What has made watching birds the fastest growing hobby in the country, second only to gardening? What ever it is, watching birds, like watching fish or other animals, seems to make people feel good.
How do our "hand-outs" affect the birds? Little research has been done on that question. But we do know that some birds -- cardinals, mockingbirds and tufted titmice -- have extended their winter range northward, perhaps because of an increased availability of food at feeding stations. There is no indication however that backyard bird feeding has had a negative effect on wild bird populations as a whole.
Backyard bird feeding can, however, have an adverse effect on an individual bird. There may be a higher incidence of disease and birds injured by flying into windows. You can take precautions to minimize these problems.
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Before you know it, you're learning bird names. After awhile, you'll start to recognize individuals and the messages in their behavior and song.
When you get to the point where you want to attract and "keep" a particular species, what you do will be determined by where you live, and the time of year. For example, on any winter day, you're likely to see a cardinal at a sunflower feeder in Virginia, a goldfinch at a thistle feeder in Massachusetts and hummingbirds at a nectar feeder in southern California.
How can you find out which birds to expect? A bird field identification book has pictures of different birds and will help you find the names for the birds you're likely to see.
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Regardless of the season, food that sits on the ground for even a short time is exposed to potential contamination by dampness, mold, bacteria, animal droppings, lawn fertilizers and pesticides.
It's best, for the birds' sake, to use a feeder.
You can start simply with a piece of scrap wood, elevated a few inches above the ground. Add a few holes for drainage and you've built a platform feeder. It won't be long before the birds find it.
Whether you buy one or build one, eventually you'll find yourself
looking at commercially manufactured feeders. There are literally hundreds
to choose from. How do you make the "right" choice? What makes a feeder
First consider placement
Where do you want to watch your birds? From a kitchen window... a
sliding glass door opening on to a deck... a second story window?
Pick a location that has year-round easy access. When the weather's bad and birds are most vulnerable, you may be reluctant to fill a feeder that isn't in a convenient spot near a door or accessible window.
Also consider the "mess" factor. Pick a location where discarded seed shells and bird droppings won't be a clean-up problem.
Put your feeder where the squirrels can't reach. Those cute little rodents seem to like sunflower and peanuts as much or more than acorns. Squirrels become a problem when they take over a bird feeder, scaring the birds away, and tossing seed all over.
What's worse... frustrated squirrels have been known to entertain themselves by chewing right through plastic and wooden feeders.
If you've seen squirrels in your neighborhood, it's safe to assume they will visit your feeder. Think long and hard before you hang anything from a tree limb. Squirrels are incredibly agile, and any feeder hanging from a tree, with or without a squirrel guard or baffle, is likely to become a squirrel feeder.
In the long run, a squirrel-proof feeder or any feeder on a pole with a baffle is the least aggravating solution. The most effective squirrel-proof feeder is the pole-mounted metal "house" type.
If you must hang a feeder, select a tube protected with metal mesh. Most plastic "squirrel-proof" feeders, despite manufacturers' claims, may eventually succumb to rodent teeth.
If you have the "right" situation in your yard, a pole with a baffle should suffice. Any wood or plastic feeder can be effective when mounted on a pole with a plastic or metal baffle, if the pole is at least 10 feet or more from a tree limb or trunk.
Once you've determined you're going to put your feeder, you're ready
to go shopping. In addition to good looks, think about...
How long a feeder lasts depends on how much effort you put into
maintaining it, the effects of weather, and whether squirrels can get to
Water can get into any feeder regardless of how careful you are to
protect it. Seed will spoil when it gets damp or wet. Cloth, vinyl, nylon
and metal netting feeders are inexpensive, but they do not protect your
seed. You can improve them by adding a plastic dome.
Most wood, plastic, ceramic and solid metal feeders will keep seed dry, but water can get into the feeding portals. Look for feeders with drainage holes in the bottoms of both the feeder hopper and the seed tray.
Even bowl-type feeders and trays with drainage holes will clog with
seed and bird droppings. Add rainwater and you have an unhealthy broth.
Look for shallow plate-like seed trays. The purpose of a tray is to catch
dropped seeds while allowing spent seed shells to blow away.
Any zookeeper and cage bird owner will tell you, when you feed birds
in a confined area, you have to expect bird droppings, feathers, an
occasional insect or two and left-over food mess.
While you don't have to wash the feeder daily, you should clean it regularly.
