If you have a bird feeder in your backyard, you're in good
company. Bird watching is one of America's fastest-growing
hobbies, and surveys show that nearly half the households in the
United States provide food for wild birds. With their colorful
appearance and lively, cheerful attitude, it's obvious why we
love to have them around, especially during the winter months
when the weather is cold and dreary. By feeding birds we bring
them close so we can see them more easily, plus they can be quite
Setting up a backyard bird feeder can make birds' lives easier,
too. In much of North America, winter is a difficult time for
birds. Finding food can be especially challenging during periods
of extreme cold. What should you serve your winged visitors?
Should you control the amount of food you give them? These are
common questions, and seeing the wide variety of bagged bird feed
stocked on store shelves can make the task seem a little
daunting. Once you understand the type of bird feeders and the
types of birds likely to be attracted to the various types, the
choices will be easier to make.
Things to Consider
The easiest way to attract birds to your yard is to put up a bird
feeder. There are many different ones on the market today. Most
are made for seeds, but there are also specialty feeders for
certain foods, such as sugar solution for hummingbirds, suet, or
peanuts. Knowing which to choose depends on the kinds of birds
you wish to attract.
When choosing which type of bird feeder you will use, make sure
that is is sturdy enough to withstand winter weather, tight
enough to keep seeds dry and large enough to avoid having to fill
it too frequently. Plastic or metal feeders usually meet these
criteria much better than wooden feeders, but it still really
comes down to personal choice.
If you want to attract more than one variety of birds to your
yard, you will have to use several different types of feeders and
a variety of seeds. Another thing you'll have to consider when
selecting bird feeders, is making sure you dissuade the bird
species you don't want around your yard.
Types of Bird Feeders
Tray or platform feeder - any flat raised
surface onto which food is spread.
Hopper feeder - platform with walls and a
roof, forming an enclosed location which protects food from
weather and squirrels.
Tube feeder - usually clear tube which
attaches to a window with a suction cup; great for tiny
Large cylinder feeder - similar to tube
feeder, but with multiple holes with feeding perches beneath
Nyjer feeder - special tube feeder designed
with extra small holes to dispense tiny seeds such as thistle
or niger. Some of these feeders even use a mesh bag which birds
can cling to as they feed.
Wire-mesh cage or plastic-mesh bag feeder -
can be nailed to or tied to a tree trunk, or suspended from a
Bottle feeder - can hold an artificial nectar
or sugar solution for feeding hummingbirds. These usually have
little plastic screens over the feeding ports to act a as "bee
Saucer-shaped feeders - hummingbird feeders
with the ports on the top, making them bee and wasp-proof.
These feeders are better than bottle feeders in direct
Which Bird Food Do I Want?
Because there are so many different kinds of bird feed available,
it helps to know what type of food the various species eat.
Certain species may even have different food preferences in
different parts of their range. The chart below helps identify
Various Seed Types
- Corn - dried whole kernel corn is a favorite food of jays,
pigeons, doves, turkeys, pheasants, and quail. Cracked corn is
easier for smaller birds to eat, and will attract blackbirds,
finches, and sparrows, as well as the larger birds mentioned
- Millet - there are two types of millet: red and white. Most
birds find white proso millet more attractive than the red
variety. Millet appeals to many ground-feeding birds, such as
doves, juncos, and sparrows. Millet also attracts undesirable
non-native species such as European Starlings and House Sparrows.
- Milo - large, reddish, round seeds of milo (or sorghum) are
often used as "filler" in birdseed mixes. Most birds will only
eat it if there's nothing better. Be aware that it also may
attract undesirable aggressive birds such as cowbirds, starlings,
- Safflower - a particular favorite of cardinals, safflower is
often more expensive than sunflower seed. Grosbeaks, sparrows,
and doves also like it. It's sometimes suggested for dissuading
undesirable species because it may have less appeal to starlings,
House Sparrows, and squirrels.
- Nyjer - (sometimes spelled "niger") is commonly known as
thistle seed, although it's unrelated to native thistles. Its
tiny seeds attract small finches such as goldfinches, siskins,
and redpolls. Nyjer is expensive, so it's best offered in
specially-designed thistle seed feeders, which have tiny feeding
ports that prevent spilling and dissuade larger birds.
