Among the fondest and most memorable moments of childhood are the discoveries of songbirds nesting in the backyard. The distinctive, mud-lined nests of robins and their beautiful blue eggs captivate people of all ages. Likewise, the nesting activities of house wrens, cardinals, chickadees, and other common birds can stimulate a lifelong interest in nature.
As you learn to enjoy the beauty of birdlife around your home, you may wish to improve the "habitat" in your yard so that more birds will visit your property. You can attract birds by placing bird feeding dispensers, and bird baths in your yard, and by planting a variety of trees, shrubs, and flowers. These can provide good nesting sites, winter shelter, places to hide from predators and natural food supplies that are available year-round.
When you want to attract a particular bird species and keep it coming back to your backyard, what you do will be determined by where you live, and the time of year. For example, on any winter day, you are likely to see a cardinal at a sunflower bird feeder in Virginia, a goldfinch at a thistle feeder in Massachusetts and hummingbirds at a nectar bird feeder in southern California.
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 and the time of year you're most likely to see them. So, first determine what birds are likely to occur in your area. (See our recommended books for field identification book suggestions.)
- Feeder Selection
Birds are attracted by various feeders and foods. Many birds prefer sunflower. Some prefer millet. A few prefer peanuts. Sparrows, blackbirds, doves and juncos will eat the other grains used in pre-made mixes: corn, milo, red millet, oats, wheat and canary seed. Birds will also kick out artificial "berry" pellets, processed seed flavored and colored to look like real fruit. Black oil sunflower is the hands-down favorite of all the birds that visit tube and house feeders. Birds who visit platform feeders (doves and sparrows) favor white proso millet. Ducks, geese and quail will eat corn. Many cereal grains (corn, milo, oats, canary, wheat, rape, flax and buckwheat) in mixed bird seeds are NOT favorites of birds that visit tube feeders.
The most effective way to attract the largest variety of birds to your yard is to put out separate feeders for each food. For example, use a starling-resistant suet feeder, a house feeder for sunflower, a bluebird feeder a wire mesh cage feeder for peanut, a nectar feeder, a tube feeder for thistle, a stationary or tray fruit feeder and a house or platform feeder for millet.
There are several factors to consider after you've decided to take up bird feeding in your backyard. Where do you want to watch your birds? From a kitchen window. . .a sliding glass door opening onto a deck. . .a second-story window? Pick a location that is easy to get to. When the weather is bad and birds are most vulnerable, you may be reluctant to fill a feeder that is not in a convenient spot near a door or an accessible window. Also, pick a site where discarded seed shells and bird droppings won't be a cleanup problem.
Put your feeder where the squirrels can't reach. Squirrels become a problem when they take over a bird feeder, scaring the birds away and tossing seed all over. Squirrels have been known to chew right through plastic and wooden feeders. If you've seen squirrels in your neighborhood, it is safe to assume they will visit your bird feeding object. Think long and hard before you hang anything from a tree limb. Squirrels are incredibly agile, and any feeder hanging from a tree 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 the squirrels. 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 (squirrels can jump great distances).
Bird feeders are made from a variety of materials. 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 well you maintain it, the effects of weather, and whether squirrels can get to it. Water can get into any feeder regardless of how carefully you protect it. Cloth, vinyl, nylon and metal netting feeders are inexpensive, but they do not protect your seed from spoiling in damp or wet weather. Improve them by adding a plastic dome.
Most wood, plastic, ceramic and solid metal feeders keep seed dry, but water can get into the bird 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 that can mix with rainwater and be unhealthy for any animal. Look for shallow plate-like seed trays to catch dropped seeds while allowing spent seed shells to blow away. When you feed birds, expect bird droppings and a leftover food mess. While you do not have to wash the feeder daily, you should clean it at least every few weeks. Diseases like salmonella can grow in moldy, wet seed and bird droppings in your feeder tray and on the ground below. Move your feeder a few feet each season to give the ground underneath time to assimilate the seed debris and bird droppings.
