Essential Bird Feeding Tips

My wife and I love watching birds, enjoying their colors, behavior, and songs, and we are always looking for ways to attract more of them to our yard.

We live in Central Florida on the east coast, and by late August, we get a little excited setting up the bird feeders with millet expecting our first painted bunting and goldfinch. Throughout the year, we enjoy the cardinals, blue jays, red-bellied woodpeckers, and of course, the ever-present starlings and house sparrows, but I want to be the one that calls the first bunting while looking out the window as I wash dishes in the kitchen sink.

This post will share a few essential backyard bird feeding tips we have learned over the years from our own experience and from friends and neighbors who also share our passion for feeding birds.

bird-feeding-tips
Patrick Ashley/Flickr/CC by 2.0

There are three basic elements you can give the birds to attract and keep them coming back.

  • Freshwater to drink and to bathe.
  • Plenty of vegetative covers for them to nest and hide.
  • A variety of quality food to eat.

Patience and Consistency are Very Important

After installing a bird feeder, it may take days or even weeks for birds to discover your feeding station. If a bird feeder is installed during the summer and spring when food is readily available to the birds, they may take longer to start using your feeder. During the cold months of the year, birds need to consume more food to thermoregulate their bodies and are hungry more often. Therefore, they are more likely to find your feeder sooner.

It appears that in areas where people regularly feed birds, they will find and readily use new feeders in a shorter period of time. Once birds discover and use your feeder, it is crucial to keep the feeder with food. Birds are highly territorial and rely on sources of food within their territories. They perform daily feeding runs and count on your feeder as a source of food. If the feeder is empty, birds won’t regard it as a reliable source of food and may not include your yard in their run.

What is the Best Time for Backyard Bird Feeding?

When insects, seeds, and berries are scarce during the winter and depending on the region you live in. Snow cover can make access to food difficult. For birds overwintering in regions where cold weather is prevalent, feeders may be lifelines during freezing spells. For migratory birds, bird feeders help them put on the necessary fat and weight needed for a successful trip to the wintering grounds in the Tropics.

Food is readily available during late spring and through the summer, though birds will still visit your feeders.

Fresh Water to Drink and Bathe

When it comes to water, birds get most of what they need from natural sources and rainwater. However, when they find a convenient water source, like a birdbath or a water feature in your yard, they will prefer this to travel to a distant natural source that might be some distance away. It is always better to have food and drinks in one place!

During periods of dry weather or in arid regions, a water source will attract a large number and variety of birds.

Water must be consistently available in your yard so that birds rely on it and return when they get thirsty or need a bath. Water will need to be re-filled or replaced altogether, depending on how often it is used. If several birds drink and bathe in one water source, it will get messy sooner. Over time you will be able to tell how often water will need to be refilled or replaced.

bird bathEvangelio Gonzalez/Flickr/CC by 2.0

Vegetative Cover

All Birds need cover to nest, hide from predators, and protect themselves from the weather. Even if your yard is small, a mixture of trees, shrubs, and hedgerows can give them hiding places in the summer and storm protection in the winter. While having vegetative cover helps, feeders in yards with little to no cover will still attract some more common birds.

Some birds are rather shy and will no approach a feeder if there is not enough cover nearby, while others don’t need much at all. A good example is our buntings that only use the feeders with plenty of vegetative cover around them. Neighbors that have little to no vegetative cover go without a single bunting visiting their feeder.

Food and Feeders

Nothing works better to attract birds than the right food and feeders. It is especially true in areas where harsh winters and prolonged snow cover make natural food sources difficult to access during winter. Plus, birds burn more calories to stay warm during the low winter temperatures and need a consistent and copious diet. For instance, studies have shown that chickadees eat twice as much in the winter as they do in the summer. This difference comes from the need to thermoregulate their body temperature, which will help them survive the freezing temperatures.

Types of Bird Food

Birds eat a wide variety of seeds and food mixtures. Depending on the season and availability, many stores carry several types of birdseed. Most of the packages are labeled to indicate the type or combination of seed in the package and the variety of birds these seeds or mixes attract.

It’s best to buy quality food for the health and well-being of your feathered friends. Whether it is only one type of seed or seed mixtures that contain seed plus other nutritious ingredients, it is important to buy the correct type of feed for the birds in your area.

Seed mixtures are popular because different blends attract a wide variety of birds. However, be sure to choose blends that don’t have many fillers that the birds won’t eat and will toss out of the feeder, creating an accumulation of food and seed shells below the feeder. Low-quality food that the birds often discard include milo or sorghum, oats, and wheat. However, some birds, such as doves, starlings, and house sparrows, eat this food.

