Beginner’s Guide to Feeding Backyard Birds: Simple Tips for New Bird Enthusiasts

Feeding backyard birds is a rewarding and simple way to bring nature to your home, especially during winter when birds need extra support. This beginner’s guide provides easy steps to attract and enjoy birds in your yard, from choosing the right seeds to setting up basic feeders with materials you already have. Whether you’re a beginner or looking to enhance your bird-feeding setup, you’ll find practical tips and advice to create a bird-friendly environment. Start your journey to a lifelong relationship with your birds right in your backyard.

Why do we bother feeding birds at all? 

To help them cope with elements.

The fact is that in the wintertime, when it’s freezing, some birds do die from starvation. Their small bodies just can not cope with the cold at night; they need lots and lots of food just to get them through the night. That’s why you often see them feeding like crazy at about four o’clock in the afternoon, just as it gets dark. They are trying to fill their bodies up with enough energy just to get them through that very cold nighttime period. So feeding birds in winter does help keep your garden birds alive.

To just enjoy seeing birds in our yards.

One of the best reasons to feed birds is that we simply enjoy seeing them in the garden. Looking at birds in the garden has a therapeutic effect on people, and it is an excellent opportunity to bring nature into their lives, particularly the little ones.

A simple board or any other flat surface can be used to offer food to backyard birds. Blue Jays like these in the photo go crazy about peanuts in the shell. Photo: Jo Zimny/Flickr/CC by 2.0

Starting to feed backyard birds requires a basic knowledge of bird food.

Learn about bird seeds at your own pace. Take notes, read articles, check prices, and so on.

There are seeds that birds like over others. Some are rather popular among all backyard birds, while others appeal to only a few. According to data obtained from bird enthusiasts across North America, the top five bird seeds are hulled sunflower seed, black oil sunflower seed, peanut hearts (cracked), cracked corn, and suet. 

While these are the most popular seed types among backyard birds, some species may have favorites during parts of the year, and others do not like some types at all. For instance, cracked peanut hearts are an excellent food for the winter months. Rich in proteins, peanuts are also full of fats, and the birds love them. 

Learning the basics about bird food includes knowing what can go wrong. Peanuts and other birdseed can contain toxins called aflatoxins caused by a fungus or mold that can grow on the peanuts and can hurt the birds.

Bird seeds are supposed to be tested for agents that can harm the birds.  So, be sure to buy your bird food from a reputable supplier. 

Related: The 14 Most Popular Foods for Backyard Birds (with Pictures and Facts)

Small seeds are more likely to spill over a flat tray. Lips on the perimeter or any railing, such as sticks secured around the perimeter, will prevent the birdseed from spilling over. Photo: Frank Boston/Flickr/CC by 2.0

Start offering food to your backyard birds.

You do not need to buy a bird feeder to attract birds to your yard. Try to make a simple bird feeder or use what you already have around your house. 

Make a simple platform feeder with a square or rectangular piece of plywood lying around your shed and put some birdseed on it.

To prevent the food from spilling, you can attach a shallow lip to the platform’s perimeter. Ensure that the lips do not meet at the corners, leaving an open space to let rainwater drain out the feeder.

A used baking tray works fine as a bird feeder. Put only some food on the tray for the first few days until the birds find the tray. Then resupply it as needed.

Use any type of shallow tray as a feeder.

Shallow trays of various types can be used as feeders. Some folks stick with trays and never get other types of feeders. 

Old baking trays: Find an old and blackened baking tray you were thinking of throwing away anyway. Put the tray on a flat surface, such as an outdoor table, an old stump in your yard, or a wooden porch. In less than what you think, you may have bright red cardinals, blue jays, and unassuming mourning doves visiting your feeder. 

Plastic Shallow Trays: You can pick up a plastic tray of your favorite color or a color that matches your outdoor chairs and tables. Put some birdseed on it and wait for the magic to happen. 

Ceramic trays: Ceramic trays are quite popular. They look great and stay firmly in place. You can find them in various sizes but make sure that they are not too deep. You will want to see the entire bird when they are in the tray. 

A problem with trays is that they will accumulate rainwater. While birds can pick seeds out of shallow water, if seeds stay soaked for too long, they will get spoiled. Trays need to be monitored all the time. It is relatively easy to dump accumulated waste that birds do not eat and water if it rains. Trays are easy to wash.

Plastic trays are available at stores. They come in different colors that can match decoration themes in your backyard.

Put a small log or branches by the tray.

Some birds may be nervous about approaching a new thing with food. A log or twigs next to the tray provides a familiar substrate where birds land before getting onto the tray. Once birds are used to your tray feeder, they will fly straight to it without hesitation.

Just sprinkle food on the ground.