Diseases like salmonella can grow in moldy, wet seed and bird droppings in your feeder tray and on the ground below. It's a good idea to move your feeders (just a foot or so) each season to give the ground underneath time to assimilate the seed debris and bird droppings.
Keeping your feeders clean should not become a major undertaking. The degree of maintenance required is directly related to the types of birds you want to attract.
A thistle feeder for goldfinches should be cleaned about once a month depending on how often it rains. Feeding hummingbirds requires cleaning at the very least, weekly, preferably more often -- two or three times a week. Sunflower and suet feeders may need to be cleaned only once a month.
Feeders made of plastic, ceramic and glass are easy to clean. Wash them in a bucket of hot, soapy water fortified with a capful or two of chlorine bleach, then give them a run through your dishwasher.
Use the same regimen with wood feeders, but substitute another
disinfectant for the bleach so your wood won't fade.
The ideal feeder capacity varies with your situation, and the types of
birds you want to attract.
If you feed hummingbirds, big feeders are not always better. One hummingbird will drink about 2 times its body weight (less than an ounce) a day. Early in the season, hummers are territorial and won't share a feeder. A sixteen ounce feeder can be wasteful, or indeed lethal, because artificial nectar (sugar water) can ferment in the hot summer sun.
If you see only one hummer in your yard, a two ounce feeder is more than enough. On the other hand, if you live in the southwest, and have 34 hummers in your yard, a sixteen ounce feeder may not be big enough.
If you opt for a large volume seed feeder, be sure to protect it from
the weather and keep it clean. If after months of use, the birds suddenly
abandon your feeder full of seed, it's time for a cleaning.
How Many Birds
If too many birds at your feeder becomes a problem, you can control
their numbers by putting out smaller amounts of seed, by using specialty
seeds, or by using restrictive feeders.
If you fill your feeder only when it's empty, the birds will look for food elsewhere. They'll return as long as you continue to fill it.
You can virtually eliminate visits by birds you'd rather not see by offering seeds they won't eat. Be selective in your choice of seeds.
If you use more than one type of seed, put them in separate feeders. This will reduce wasted seeds, as birds will toss unwanted seeds out of a feeder to get to their favorites.
Birds that visit your feeder have very specific preferences, Most prefer sunflower. Some prefer millet. A few prefer peanuts. None seem to prefer the other grains used in the mixes: corn, milo, red millet, oats, wheat and canary seed.
If you want to feed only cardinals, doves and white-throated sparrows, switch from black oil sunflower to safflower. If you want only finches and an occasional dove and white-throated sparrow, try niger thistle. If you want only jays, titmice and white-throated sparrows, try peanuts.
Another way to discourage unwanted birds is to use specialty feeders that for the most part, allow only "select" birds to feed.
The most non-selective feeders are the tray, platform or house feeders.
You can encourage small birds with feeders that restrict access. Wood feeders with vertical bars and feeders covered with wire mesh frustrate the larger birds.
Tube feeders without trays also restrict access to small birds. Remove the perches, and you've further selected only those birds capable of clinging -- finches, chickadees, titmice and woodpeckers.
Add vertical perches to tube thistle feeders, and you'll limit accessibility primarily to the goldfinches.
If starlings are a problem at your suet feeder, you can discourage
them by using a suet feeder with access only at the bottom. Starlings are
reluctant to perch upside down. Chickadees and woodpeckers don't find that
The species you attract is determined primarily by the seeds you
Black oil sunflower is the hands-down favorite of all the birds that visit tube and house type feeders. White proso millet is favored by birds who visit platform feeders (doves and sparrows). Ducks, geese and quail will eat corn.
Many of the cereal grains (corn, milo, oats, canary, wheat, rape, flax and buckwheat) in mixed bird seeds are NOT favorites of birds that visit tube feeders.
Watch a feeder filled with a seed mix and you'll see the birds methodically drop or kick out most of the seeds to get to their favorite -- sunflower. Birds will also kick out artificial "berry" pellets, processed seed flavored and colored to look like "real" fruit.
Seeds that wind up on the ground are likely to be contaminated by dampness and bird droppings. If the birds don't eat them, rodents will.
