How to Use a Backyard Bird Feeder

Five Methods:Choosing a Bird FeederSetting Up Your Bird FeederStocking Your Bird FeederMaintaining Your Bird FeederProtecting Your Bird Feeder

Feeding wild birds is a wonderful way to add life and color to your backyard, especially during dreary winter months. Bird watching is growing in popularity, and these days almost half of US households keep wild bird feeders on their property. Feeding wild birds also makes their lives easier, especially during colder months when food is scarce.[1]

Method 1
Choosing a Bird Feeder

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    Learn which birds are in your area. The first step to planning your backyard habitat is to discover which wild birds frequent your geographical area. Purchase the appropriate feeder and seed type for the birds you would like to attract.
    • The National Audubon Society publishes a number of field guides for wild bird enthusiasts.
    • Visit an online reference like eNature, where you can click your region on a map to learn about the types of birds in your area, Spring migration routes, when they will arrive and how to attract them.[2]
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    Try a hopper or house feeder.[3] This is a walled box on a platform, either raised on a pole or suspended from a branch, with a roof to help protect seeds from the elements. Hopper feeders will attract many wild birds, including finches, jays, cardinals, sparrows, and chickadees. House feeders are often easy targets for squirrels, and you will need to keep an eye on the food to make sure it isn't getting wet.
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    Install a window feeder. A window feeder is held to a window by suction-cups, and is usually made of plastic. Window feeders attract finches, sparrows, chickadees, and titmice. Be sure to check that food isn't becoming soiled, because birds will be feeding while standing on piles of seeds inside the feeder.[4]
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    Try a thistle feeder. This is a special tube feeder, with very small openings that dispense tiny thistle (or nyjer) seeds. Thistle feeders are attractive to small songbirds, especially redpolls and finches. A variant of this is the thistle sock feeder, which is a fine-mesh bag that birds cling to while extracting the seeds.[5]
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    Experiment with suet feeders. These are cages made of wire mesh, or bags made of plastic mesh, filled with suet and nailed or tied to a tree trunk or suspended from a branch. Suet feeders attract woodpeckers and nuthatches, chickadees, titmice, and jays. For a simple version of this feeder, you can smear suet directly into the knotholes of trees.[6]
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    Hang a hummingbird feeder. These are either bottle-shaped or saucer-shaped, and filled with artificial nectar or sugar solution. They are usually made of plastic or glass and have bright red plastic flowers to attract hummingbirds. Some hummingbird feeders have plastic mesh screens over the feeding holes to keep bees and other insects out of the nectar.[7]
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    Choose plastic, steel, or glass. These are often much easier to keep clean than old-fashioned wood or clay feeders that have porous surfaces. Plastic, steel, and glass feeders usually last longer than their wooden counterparts, which become weather-worn after a few seasons. If you are looking for an eco-friendly solution, commercial bird feeders are available that are made of recycled plastic.[8]
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    Look for drainage holes. Examine the feeder before buying it, to be sure it has sufficient drainage holes on the bottom. This helps keep the seed dry, so help keep it from becoming moldy. A plastic dome that covers the entire feeder will also help keep rain out.[9]

Method 2
Setting Up Your Bird Feeder

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    Try to install your feeders about 10 feet from natural cover like trees or shrubs. Evergreens are ideal, because their thick branches provide year-round cover from predators and protection from winter winds. However, leave a buffering distance of about 10 feet, so predators can't jump onto the feeder from branches or roofs. Also try to space your feeders apart to prevent overcrowding.[10]
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    Arrange your feeders at different heights. Just as different varieties of birds are attracted to different kinds of feeders, they also have their own preferences as to the height of the feeder. If you have multiple feeders, try to arrange them at different levels throughout your yard.[11]
    • Ground level feeders attract juncos, mourning doves, towhees, and sparrows.
    • Table level feeders attract cardinals, finches, and jays.
    • Higher-level, hanging feeders attract titmice, goldfinches, and chickadees. Hang these feeders about 5 – 8 feet above the ground.
    • Tree trunk feeders and knothole feeders attract wrens, nuthatches, and woodpeckers.
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    Place your feeders a safe distance from windows. You can help prevent collisions by placing feeders more than 30 feet away from your windows. You can also place them very close to the window – within 3 feet – so if they are attracted to the window's reflection, they won't have built up enough momentum to seriously injure themselves.[12]
    • Window strikes kill millions of birds each year, when birds see the reflection of trees, sky, or clouds and don't realize the glass is there.
    • Some birds will also attack windows during the spring mating season, when a male bird sees its reflection and thinks it is another male competing for females.[13]
    • You can try to make a window less transparent by keeping certain lights on or off inside the house, or drawing the shade.
    • You can also place stickers or netting over the window, so birds will realize the glass is there.
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    Prepare for colder months. Most wild birds only need your help during periods of the year when they require more energy, during migration times and cold spells. Plan to put feeders up for late winter and early spring, when birds have difficulty finding food in the wild. In the summer, seeds are more plentiful and young birds need to learn how to find food on their own.[14]
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    Keep nectar and thistle feeders up year-round. Hummingbirds have very high metabolisms, and will benefit from having access to nectar throughout the year. Goldfinches nest later in the year than other birds, so you can leave nyjer feeders up from winter through early fall, when thistles go to seed.[15]
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    Check for sharp edges. If a bird is scratched by a sharp edge, the open wound is susceptible to disease. You may also be injured when you are refilling or cleaning the feeder. If you find any sharp edges, file them down with a metal nail file or sandpaper.[16]