Sparrows, juncos, finches, and doves typically feed on the ground. These birds may find it awkward to feed on an elevated surface or other bird feeders. 

Sprinkle birdseed in the area where food is visible. Birds can easily see the seeds on bare ground, wooden porches, or concrete. Food sprinkled on a lawn will fall through to the bottom of the grass and become invisible to the birds.

Platforms and trays do a great job at attracting birds, and many bird enthusiasts stay with them. However, if squirrels and large flocking birds become a problem, you may want to start with other feeder types.

Cardinals and other birds do not have any problem eating on the ground. That is what they do in natural conditions. Photo: John Brighenti/Flickr/CC by 2.0

Seed mixes are the best starting bird food.

You can not go wrong with seed mixes because they contain various seeds that many species like to eat. Popular bird seed mixes are sold in most stores and include sunflower seeds, millet, milo, and cracked corn. Finches, sparrows, cardinals, blue jays, and doves can not resist this mix. 

Where should I place the tray or bird food?

We want to help the birds and also enjoy them. Place the bird food anywhere you can have a clear view of it from inside your house. I have one outside my kitchen window and look over at the feeder during breakfast and lunch.

Those who like simplicity stay with tray feeders.

Some bird enthusiasts stay with metal or plastic tray feeders. They find them easy to handle and clean. If you can take care of a tray feeder after rain and squirrel and other flocking birds are not a problem, then there may not be a reason to move to different feeder types.

Avoid costly mistakes by selecting the right feeder.

When you are ready to move on from a simple tray feeder, avoid buying plastic feeders. If you are one of the lucky ones to have bird feeders not visited by squirrels, a plastic feeder will work. If you are like most of us and have to deal with squirrels, these furry backyard visitors will chew through plastic in no time. Metal feeders are a  better choice than plastic ones. 

If you offer whole peanuts, you will need a feeder with metal mesh to allow the birds to get pieces of peanuts but keep squirrels from chewing through the metal mesh. 

Related: A Gude to Bird Food & Feeder Preference

Caged feeders work well to prevent large birds and squirrels from accessing the feeder but let small birds like these goldfinches squeeze through. The tube feeder inside can be a metal mesh container or a regular feeder with feeding ports

How to handle squirrels and large flocking birds on the feeders.

To keep squirrels and large flocking birds, choose a cage feeder.

Squirrels, grackles, starlings, and pigeons can be a problem. I don’t have any problem with feeding these birds, but they can go through birdseed in a short time. Not only that, but they also displace and bully smaller birds.

A caged feeder is one effective solution. Feeders enclosed in a mesh cage with holes big enough to let small birds squeeze through work well.  Squirrels, grackles, and pigeons are too large to reach the food inside.  

You can have other trays to feed large flocking birds, perhaps with less expensive bird seed.

Specialty food and feeders

Goldfinches love nyjer seed, which requires a particular type of feeder. The feeder used to feed goldfinches has these tiny little ports or slots just big enough for goldfinches to get the small nyjer seeds. Goldfinches have very thin and pointy beaks and can get these small seeds. Other birds with thicker beaks can’t reach the nyjer seed comfortably through the little slot.

While a platform feeder and mixed seed appeal to most birds, goldfinches favor nyjer seeds (also known as thistle). This relatively expensive birdseed requires feeders with tiny ports suitable for the sharp and pointy beak of a goldfinch.

Choose a feeder that can be cleaned easily.

One potential problem with backyard bird feeding is that it may increase the risk of disease transmission among birds. Feeders attract several types of birds that, perhaps, do not come in such close contact in nature. Keeping your feeders clean helps prevent the transmission of diseases that affect birds.

When looking for your first bird feeder, choose one that comes apart easily for regular cleaning.

Offer suet, particularly in the wintertime.

Suet blocks or balls are composed of animal fat mixed with seed and, in some cases, fruit. Some birds love it, and it is a fantastic winter food with much energy.

Learn more about Suet

Do not be tempted to use the fat from your frying pan to make your suet balls.  That kind of fat is quite different and can get onto the bird’s feathers, turning them oily. Once birds get some grease on their feathers, they excessively try to get rid of the fat, making things worse.  

Related: Suet Bird Feeders: Everything You Need to Know

Final Remarks.

Feeding backyard birds is a delightful and straightforward way to connect with nature. Start with easy, low-maintenance methods using what you already have at home.

Remember to choose quality seeds and maintain clean feeders to ensure the health and happiness of your visitors. As you grow more comfortable, consider expanding your setup with advanced feeders and specialty foods.

By following these tips, you’ll enjoy the beauty of birds in your yard and support their well-being, especially during the harsh winter months. Create a bird-friendly haven and foster a lasting bond with your backyard’s visitors.