- Sunflower Seeds - Black-oil sunflower seed is the all-round
favorite for bird feeders, particularly attractive to
tree-dwelling birds. It has a high meat-to-shell ratio and is
high in fat. Small size and thin shell make it easy for small
birds, such as the Black-capped Chickadee, to handle and crack.
Striped sunflower seeds are larger and have thicker seed coats,
making them more difficult for small birds to process.
- Peanuts - titmice, chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers,
cardinals, jays, many sparrows, and even Carolina Wrens are
attracted to peanuts. They can be offered shelled or whole.
Peanut feeders are specially-designed wire-mesh cages, often
- Mixed Seed - is best sprinkled on the ground or onto platform
feeders. Mixed seed typically contains high quantities of millet,
preferred by ground-feeding birds. Many feeder birds will not eat
millet. Likewise, ground-feeding birds that favor millet will not
have access to it if it's in a feeder. Try filling hanging
feeders with sunflower seeds and spreading mixed seed for
- Hummingbirds and Nectar - flower nectar is the principle
natural food of hummingbirds. If you provide hummingbird feeders,
you will need to make your own artificial "nectar." Since
hummingbirds also eat insects, you don't need to purchase
expensive commercial hummingbird nectars that have added vitamins
and minerals. A sugar solution is adequate.
- Suet - is particularly attractive to woodpeckers, such as the
Red-bellied Woodpecker, but many insect-eating birds such as
nuthatches, chickadees, wrens, creepers, kinglets, and even
cardinals-are fond of it too. It's a high-energy food, much
appreciated in cold weather. Suet is the hard fat surrounding
beef kidneys. It is inexpensive and available from butchers and
at many supermarket meat counters. Commercial suet cakes are
manufactured from "rendered" suet, a process in which it is
melted, cooked, and strained, making it less prone to melting and
- Fruit and Fruit Seeds - birds such as robins, thrushes,
waxwings, and bluebirds usually don't visit seed feeders because
seeds are not a major part of their diet. But you can attract
them with fruit. Mockingbirds, tanagers, and catbirds may be
attracted too. Try raisins or currants softened by soaking in
water. Offer diced fresh fruit, such as apples, melons, or
grapes. Orange halves are particularly desirable, especially to
orioles, which also go for grape jelly. You can also save your
Halloween pumpkin seeds, and other squash or melon seeds, for the
birds. Some relish these more than black-oil sunflower seeds.
Spread them out to let them dry and then run them through the
food processor. This makes it easier for smaller birds to eat
- Leftovers - birds also will eat stale bread and other
leftovers. Just make sure they're not moldy or they may harm the
birds. Be aware, too, that table scraps may attract nuisance
species such as European Starlings, House Sparrows, rats, or
Artificial "Nectar" Recipe:
To make sugar solution for hummingbirds, add one part sugar to
four parts boiling water (boil the water before measuring,
because some water will evaporate away in the process). When the
mixture is cool it is ready for use. You can store extra sugar
water in your refrigerator for up to one week, but left longer it
may become moldy.
Don't add red food coloring to the sugar solution—it is
unnecessary and possibly harmful to the birds. Red portals on the
feeder, or even a red ribbon on top, will attract the
hummingbirds just as well.
Important Tips for Sugar Solution:
- Change the solution every 3-to-5 days to prevent mold and
- Clean the hummingbird feeder often.
- NEVER use honey or artificial sweeteners in hummingbird
feeders. Honey grows mold that can be dangerous-even fatal-to
hummingbirds and sweeteners will not provide the energy and
nutrition that birds require.
- Do not put any kind of oil around feeding portals to deter
insects. Oil may contaminate the nectar or get on the birds'
plumage ruining its insulating properties.
Store your bird food carefully. If you buy a lot of seed, keep it
in a dry, cool place, in a rodent-proof, metal can. Check the
seed often for mold. Throw out any seed that is questionable.
Choosing and maintaining your wild bird feeders is an easy and
rewarding activity that the entire family can enjoy, especially
children. Once you begin feeding wild birds, you will find
yourself addicted to caring for these delightful creatures.