Getting Started with Bird Feeders

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A great way to see more birds throughout the year is to install one or several bird feeders. Besides allowing you to observe a higher diversity and abundance of birds in close range, bird feeders provide nourishment for birds, which can be especially important in the winter when food supplies are limited. Anyone can build or buy a bird feeder, but there are situations where they should be avoided. For example, if bears are endemic in your local area, bird feeders should not be used outside of bears’ hibernation period. Different bird feeders and food types attract different types of birds. Below we’re going to cover a variety of bird feeders, food types, and some important feeder maintenance tips.

There are six basic types of bird feeders (i)

Ground: Yes, you really can throw seeds on the ground and birds will come. Sparrows, doves, and towhees actually prefer eating on large flat surfaces. Some of these species won’t eat from any elevated feeder.
Platform feeders: Seed can be spread on the raised flat surface of these feeders. There’s typically a roof over the platform to keep seed dry and there should be water drainage holes in the platform’s base. Platform feeders attract the widest variety of feeder birds.
Hopper (House) feeders: Coming in large and small sizes, hopper feeders are similar to most platform feeders because they have a roof. However, hopper feeders also have walls which better protects seed from the elements. The more complex design makes hopper feeders more challenging to clean than platform feeders. A wide variety of feeder birds visit these feeders. Smaller hopper feeders can be used to exclude larger birds (e.g. grackles, jays) that can dominate large hoppers.
Tube Feeder: Typically cylindrical with small feeding holes and perches, tube feeders come in various sizes. These feeders keep seed rather dry and exclude larger birds if equipped with short perches. If nyjer seed is being used, a special feeder with smaller feeding ports is necessary to prevent spillage of seed.
Suet feeder: Suet (beef kidney fat) can be put in a suet cage or onion bag. Cages that are only open on the bottom exclude starlings while still attracting native birds like nuthatches and woodpeckers, all capable of inverted foraging.
Nectar Feeder: Nectar feeders are primarily used to attract hummingbirds by dispensing sugar water through tiny ports. All components of nectar feeders need to be thoroughly washed on a regular basis.

P1030084Sheltered platform feeder

Additional information on bird feeders can be found on the Project FeederWatch website and in the How to Choose the Right Kind of Bird Feeder article.

Different bird feeds attract a variety of birds (i)

Black-oil sunflower seeds: Thin shells and high in energy, these seeds attract a wide variety of birds, especially cardinals, chickadees, finches, and sparrows. Hulled sunflower seeds are preferred by many birds and can decrease the accumulation of shell debris under feeders. However, since the shell is absent, the seeds spoil more rapidly.
Cracked corn: An inexpensive grain, cracked corn is favored by doves, quail, and sparrows. Mixing with millet can make cracked corn even more appealing.
Fruit: Fresh fruit or dried fruit attracts mockingbirds, catbirds, bluebirds, robins, and waxwings. Halved oranges are a favorite of orioles.
Mealworms: Can be used alive or dried, mealworms are high in protein and therefore highly desirable by many species. This includes chickadees, titmice, wrens, nuthatches, and bluebirds. Mealworms are best offered on flat platform feeders.
Millet: Preferred by many small ground foraging birds like juncos and sparrows, this round grain is found in many seed mixes.
Nyjer: A very small and thin seed imported from Africa, Nyjer requires specialized feeders with small feeding ports that prevent spillage of seed. Nyjer is very popular because it attracts American Goldfinch, Pine Siskin, and Common Redpoll.
Oats: An untraditional bird feed, oats will be readily enjoyed by doves and quail.
Peanuts and Peanut Hearts: Make sure peanuts with salt or any coatings/flavorings are avoided. Unshelled peanuts will attract larger birds while shelled peanuts will additionally attract a variety of small birds like chickadees, nuthatches, and titmice.
Suet: Suet, or beef kidney fat, attracts insect-eating birds and can be used in an onion bag or cage as mentioned previously in the feeder section of this article. Keep in mind that hot weather can spoil suet if it has not been specially processed.
Sugar water: Sugar water attracts hummingbirds (one part sugar to four parts boiling water) and a more diluted solution will attract orioles. Do not add red food coloring as this can be harmful to birds. Any red coloration on the feeder itself is just as effective at attracting hummingbirds.

Additional information on bird feed can be found on the Project FeederWatch website.

Bird feeder tips and resources

Bird feeder hygiene is very important. Bird feeders and the seed they contain can easily grow mold which can contain toxins that are harmful to birds. Bird droppings that accumulate on feeders can also harbor harmful disease-causing microbes. Make sure feeders are cleaned and old seed discarded at least every two weeks (i). Hummingbird feeders should be cleaned every time they are refilled (every 2-5 days) because sugar water readily grows microbes (i). As the temperature and rainfall increase, so should the frequency of feeder cleanings.

I cannot let you run off to your local hardware store in search of your perfect bird feeder without mentioning a wonderful interactive tool at your disposal. This Project FeederWatch interactive tool shows you the feeder designs and food that is preferred by your favorite birds (ii)! This allows bird feeder customization to increase the chances of seeing birds you want to see.

I’ve included multiple links in this blog to the Project FeederWatch website which I highly recommend. This website contains a plethora of information on bird feeders. There are suggestions for feeder placement, how to keep unwanted mammals (e.g. squirrels) out of your feeder, and other tips on keeping birds safe. At this point, hopefully all you bird lovers are further along in your journey to buy or build a bird feeder for your home.

Steven Warchocki, FKWBC Intern, 2016

(i) Project FeederWatch: Feeding Birds
(ii) Project FeederWatch: Food and Feeder Preferences of Common Feeder Birds

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