Feeding our feathered friends is not only beneficial to the birds, helping them sustain themselves through the sparse winter months, but it’s also a great amount of fun. Nothing brightens a dull winter landscape like the colorful flitting and fluttering presence of birds in your backyard. And while it doesn’t seem like there would be much to it, to successfully attract the kinds of birds you want to see does require a little homework. So we visited the experts at a few local bird-feeding specialists, and did some of the research for you.
Of course, being a gardening magazine, we’d like to point out that one of the best things you can do to attract birds and other wildlife to your backyard is to create a hospitable habitat, with plenty of living plant material for food, foraging and security. Cindy Gilberg also wrote about Bird-Friendly Native Landscapes.
Feeders Birds Fancy
All the experts we consulted agreed with a basic starting point: attracting the birds you want to see – and conversely, discouraging the hogs and heavy-handed hoards of both feathered and furred varieties – begins with the right birdfeeder. Birds are physically adapted to feed in certain ways, and otherwise have certain preferences for locations and methods of feeding. If your feeder doesn’t accommodate these physical characteristics and preferences, you’ll be disappointed.
We received our feeder primer at OK Hatchery in Kirkwood, where Mark Krieger showed us a few of the more than 100 different styles of feeders they stock. Here is what we learned. There are 3 basic styles of seed feeders – tube, house or hopper, and platform feeders. Suet feeders are a fourth style that accommodates cakes of rendered fat.
Exactly as the name suggests, tube feeders are plastic, or sometimes nylon netting, feeders in tubular form, with perches located at multiple feeder holes along the tube. Some tube feeders additionally have a platform at the base that catches spilled seed and accommodates platform-feeding birds. The perches on tube feeders are typically short and attract smaller birds such as chickadees, woodpeckers, nuthatches and finches, while discouraging larger birds that can’t cling to the small perches. One type of tube feeder is specifically designed to dispense niger, or thistle seed, which is popular with gold finches, purple finches and house finches.
Many tube feeders feature an exoskeletal cage that allow smaller birds access to the food while keeping larger birds and squirrels at bay. Others featured weighted perches that “close the door” when heavier birds/animals apply pressure. It is important, notes Bryan Prather of Wild Birds Unlimited in Warson Woods, to select a feeder with adjustable settings if you want to be selective about the birds you feed.
One tube feeder, the Yankee Flipperä, promises to be “the most entertaining squirrel-proof feeder on the market,” with a motorized perch that activates under a squirrel’s weight, rotating and “flipping” the offending invader from the feeder.
Hopper feeders, or house feeders, are essentially shorter, squatter versions of the tube feeder, with larger compartments to store seed. Frequently hopper feeders are designed in the form of a house, gazebo, barn, lantern or other style. Many have a platform at the base and will therefore accommodate most types of birds indiscriminately, though some, like the tube feeders, have weight-selective closing mechanisms or other devices to discourage unwanted feeders. Birds attracted to hopper feeders include mourning doves, blue jays, cardinals and woodpeckers.
Hopper feeders can be pole-mounted or hung from a shepherd’s crook or tree branch. Baffles, both above and below, can help discourage squirrels, though they are incredibly adept at jumping both horizontally and vertically to defeat such deterrents.
One hopper feeder we found at most locations we visited is manufactured by a St Louis company, Arundale Products. Called the Mandarin Sky Cafe, it features a large plexiglas hopper with a perch tray and a built-in squirrel baffle. Check out their website for a hilarious video of a squirrel attempting to foil the feeder.
Platform feeders are essentially shallow, open-faced dishes that hold seed in the open, accommodating ground-feeding birds such as mourning doves, juncos and sparrows. They can be hung or mounted on a pole, or can be integrated into part of attractive sculptures to adorn the garden (think of the “bird girl” statue made famous in the book/movie In the Garden of Good and Evil). The downside of a platform feeder is that there is nothing to protect the food from the elements. As a result platform feeders are usually shallow, requiring frequent refill.
