If you want to attract birds to your yard quickly, then bird feeders are the answer. You might even turn into a birdwatcher, if you aren’t already — birdwatching is second only to gardening as the most popular outdoor activity in the U.S.
A banquet of seeds and suet draws birds out of the protective cover of trees and shrubs, like nothing else. In summer, parents will bring their fledglings to the feeders, where you can watch them being fed. Hang a thistle feeder right outside your window and you’ll soon be watching finches just inches away. In winter, many different species will mix together at your feeders. When snow covers the ground, your feeders may make the difference between life and death for some birds.
Bird feeders aren’t all alike. Aside from the interesting and sometimes beautiful designs you will find on the market, each feeder is meant to dispense a certain category of food and will draw different species.
Do you want to feed finches? Then a thistle feeder is for you. To attract woodpeckers you’ll do well with a suet feeder. Ground-feeding birds, like mourning doves, sparrows and juncos will appreciate a screened platform feeder, which keeps seed dry and clean. A tubular feeder with large ports will accommodate larger birds. Hang a nectar feeder to see hummingbirds and orioles. Keep in mind, however, that you won’t attract species that don’t inhabit your area!
Hopper feeders have a holding chamber for seed which is dispensed at the base through openings. Birds can sit along the base while eating the seed. Often made of wood, hopper feeders are attractive, but no challenge to squirrels wanting what’s inside. To discourage squirrels, fill it with safflower or thistle, which squirrels don’t usually favor. Safflower seed is attractive to Cardinals, chickadees, some grosbeaks, doves and sparrows.
Hoppers are available in metal, which will prevent squirrels from gnawing them. Some are designed so the seed ports, normally open, will close when a squirrel steps onto the feeding platform. Black oil sunflower seeds are a good choice for metal feeders. They attract more species than any other type of seed because they’re high-fat, high-protein and have a soft shell.
Tube feeders can be mounted on a pole, with a baffle below, or hung up. They come in many sizes, have large ports for dispensing seeds, and perches for birds to sit on while they eat. Some come with a tray attached on the bottom to catch falling seed. The tray also allows Cardinals and other birds who are too large to sit on the perches to eat the seed, too. Use black-oil sunflower seeds to draw many different species. Birdseed mixes will work in these feeders, but the birds who appreciate mixes are mostly ground-feeding birds, so consider a ground feeder instead. Also, there tends to be more waste of seed as birds scatter it while searching for their favorite seeds within the mix.
Peanut feeders hold peanuts in, but the mesh is open enough for birds to pluck pieces out. This method isn’t completely foolproof, but it does help to keep squirrels from taking way more than their share before birds get some. Woodpeckers, bluebirds and finches are some of the birds who eat peanuts from wire feeders.
Thistle feeders have tiny openings for dispensing thistle, which are tiny seeds. Filling a standard tube feeder with thistle will result in it just pouring out. Thistle (also called Niger seed or Nyjer) isn’t really a thistle. It’s the seed of a plant native to Ethiopia and is heated to prevent germination, so you won’t have thistle plants growing under the feeder. Goldfinches and Pine Siskins love thistle. House Finches, Purple Finches, juncos, many sparrows and Mourning Doves are some other birds who eat thistle. Squirrels usually do not.
Platforms are appreciated by larger birds, such as Cardinals and jays. These feeders may be made of plastic or wood, with a simple frame and a center made of screening material to allow rainwater to drip through. (Seed sitting in water quickly becomes mildewy and unhealthy.) Platform feeders are designed to hang, but some adhere to window glass with suction cups.
Ground feeders are platform feeders with legs. They keep seed off the ground, clean and dry, for species who prefer to feed on the ground. Scatter white millet on it for juncos and sparrows. Cracked corn will appeal to doves, ducks and quail.
