Ideas & Inspiration
How to Feed Birds
Picture this: you’re watching from your window when a cardinal stops to visit a feeder stocked with sunflower seeds. The next day, a woodpecker swoops in for a peanut. It’s fun and satisfying to feed wildlife. Use this guide to learn how to feed birds and enjoy them in your yard.
A platform feeder, sometimes called a tray feeder, invites birds to fly in and fill up. Also known as universal feeders, platform feeders let you offer the widest variety of feeds to your birds and wildlife. They're the most popular choice for photographers since the open design allows for optimum bird viewing. They also have ample space for large birds, such as jays and mourning doves.
Since tray feeders have an open design, they expose seed to the elements. Look for one with drainage holes or a fine mesh or wire screen at the bottom so rain can drain away. This will help keep the seeds fresh and prevent feeder rot. If your seeds do become wet and spoiled, dump them into the trash and replace them with fresh ones, so birds won’t eat them and become ill. Before refilling, scrub the feeder with a mild solution of unscented dish detergent and warm water or sanitize it with a solution of nine parts water to one part bleach. Rinse thoroughly and allow it to dry completely before refilling.
For even more protection from rain, ice and snow, choose a platform feeder with a top or add an optional, see-through dome. A dome can also discourage squirrels from raiding your seeds. To further raid-proof your feeder, use a squirrel baffle and hang the feeder away from trees, shrubs and other objects that squirrels can jump from. Also, watch for cats that might climb or jump onto the feeder.
To attract jays, mourning doves, cardinals, chickadees, goldfinches, grosbeaks, juncos, nuthatches and titmice to platform feeders, offer black oil sunflower seeds, mixed seeds, nut, hulled sunflower seeds, striped sunflower seeds, safflower seeds and cracked corn.
A hopper feeder has an enclosed seed chamber with a tray base. These covered feeders also allow for feeding a wide variety of birds while protecting feed from the elements. Even though seed is more protected in a hopper feeder, it’s still important to look for one with adequate drainage. A mesh base lets air circulate so seed stays fresher longer. Hopper feeders come with or without suet cages at the ends. A hopper feeder with suet cages is like two feeders in one.
To attract jays, cardinals, chickadees, goldfinches, grosbeaks, juncos, nuthatches, titmice, hairy and downy woodpeckers and wrens to hopper feeders, offer black oil sunflower seeds, mixed seeds, striped sunflower seeds, cracked corn, hulled sunflower seeds, safflower seeds and suet cakes.
Tube feeders are popular for attracting smaller birds like pine siskins, goldfinches and titmice. They usually come with multiple perches, so several birds can dine at once. Some tube feeders have seed baffles inside. These help hold seed at multiple levels within the tube, so seed stays available at all the feeding stations as the feeder empties.
The enclosed tube keeps seeds dry and fresh, as rain doesn’t usually get in through the small feed ports on the sides. A feeder with a removable base and ports allows for thorough cleaning. Keeping a feeder clean helps your birds stay healthy and prolongs the life of your feeder.
Tube feeders with larger seed openings can be used for a variety of seeds such as sunflower seeds and mixed seed blends. Tube feeders with very small openings are specifically designed for thistle, also called Nyjer. Thistle isn’t commonly eaten by a wide variety of birds, but can be great for attracting gold finches, house finches and pine siskins. Some tube feeders have two-in-one seed ports so an insert or attachment can be used to convert the ports between large openings for sunflower seeds to small openings for thistle.
To attract cardinals, chickadees, goldfinches, grosbeaks, juncos, nuthatches and titmice to tube feeders, offer black oil sunflower seeds, striped sunflower seeds, hulled sunflower seeds, safflower seeds and thistle (Nyjer).
Hummingbirds appear in most parts of the country in early April. They love to zip in and visit hummingbird feeders filled with a mixture of one part sugar to four parts water, the liquid nectar that they drink. Boil the water if you make your own nectar, then stir in the sugar and be sure the mixture cools completely before filling your feeders. Do not add red food coloring.
Hummingbird feeders come in many shapes, sizes, styles and colors. Look for a few key features, including a clear or transparent nectar reservoir, so you'll know when to change or refill the nectar. A feeder with built-in perches gives hummingbirds a place to rest while they drink and lets you get a better look at them.
Change the nectar frequently – or at least twice a week, depending on the temperature – and where the feeder is hung, depending on the number and frequency of hummingbirds that come to feed. The sugary nectar can mold or spoil if it's not changed often, which can harm these tiny birds. Choose a feeder that comes apart easily for thorough cleaning. Some are dishwasher safe, which makes sanitizing much easier.
If the birds don’t empty your feeder between cleanings, fill it with only the amount of nectar they will consume in a few days. Over time you’ll get a feel for how much to use. If the nectar turns milky, or white strings or black spots start to grow in it, change it more often.
Suet feeders are specially designed feeders that hold cakes of suet, a mixture of rendered fat, nuts, berries and seeds. Because it’s high in calories, suet is beneficial for birds in cold climates, a great food source for birds just leaving the nest and a wonderful source of energy for birds during migration. Woodpeckers, nuthatches, chickadees and titmice love suet and often hang upside down to reach it.
If you have a lot of woodpeckers, consider a feeder with a “tail prop,” a small piece of wood that extends underneath the feeder to help support birds with long tails. If you find that you’re attracting unwanted birds to your suet, an upside-down suet feeder design is a great natural deterrent since a majority of nuisance birds cannot feed comfortably hanging upside down.
Fruit feeders are feeding stations that let you offer slices of oranges and apples, grapes, cherries, raisins, berries and plums for birds like Baltimore orioles, blue jays, robins and some chickadees and grosbeaks. If you’re not certain which birds eat fruits, think about the birds you’ve seen eating fruits that drop naturally from trees and bushes. Those same birds will enjoy dining on the fresh, ripe fruits you supply.
Tray feeders and certain suet cages can double as fruit feeders. You can also attract some fruit-loving birds with specially made nectar and jelly feeders. Grape jelly is an easy-to-feed treat that is a favorite of orioles and even woodpeckers.
To attract Baltimore orioles, bluebirds and red-bellied woodpeckers, offer fruits and/or jelly in fruit feeders.
Feeders can hold many different kinds of seeds and/or suet cakes. Black oil sunflower seeds are a great choice for bird feeders. The shells are easy for most birds to crack, and the kernel inside is high in fat, which provides much-needed energy. Even birds that can’t open the seeds can feast on the pieces that fall to the ground, so you’ll attract a wide diversity of feathered friends.
Mixed seeds are a less expensive choice. Mixes can include safflower seeds, flax, milo, millet, cracked corn and some kinds of sunflower seeds, among others. Not all birds will eat all the seeds in a mix, so experiment to see what the visitors to your yard prefer.
Ready-made nectar is available if you don't choose to make your own.
Feeders should be hung or mounted at less than three feet or more than 15 feet from a window to help prevent fatal window collisions. When possible, place your feeder roughly 10 feet from a natural shelter such as trees or shrubs so birds can rest between feedings and find a quick refuge from predators. Be careful not to put feeders much closer than 10 feet from trees or shrubs as this can increase the likelihood that squirrels will steal your seeds.
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Keep your feeders full, so birds will return to your yard often. Provide a clean, fresh supply of drinking water in a bird bath, too. Check the water often during the winter to make sure it doesn't freeze. Then record a "life-list" of all the birds you see as a fun and rewarding hobby.