The most effective way to attract the largest variety of birds to your
yard is to put out separate feeders for each food:
TUBE FEEDER WITH BLACK OIL SUNFLOWER goldfinches chickadees woodpeckers nuthatches titmice redpolls, pine siskins ADDING A TRAY TO THE TUBE FEEDER WILL ALSO ATTRACT cardinals jays crossbills purple finches white-throated sparrow house finches white-crowned sparrows TRAY OR PLATFORM FEEDER -- WITH MILLET doves house sparrows blackbirds juncos cowbirds towhees white-throated sparrows tree sparrows white-crowned sparrows chipping sparrows TRAY OR PLATFORM FEEDER -- WITH CORN starlings house sparrows grackles jays juncos bobwhite quail doves ring-necked pheasants white-throated sparrows PLATFORM FEEDER OR TUBE FEEDER AND TRAY -- with PEANUTS cardinals chickadees grackles house finches titmice house sparrows sparrows starlings mourning doves white-throated sparrows jays juncos NIGER THISTLE FEEDER WITH TRAY goldfinches house finches purple finches redpolls pine siskins doves chickadees song sparrows dark-eyed juncos white-throated sparrows NECTAR FEEDER hummingbirds orioles cardinals tanagers woodpeckers finches thrushes FRUIT orioles tanagers mockingbirds bluebirds thrashers cardinals woodpeckers jays starlings thrushes cedar waxwings yellow-breasted chats HANGING SUET FEEDER woodpeckers wrens chickadees nuthatches kinglets thrashers creepers cardinals starlings PEANUT BUTTER SUET woodpeckers goldfinches juncos cardinals thrushes jays kinglets bluebirds wrens starlings HANGING PEANUT FEEDER woodpeckers chickadees titmiceBack to TABLE OF CONTENTS
If you have trees, you will get to know squirrels. You may marvel at their antics, until they take over your bird feeders. Then you'll either love them or hate them.
Those who love squirrels tolerate their visits, and may even encourage them with special squirrel toys and feeders.
When a squirrel is at the feeder, you're not likely to see birds. Squirrels will scare off the birds while they eat the seed, and sooner or later, they'll eat the feeder too.
The simplest solution is the squirrel-proof feeder or pole, and storing your seed in a metal garbage can.
Chipmunks, rats and mice can also become a problem where there's seed spillage under the feeder. Don't use mixed bird seed, and if you don't have a squirrel problem, add a feeder tray.
Crow, house sparrow and starling problems can be eliminated by seed and feeder selection.
Cats are another story altogether. Feral cats and your neighbor's tabby are a serious threat to nestlings, fledglings and roosting birds. Too often, the presence of just one cat on the prowl near your feeder can take the enjoyment out of your backyard bird watching experience.
When a cat sits drooling under your feeder, you're not likely to see any birds. You're bound to feel much worse when you find a pile of feathers on the ground.
If your neighbor is reasonable, suggest a bell collar. If that doesn't work, consider getting yourself a pet -- a dog. Birds don't seem to be bothered by most dogs, but cats and squirrels are.
If there are no cats in your neighborhood and you find a pile of feathers near your feeder, look for a hungry hawk perching on a tree nearby.
Don't get upset. Consider yourself fortunate to see one, right in your backyard. Cooper's and sharp-shinned hawks eat birds and play an important role in the natural community.
Don't put out poisons, or try to trap them, since all birds of prey -- eagles, owls and hawks -- are protected by Federal law.
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If you find a bird that has hit a window, carefully pick it up and put it in a box or a large paper bag. Put it in a dark, quiet corner of your house for a couple of hours. If the bird recovers, take the box or bag outside and just let it go. If the bird comes to, but seems injured, call your local wildlife rehabilitation center for help.
The best way to avoid this problem is to buy seeds in smaller quantities, or store your seeds in a cool, dry place. It also helps to know where your retailer stores the seed. An air conditioned storage unit is the better choice.
Insects will also lay their eggs in burlap bags. Don't buy seeds in burlap bags. Don't buy seed in paper and plastic bags with patched holes. That may be a sign of insect or rodent infestations.
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Trees, Shrubs and Vines for Attracting Birds by Richard De Graff and Gretchen Wit. University of Massachusetts Press, 1979.
How to Attract Birds by Ortho Books, 1983.
A Complete Guide to Bird Feeding by John Dennis, Knopf, 1994.
The Bird Feeder Book by Donald and Lilliam Stokes. 1987.
Summer Bird Feeding by John Dennied. 1988.
Woodworking for Wildlife by Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, 1987.
Planting a Refuge for Wildlife by Florida Game & Freshwater Fish Commission, 1986.
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