redpolls
The best way to serve these up is in a tube-shaped metal mesh feeder. The peanuts can be crushed or whole.
Birds That Love It: brown creepers, brown thrashers, chickadees, jays, kinglets, northern mockingbirds, nuthatches, pine warblers, starlings, titmice, wrens, woodpeckers and yellow-rumped warblers
Squirrels, house sparrows and starlings don’t enjoy safflower as much as sunflower seed. But there are others that do.
Birds That Love It: cardinals, doves, grosbeaks and sparrows
Suet and Bird Puddings (Beef Fat and Seed)
Insect-eating birds particularly like this mixture. It helps to fatten them up for cold and harsh weather. You’ll need to get a special suet feeder that's at least 5 feet off the ground so that rodents can’t get to it.
Birds That Love It: chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, woodpeckers and wrens
Hulled sunflower seed is eaten by the largest variety of birds. Large-beaked birds prefer the striped ones. Small birds enjoy the black-oil seeds.
Birds That Love It: chickadees, evening grosbeaks, finches, grackles, goldfinches, jays, northern cardinals, nuthatches, pine grosbeaks, red-bellied woodpeckers and titmice
Store bird seed and mixes in a cool, dry location in a plastic container. Use a metal container in areas where mice or squirrels might be attracted to the food.
Change hummingbird nectar once a week to keep the food fresh.
Providing Water for Birds
Many bird lovers always remember to refill their bird feeders but overlook another key to survival: water. Dew, rainfall and wild food provide some moisture naturally, but another source is usually needed. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Place the birdbath near some shrubbery so the bird can make a getaway if needed.
- Most birds are frightened of deep water. Create different depths in your birdbath using rocks or stones. Small birds, like finches and sparrows, will hang out in the shallow end, while robins and jays will be a bit more adventurous on the deep end. A rim or perch should be provided near the water.
- Remember to clean your bath periodically. Use a scrub brush and fresh water and then refill.
- If you live in a cold climate, purchase an outdoor heater to prevent the water from freezing.
- Put your birdbath in a sunny locale. The warm sun will always feel good to wet birds, and this will also help keep ice off of the bath in the winter.