Black-oil Sunflower

bird food black-oil-sunflower

If you are new to backyard bird feeding, black-oil sunflower is the seed type to start with. In its natural form, black-oil sunflower seed has a hull that birds can crack open to eat the content. However, the hulls and shells fall on the ground, and this can create an unsightly mess. Hulled black-oil sunflower seed is sold in most stores. Black-oil sunflower attracts cardinals, blue-jays, grosbeaks, chickadees, nuthatches, finches, and titmice.

Nyjer

nyjer seed bird food

Nyjer or thistle seed is loved by every bird that might visit your feeder, particularly those with small beaks such as goldfinches and siskins. Nyjer has a hull the birds open and discard. Nyjer seed is grown and consumed by people in many parts of Africa, India, and Asia but is known as popular birdseed in other parts of the world.

Nyjer must be sterilized before importation, which adds to the cost of importing this seed from overseas. Nyjer is one of the most expensive bird seeds.

Millet

millet birdseed

Millet is a common ingredient in most birdseed mixes. It comes in several varieties such as golden, red, and striped, all of which are similarly starchy in content. Millet is relatively easy to produce and reasonably inexpensive. Millet can last for some time as the grains are tiny in comparison to the larger-sized black-oiled sunflower. Our buntings in Florida love millet, and we give it to them in feeders containing this seed only.

Seed Mixes

mixed seed bird food

Seed mixes are a popular choice by birders beginning to feed birds because they attract a wide variety of species. The various types of seeds and other food may result in a messy accumulation of discarded food under the feeder as birds pick their favorite items and toss away what they do not want. The tossed seed is consumed by ground-feeding birds, such as sparrows, doves, juncos, and squirrels. “No-mess” seed mixes that have little filler and pre-shelled seeds result in less of a mess below your feeder.

Suet

suet_bird food

Suet is an animal fat-based food often mixed with seeds and mealworms that can be safely fed to birds. Suet is favored by insect-eating birds such as woodpeckers, wrens, kinglets, nuthatches, and occasionally some warblers.

Suet can get soft during warm weather and can coat the feathers causing problems for some birds. Suet is recommended to be offered in the wintertime when food is scarce, and it may be a lifeline for many birds.

Nectar

nectar for birds

Natural Nectar is an energy-rich liquid produced by some flowers to attract pollinators. Hummingbirds are the most notable nectar-loving birds, but orioles also enjoy it. Artificial nectar can be purchased in powder, concentrate, and ready-to-drink forms. Nectar can also be easily made at home using a simple recipe that mimics the sugar concentration in natural nectar. If you prefer commercially produced nectar, avoid varieties that include dyes, flavoring, or preservatives that might be dangerous to birds.

Other Types of Food

feeding birds cracked-corn

Other types of food that can safely be fed to some birds include fruit, cracked corn, peanuts, and peanut butter. These can be offered to birds alone or as blends of two or more types together. From experience, foods such as milo or sorghum, oats, wheat, and other less popular grains are discarded by buntings, goldfinches, cardinals, blue jays, and siskins, but doves, starlings, and house sparrows don’t mind eating them. It all depends on what you enjoy watching.

How About the Type of Bird Feeder to Use?

Birds are more comfortable using a particular type of feeder over others. Some birds feed on the ground; others feed in shrubs, others in trees. Some usually perch on horizontal branches, while others have no problem clinging on vertical perches or even eating upside down.

Birds that feed on the ground are reluctant to use feeders placed above the ground, while those that feed on trees and bushes are reluctant to use feeders on or near the ground. Ideally, one or multiple feeders with several types of food or a mixture of seeds will be placed at levels that will attract a wide variety of birds.

Platform or Tray Feeder

bird feeder

Platform feeders are the most simple and most effective to feed a wide variety of birds. When filled with a diverse type of food, platform feeders attract birds from buntings and woodpeckers to cardinals, blue jays, and doves. Elevated platform feeders are safer and have the advantage that seed doesn’t spoil as quickly as seed placed directly on the ground.

Tube Feeder

tube bird feeder

A tube feeder is the best choice if you will have just one type of feeder in your yard. Fill it with a blend of seeds, and you’ll attract many birds. Some tube feeders are made specifically for nyjer seed or small-sized bird seeds, which is the favorite food of small-beaked birds, such as goldfinches and siskins.

Suet Feeder

suet bird feeder

There are several types of suet holders. Cage holders are the most popular and are typically made of coated wire. Suet Logs consist of a log with pre-drilled holes, which are used for inserting suet plugs. Mesh Bags can be hung and filled with suet for small clinging birds. Open Trays are good for placing pieces of suet for many birds to sample. This is also a great way to get birds to try suet if they aren’t used.