For the scoop on seed and other bird food facts, we turned to Bryan Prather at Wild Birds Unlimited in Warson Woods. As mentioned above, Bryan emphasized that the first step in attracting the birds you want is to make sure you have the right feeder that accommodates them while discouraging the rowdies and riffraff. The next step is to choose the right menu.
Some birds are very particular about what they eat, while others are less discriminating, and the degree to which you provide for those tastes will determine how selective your guest list will be.
- Sunflower seems to be the wings-down favorite of most birds. Black oil sunflower has a higher fat content, and therefore is preferable to the striped sunflower. It also has a thinner shell, thus easier to open. One caveat: the shells accumulating on the ground make a great herbicide, and will deter vegetation – both desired and undesired – from growing there. Position accordingly. Attracts cardinals, woodpeckers, jays, finches, chickadees.
- Safflower is preferred by a much narrower range of birds, including cardinals, housefinches, chickadees and titmouse. Grackles, starlings, sparrows, jays – even squirrels – all seem to ignore this seed, so it’s a great choice to limit the beggars at the banquet.
- Niger (nyjer), or thistle, is particularly desired by gold finches, house finches and winter migratory birds like the pine sisken. Thistle sold in the U.S. is imported and sterilized to prevent weediness. As a result, says Bryan, it is compromised and susceptible to mold and turning stale quickly, so purchase only in quantities you’ll use in 4-6 weeks.
- White millet (not to be confused with red millet, a filler in cheap mixes that most birds won’t eat) is a favorite of many ground feeders, including sparrows, doves, juncos, and in the spring, indigo buntings. Use it in platform feeders or scatter on the ground.
- Peanuts and cracked corn are attractive to blue jays, woodpeckers and cardinals. Special feeders are available that hold in-shell peanuts.
- Suet is a form of rendered animal fat, usually pressed into cakes and served in a wire feeder. It provides a high fat, high calorie source of food beneficial to birds, especially in cold winter months, and will often attract other types of birds that aren’t seed eaters, such as mockingbirds, robins and wrens. Often the suet cake is rolled in, or incorporates other foods such as raisins, nuts, berries and seeds. Bryan advises to read the labels and make sure ingredients include real foods, not just flavorings. A variation at WBU is Bark Butter, a spreadable product that can be applied directly to tree bark or a slab of wood to attract clinging birds like chickadees, nuthatches and others.
Just Add Water
Finally, most bird feeding experts agree that you can attract more birds to your garden with water than with food. Birds need water not only to drink but to bathe in and keep their feathers “fit for flying,” says Dr. Doyle Banks, owner of the Wild Bird Marketplace in Ballwin. Birdbaths also double as attractive sculpture in the garden, and are available in as many styles and materials as can be imagined. Dr. Banks advises choosing bird baths that are no more than 3″ deep, preferably with a rough surface, and locate approximately 10 ft. from the feeders in an area near shrubs and other secure spots birds can retreat to for safety.
Moving water will attract more birds than still water. Drippers and misters can be purchased that attach to outside faucets and can be regulated for flow. A battery operated “Water Wiggler” vibrates quietly to produce gentle waves in a birdbath, providing desirable motion. And to keep water available in freezing temperatures, different types of electric deicers prevent water from freezing solid. Heated birdbaths accomplish the same.
Other Tips for Safe and Successful Feeding
- Use multiple feeders types and position at various heights to allow for preferences of as many bird species as possible.
- Keep feeders clean and food fresh. Spoiled food and dirty feeders can make birds ill. Sterilize feeders regularly with a bleach/water solution.
- Position feeders at least 5 ft. away from shrubs and above the ground to provide safety from housecats and other predators. Better yet, keep cats inside when feeding the birds.
- Keep feeders stocked and feed year-round. The birds will show their appreciation by flocking to your back yard!