Suet feeders are wire cages shaped to hold suet cakes. Designed for hanging, they’re attractive to insect-eating birds because suet is a high-protein food. Processed suet can be purchased at any store that sells birdseed. Many suet cakes also contain nuts and berries. If you use unprocessed suet, it will become rancid quickly in warm weather, so you’ll want to replace it often. Woodpeckers, flickers and nuthatches are some of the birds who prize suet. Squirrels do, too, especially if it contains nuts and berries, but the wire cage keeps them out.
In nature, orioles take nectar from just about any nectar-bearing flower and they’ll also sip sugar water at nectar feeders, providing the holes are large enough. It happens, they also like fruit, so you can combine the two by offering them grape jelly in an open container. Slide a juicy slice of orange on the hanging wire and they’ll happily eat at that, too.
Hummingbird feeders are available in many attractive styles and sizes, all with one commonality: a receptacle that holds liquid and dispenses it through little ports. Orioles also appreciate nectar, but need feeders with larger ports. Birds see colors and red seems to be most attractive to them.
Once you have hummingbirds and orioles visiting your feeders, you’ll want to take good care of them. The “nectar” you’ll prepare is simply sugar water. Mix one part sugar to four parts water (1:4). Boiling the mixture kills bacteria, which may help keep it fresh longer, but hot tap water or even cold water will dissolve the sugar within a short time. An easy way to prepare nectar is to measure sugar and cold water into a soda bottle, screw on the lid, shake it up and leave it for a couple of hours. When the sugar is thoroughly dissolved the nectar is ready to be used. Store any leftover in the refrigerator for up to a week. Here are some important things to keep in mind when feeding nectar to birds.
- Don’t add red food-coloring to the water. It isn’t necessary and can be harmful to the birds.
- Be sure to change the nectar in the feeder every three to five days, or sooner if you see mold forming.
- Allowed to ferment, nectar can be deadly to hummingbirds.
- Never use artificial sweeteners, honey (which quickly grows mold) or fruit juices.
- Don’t apply insecticides or other agents around the feeding ports to deter insects;
use an ant moat, instead.
Tips for feeding birds
- Keep birdseed dry. If you store birdseed outdoors, use a metal can to keep rodents out. If you store large quantities, check it regularly to make sure it isn’t moldy. If in doubt, throw it away, as moldy seed will make birds sick.
- Inexpensive birdseed mixes, often found at discount stores, contain large quantities of filler seeds, such as milo, that most birds don’t like. Although it costs more, it’s better to buy premium seed mixes or quantities of individual seed types. Black oil sunflower seeds — shelled or unshelled — are liked by most birds. The next-best all-around seed is white millet. Buy shelled millet, if possible. It costs more, but you’ll dispense half as much and leftovers won’t germinate around the feeder.
- Put water out for birds, too. Even if just a shallow saucer of fresh water, it’ll be appreciated.
- Don’t feed any food containing chocolate to birds. It’s toxic to them.
No matter what type of feeder(s) you use, if squirrels live in your area they’ll compete for birdseed. Most people don’t mind feeding squirrels, if only they’d take a small share. Some put out squirrel feeders or scatter seed on the ground in a separate part of the yard, but this only works until the squirrels’ food is gone. You know where they’re off to after that!
So, try filling feeders with seed that doesn’t typically appeal to squirrels, such as thistle and safflower. Cardinals, chickadees, some grosbeaks, doves and sparrows like safflower. Goldfinches, Pine Siskins, Dark-eyed Juncos are among birds who like thistle.
Or, try this: Mount the feeder on a post at least five feet above the ground and 10 feet away from tree branches and any other perch from which squirrels can launch themselves. Also, mount a squirrel baffle on the post to keep them from climbing up.
Or, hang your feeder from the eave of your house using a very thin wire cut about two feet long. If you see squirrels are able to reach it by jumping from the ground or from a tree, hang it higher or move it. If they slide down the wire from the roof, use a thinner wire. Even picture-hanger wire may be too thick to discourage the squirrels, but they won’t want to grab .065 diameter or smaller.
Also, there are many “squirrel-proof” feeders on the market. Read online reviews before purchasing, as some have proven to be more effective than others.
*Top photo: Tim Green / Flickr; cc by 2.0