House or Hopper Feeder

hopper bird feeder

House or hopper feeders can keep several pounds of mixed seed ready for hungry birds. Many different species readily use these types of feeders. If your feeder is newly installed and birds have not found it yet, be sure to fill only a third of the feeder, so the seed doesn’t go bad. Once birds find your feeder and the demand for food increases, you can fill up the feeder accordingly.

Window Feeder

window bird feeder

Window feeders are a great way to view the birds in your backyard up close. They can be easier to handle than other types of feeders. This type of feeder is used in apartment buildings and also on windows at homes and offices. There are two types of window feeders: those attached to the glass via suction cups or velcro and those placed inside a windowsill. Some windowsill feeders protrude into the house through an open window, while others are secured outside a closed window.

Where to Mount my Bird Feeder?

You can hang a bird feeder from an existing structure such as a porch or a deck, a wire across part of your yard, or use another creative way. The most popular way to mount a feeder is using a shepherd hook feeder pole, which comes in a variety of hook shapes and several hooks. You can also make your own feeder pole and attach one or multiple shepherd hooks for multiple feeders.

bird feeder-poles

Mount the feeders in an open area at least 10 feet away from trees and shrubs. This will give the birds a chance to flee from predators that might be hiding in the bushes.

Hang the feeder at least 5 feet from the ground to help prevent squirrels from reaching the feeder. Think about how to use baffles or other obstacles to prevent squirrels and mice from reaching the feeder and devouring your birdseed.

Suet feeders can be placed on tree trunks for birds that normally feed there. Platform feeders can be mounted several inches from the ground or higher up. You can also put seed directly on the ground for doves, sparrows, and juncos.

If you plan to set up a bird feeder near a window, be sure to do so within two to three feet of the window. Birds can get confused by the reflection on the glass and try to fly through it thinking it is an open space. But with the feeder so close to the window, they can’t really get enough speed to hurt themselves as they fly off.

What Size and how Many Bird feeders?

This will depend on the number of birds visiting your yard and your willingness to feed them frequently. Large feeders in multiple sites will provide food for all birds. Several feeders help prevent bully birds from taking over a feeder and keep other birds from feeding.

Bully birds can be an individual of a particular species that chase other birds away not allowing them to use a feeder. Folks often regard starlings and house sparrows as bully birds largely because they come in flocks and are aggressive among themselves and other birds.

Some bird enthusiasts increase the number of feeders during the wintertime when food is more difficult to obtain in the environment. Others keep a single feeder throughout the year.

hummingbird-feeder-optimized

Feeding Hummingbirds

People love to feed hummingbirds and helping them with their survival. This is particularly important before and during migration when hummingbirds need a lot of nectar to double their body mass.

The ports that supply nectar to hummingbirds are similar across feeders, but the nectar bottle varies in size and shape.

The typical hummingbird feeder comprises a glass bottle that threads into a plastic basin that holds the plastic flowers or ports that supply the nectar to hummingbirds. Another type of feeder comprises a broad and shallow plastic container where the lid containing the feeding ports, threats into the shallow plastic container. Both types are easy to clean, which is very important when feeding hummingbirds.

To install a hummingbird feeder, find a place in the shade to hang it to prevent the nectar from spoiling quickly. Many people like to enjoy hummingbirds from inside their house and hang feeders in shaded porches or attached to the glass. Hummingbirds are quick to adapt to people’s presence.

baffle for squirrel

Dealing with squirrels

Squirrels and sometimes mice can be a problem and will eat the feeder’s content in a short period of time if left unchecked. We don’t really mind them when they eat the food on the ground tossed by other birds. The problem is that squirrels get to the feeder and park there for a long time, eating the bird food.

Practical ways to keep squirrels from getting to the feeder include:

  • Adding a squirrel baffle. If your bird feeder sits on a pole, install a squirrel baffle consisting of a plastic dome with the hollow part facing down. Squirrels can’t climb this and get to the feeder. Make sure the feeder is at least five feet from the ground and 10 feet from a tree, branch, or other structure that squirrels can use to jump past the baffle.
  • Hang the feeder from a wire between two trees but far enough away from any branches.
  • Use a 4×4 feeder pole, slip a large PVC pipe over it, or wrap a metal sheet. Squirrels can’t climb these obstacles.

Other bird enthusiasts slip slinkys on the feeder pole, use hot sauce on the seeds, or apply vaseline on the pole. These methods work for some, but often squirrels find a way to get around these obstacles and outsmart them can be almost as entertaining as watching the birds themselves.