The maintenance required to keep your bird feeding dispenser clean varies according to the type of feeder. 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, but preferably two or three times a week. Sunflower and suet feeders need to be cleaned only once a month. Plastic, ceramic and glass feeders are easy to clean. Wash them in a bucket of hot, soapy water fortified with a capful or two of chlorine bleach. Use the same regimen with wood feeders, but substitute another disinfectant for the bleach so your wood won't fade.
- Food Capacity
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 twice 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 even lethal, because artificial nectar (sugar water) can ferment in the hot summer sun. A two-ounce feeder is more than enough for one hummer. Increase the size of your feeder depending on your location and how many hummers you see in your yard. If you opt for a large-volume seed feeder, 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.
There are many excellent places where you can buy bird feeders online. One particularly good source is A Birds World:
Bird Feeding FAQ's
- When is the best time to start?
Usually, whenever the weather is severe, birds will appreciate a reliable supplemental food source. In northern areas, start before the onset of cold weather so birds have time to find the feeder.
- When's the best time to stop?
Although you can be feeding birds year -round, especially with fruit and nectar, you can stop feeding seeds once a reliable supply of insects is available in the spring.
- 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?
It may take more time for birds to find window feeders than hanging or pole-mounted feeders. You may want to 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 spoiled seeds or a contaminated feeder. Throw the seeds away and wash the feeder. Look at where your feeder is placed. Be sure it's not vulnerable to predators. At the same time, make sure it is not in an open area, away from the cover in which birds usually travel.
- Will birds' feet stick to metal feeders and perches in the wet winter weather?
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.
- Do wild birds need grit?
Birds have no teeth to grind their food. The dirt, sand, pebbles and grit they eat sit in their crop and help grind up their food. Adding grit to your feeder is helpful for feeding birds, particularly in the winter and spring. Crushed eggshells do the same thing, and in the spring have an added benefit: they provide birds with extra calcium for producing eggs of their own.
- Can birds choke on peanut butter?
There is 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 or grit. Your birds will appreciate drinking water too, from a bird bath or trough.
- 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.
- What is hummingbird nectar? Do hummers need nectar fortified with vitamins and minerals?
You can make your own hummingbird nectar by adding 1/4cup of sugar to a cup of boiling water. Remember, sugar water will ferment when left in the hot sun, turning nectar deadly. Do not put out a nectar feeder if you are not willing to clean it at least weekly, preferably twice a week. 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 or buy a red hummingbird feeder.
- How can I avoid bees at my hummingbird feeder?
Bees will inevitably visit your hummingbird feeding dispenser, especially in hot weather. 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. One solution is to add a few small feeders away from where people are likely to be bothered by bees.
- How close to my window can I 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 help break up the reflection.
- Is cracked corn coated with a red dye safe to use?
No. 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 first noticed worms, then moths. What can I do to keep the bugs out?
Moths lay their eggs in sunflower seeds and other bird feed. The eggs lay dormant as long as the seeds are stored in a cool dry place. In the summer, seeds get hot and the eggs hatch. The best way to avoid this problem is to buy seeds in smaller quantities, or store your seeds in a cool, dry place. It also helps to know where your retailer stores the seed. An air-conditioned storage unit is the better choice. Insects also lay their eggs in burlap bags. Don't buy seeds in burlap bags. Don't buy seed in paper and plastic bags with patched holes. That may be a sign of insect or rodent infestation.
(Click to purchase or find out more)
- A Complete Guide to Bird Feeding. John V Dennis. Alfred A. Knopf, 1994
- American Wildlife and Plants: A Guide to Wildlife Food Habits. A.C. Martin, H.S. Zim and A.L. Nelson. Dover Publications, 1985.
- Attracting Birds to Your Backyard: 536 Ways to Turn Your Yard and Garden into a Haven for Your Favorite Birds. Sally Roth. Rodale Press, 1998.
- Birder's Handbook. A Field Guide to the Natural History of North American Birds. Paul Ehrlich, David Dobkin and Darryl Wheye. Simon and Schuster, 1988.
- Backyard Bird Watching for Kids : How to Attract, Feed, and Provide Homes for Birds . George H. Harrison, Kit Harrison. Willow Creek Press, 1997.
- National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America. Jon L. Dunn. National Geographic Society, 1999.
- Songbirds in Your Garden. John K Terres. Harper and Row, 1994.