Bird Feeding Basics
While most wild birds rely on wild foods for most of their meals, more than 100 North American species supplement natural
foods with birdseed, suet, fruit and nectar obtained from feeders. Bird feeding can benefit birds while also providing pleasure
for people throughout the year. Feeders benefit birds most during the winter when natural food supplies are scarce. However,
additional species visit feeders during the spring and fall migrations, and some nesting birds utilize feeders during the
To keep birds coming back to your feeders, provide them with three essential elements: the right variety of quality seed,
a source of fresh water for drinking and bathing, and ample cover, preferably provided by native plants. Native plants also
provide potential nesting sites and source of natural food.
Bird feeders also present risks, potentially increasing the chances of window collisions, predation, and exposure to disease.
Following are some tips for safely attracting birds to your feeders.
Locate feeders at different levels
Sparrows, juncos, and towhees usually feed on the ground, while finches and cardinals feed in shrubs, and chickadees, titmice,
and woodpeckers feed in trees. To avoid crowding and attract the greatest variety of species, provide table-like feeders
for ground feeding birds, hopper or tube feeders for shrub and treetop feeders, and suet feeders well off the ground for
woodpeckers, nuthatches, and chickadees.
Offer a variety of seeds in separate feeders
A variety of seeds will attract the greatest variety of birds. To avoid waste, offer different seeds in different feeders.
Black oil sunflower seed appeals to the greatest number of birds. Offer sunflower seeds, nyjer (thistle) seeds, and peanuts
in separate feeders. When using blends, choose mixtures containing sunflower seeds, millet, and cracked corn—the three most
popular types of birdseed. Birds that are sunflower specialists will readily eat the sunflower seed and toss the millet
and corn to the ground, to be eaten by ground-feeding birds such as sparrows and juncos. Mixtures of peanuts, nuts and dried
fruit are attractive to woodpeckers, nuthatches, and titmice. Relatively few species prefer milo, wheat, and oats, which
are featured in less expensive blends.
Prove suet during cool weather only
Suet (beef fat) attracts insect-eating birds such as woodpeckers, wrens, chickadees, nuthatches, and titmice. Place the
suet in special feeders or net onion bags at least five feet from the ground to keep it out of the reach of dogs. Do not
put out suet during hot weather as it can turn rancid; also, dripping fat can damage natural waterproofing on bird feathers.
Mix peanut butter and corn meal
Peanut butter is a good substitute for suet in the summer. Mix one part peanut butter with five parts corn meal and stuff
the mixture into holes drilled in a hanging log or into the crevices of a large pinecone. This all-season mixture attracts
woodpeckers, chickadees, titmice, and occasionally, warblers.
Provide fruit for berry-eating birds
Fruit specialists such as robins, waxwings, bluebirds, and mockingbirds rarely eat birdseed. To attract these birds, soak
raisins and currants in water overnight, then place them on a table feeder, or purchase blends with a dried fruit mixture.
To attract orioles and tanagers, skewer halved oranges onto a spike near other feeders, or provide nectar feeders.
Provide nectar for hummingbirds
Make a sugar solution of one part white sugar to four parts water. Boil briefly to sterilize and dissolve sugar crystals;
no need to add red food coloring. Feeders must be washed every few days with very hot water and kept scrupulously clean
to prevent the growth of mold.
Store seed in secure metal containers
Store seed in metal garbage cans with secure lids to protect it from squirrels and mice. Keep the cans in a cool, dry location;
avoid storing in the heat. Damp seeds may grow mold that can be fatal to birds. Overheating can destroy the nutrition and
taste of sunflower seeds. For these reasons, it’s best not to keep seed from one winter to the next.
Discourage squirrels from consuming feeder foods
Squirrels are best excluded by placing feeders on a pole in an open area. Pole-mounted feeders should be about five feet
off the ground and protected by a cone-shaped baffle (at least 17” in diameter) or similar obstacle below the feeder. Locate
pole-mounted feeders at least ten feet from the nearest shrub, tree, or other tall structure. Squirrel feeders stocked with
blends that are especially attractive to squirrels and chipmunks can reduce competition for high-priced foods offered at
bird feeders. Locate squirrel feeders far from bird feeders to further reduce competition.
Locate feeders to reduce window collisions
In the United States, approximately one billion birds die from flying into windows each year. Protect birds from collisions
by placing feeders within three feet of windows, if possible. Mobiles and opaque decorations hanging outside windows also
help to prevent bird strikes. Or attach fruit tree netting outside windows to deflect birds from the glass.
Keep cats indoors
Cats kill hundreds of millions of birds annually in the United States, often pouncing on ground-feeding birds and those
dazed by window collisions. Responsible and caring cat owners keep their cats indoors, where they are also safer from traffic,
disease, and fights with other animals. Outdoor cats are especially dangerous to birds in the spring when fledglings are
on the ground. Bells on cat collars are usually ineffective for deterring predation.
Clean feeders and rake up spilled grain and hulls
Uneaten seed can become soggy and grow deadly mold. Empty and clean feeders twice a year (spring and fall); more often if
feeders are used during humid summers. Using a long-handled bottlebrush, scrub with dish detergent and rinse with a powerful
hose; then soak in a bucket of 10% non-chlorine bleach solution, rinse well, and dry in the sun. In early spring, rake up
spilled grain and sunflower hulls.