Dealing with Cats

Studies have shown that even a well-fed cat can kill many birds. It is crucial to keep your cat indoors as the “only” solution to prevent birds from being killed by cats.

Solutions given on the internet to prevent cats from killing birds at your feeders make little sense. These solutions include:

  • Placing your feeders in the middle of your yard to give birds a chance to avoid cats.
  • Planting a cactus belt around your feeder.
  • Fit the cat with a collar with bells.
  • Creating a fence around the feeder. Proponents suggest making a belt of cut plastic jugs at the upper third filled with water to prevent cats from approaching the feeder.

These solutions may work to some extent to prevent cats from catching birds at the feeder. But when you attract birds to your yard, they normally hang out in trees, bushes, and on the ground when they are not eating at the feeder. Cats are a “sit-and-wait” predator that can remain motionless for long periods of time and surprise birds spending time in your backyard. Attracting birds to your yard will increase the probability of fatal encounters between birds and cats.

If you are going to implement a backyard bird feeding plan, it is crucial to keep your cat indoors or let it out under your supervision for a period of time.

Storing Bird Food

How you manage and store your birdseed will largely depend on the scale at which you feed birds. If you maintain a single feeder, the more practical way to organize and store your birdseed is by keeping it indoors and taking it out only to refill the feeder. We keep only one feeder during the summer and keep the birdseed in the bag it came in until finished. Other folks use a plastic container with a lid and a scoop to fill the feeder. The plastic container is kept indoors to prevent squirrels, raccoons, and mice from feasting.

If you maintain several feeders and feed many birds, buying birdseed by the bulk and storing it is a good idea. It is important to consider where and how to store your birdseed as you will be refilling the feeders often. You would want to keep the bird’s seed close to the feeders.

This usually means keeping the bird food in a shed outside in steel trash cans with a lid or 5-gallon buckets. Depending on the amount of birdseed you manage, you could have multiple buckets for each type of food or store the birdseed in bags within the larger steel can with a lid. The steel trash cans and the hard plastic buckets will keep squirrels, mice, and raccoons from raiding your birdseed. A scoop that you can use to fill different types of feeders is essential.

Storing Nectar

If you are new to hummingbird feeding and your feeders have not been discovered by hummingbirds, making a small amount would be ideal. Depending on the region you live in, hummingbirds can find your feeder the same morning you set it up or may take days, and only a few hummingbirds will visit.

Knowing how much your hummers consume regularly will determine how much nectar you prepare. Making enough nectar for a week and refrigerating it until it is finished is not a problem. Some bird enthusiasts report storing refrigerated nectar for up to three weeks without noticing any cloudiness or smell. More importantly, they say that their hummers did not see the difference. Nectar is so easy to make that making small amounts every time it is needed makes more sense.

Cleaning Bird Feeders

Many birds interacting around a feeder is sure to get body fluids and droppings on the feeder that can transmit diseases. It is recommended to clean your seed feeders every two weeks during heavy use.

Hand-wash the feeder with a brush using a dilute bleach solution of 1-part bleach to 9 parts water. Dry the feeder well before refilling.

Hummingbird feeders need to be cleaned once a week. Soak the feeder in hot water and use a bottle brush to clean inside and outside the feeder. You can also fill up the bottle with a dilute bleach solution forcing the solution through the nectar ports.

Alternatively, you can soak the entire open feeder in the dilute bleach solution. Be sure to air dry the feeder before refilling. Soap and detergent are not recommended.

Final Remarks

Backyard bird feeding has benefits for you and the birds. It will make your yard a delightful place for you and a more nurturing place for birds. Observing the birds that visit your feeder will make for an excellent excuse to sit outside and commune with nature.

  • References:

    Reynolds, S. James; Galbraith, Josie A; Smith, Jennifer A; Jones, Darryl N (2017). “Garden Bird Feeding: Insights and Prospects from a North-South Comparison of This Global Urban Phenomenon.” Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution.
  • Orros, Melanie E.; Fellowes, Mark D.E. (2012). “Supplementary feeding of wild birds indirectly affects the local abundance of arthropod prey.” Basic and Applied Ecology. 13 (3): 286–293.
  • Feeding Birds | All About Birds

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2 thoughts on “Essential Bird Feeding Tips”

  1. Thank you for stating that you should hang your bird feeder from a wire between two trees, but far enough away from any branches. My daughter absolutely loves birds and wants to get a bird feeder to put in our yard, so she can watch them. I will definitely keep all of your great tips and information in mind when trying to feed birds.

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