Method 3
Stocking Your Bird Feeder

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    Try sunflower seeds.[17] This seed attracts the greatest variety of birds in most North American regions. Black-oil sunflower seeds are best, as they have a high meat-to-shell ratio and fat content and are thin-shelled enough for small birds to crack open. Striped sunflower seeds are larger and have thicker seed coats and proportionately less meat per seed.
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    Feed a variety of foods for different birds. Add other seeds to your feeders, according to the types of birds in your area. Most tree-dwelling birds are attracted to sunflower seeds, but certain varieties prefer other types of food.[18]
    • Jays like sunflower seeds, suet, corn, millet, and milo.
    • Woodpeckers like sunflower seeds and suet.
    • Doves and other ground-feeding birds are attracted to white millet or red milo.
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    Mix your own bird food. Commercial mixes are often a blend of sunflower seeds and cheaper, “filler” seeds like oats, wheat, flax, or buckwheat seeds. Birds will pick out the sunflower seeds, and leave the rest to spoil. It is usually cheaper and more effective to mix your own feed, because there is less waste. Less waste seed also makes your feeders easier to clean.
    • For a simple home-made bird feed, purchase 25 pounds of black-oil sunflower seed, 10 pounds of cracked corn, and 10-pounds of white proso millet.
    • Pour the seed into a clean metal trash can, and blend the mixture with a broom or rake handle.[19]
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    Find a good place to store your bird food. Keep seed in a cool, dry place, in clean metal trash can and secure the lid to keep rodents out. Check your seed for mold on a regular basis, and dispose of any contaminated food. Try not to buy too much seed at one time, to avoid expensive waste.[20]

Method 4
Maintaining Your Bird Feeder

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    Change your nectar. Hummingbird nectar should be changed every three to five days to prevent potentially fatal fermentation and mold. Clean the feeder with hot water and a bottle brush, then dry it thoroughly before refilling it.[21]
    • Never feed hummingbirds honey, which ferments easily and readily grows mold that can kill hummingbirds.
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    Clean your feeders regularly. Try to clean your feeders at least once a week during busy feeding periods, to keep them free of contaminants that can harm birds and spread disease. During slow times of the year, cleaning them once every two to three weeks should be enough. Dispose of any uneaten seed, then scrub the feeder with hot water and a bottle brush. Dry your feeders thoroughly before refilling them.[22]
    • If you need to clean your feeders more thoroughly, rinse clean surfaces with a dilute bleach solution of one part bleach to nine parts water.
    • Avoid using soap or detergent, which can be toxic to birds.
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    Plan for winter vacations. If you live in an urban or suburban area, your local birds should be okay while you are on vacation – they can easily find food in a neighboring feeder if yours run out of seed. However, if you live in a very rural or isolated location, try to arrange for a friend or neighbor to refill your feeders while you are out of town during winter months.[23]
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    Watch for dazed birds around windows. If you see a bird collide with a window, carefully place it in a shoebox or similar dark container with a lid. Leave the box in a warm, quiet location where pets and other predators can't reach it. Check the box frequently, and release the bird once it appears awake and alert.
    • Do not try to give it food and water, and resist handling it as much as possible.
    • If you find an injured bird, you can take it to a vet or wildlife agency – but bear in mind that it's illegal in many areas to handle a migratory bird without a permit.[24]

Method 5
Protecting Your Bird Feeder

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    Avoid nuisance birds. Starlings and crows, in particular, have a tendency to take over bird feeding areas. You can adjust your feeders if they are plagued by aggressive, dominant birds that are frightening other birds away.[25]
    • Use suet feeders that are only open on the bottom, forcing birds to feed while hanging upside-down – woodpeckers, nuthatches, and chickadees feed this naturally, but starlings are usually unable to.
    • To protect small birds, hang tube feeders with short perches and no catch basins, so large birds have nowhere to perch.
    • If an aggressive hummingbird is keeping the others from eating, hang several feeders in different parts of your yard, so it can only see one or two at a time.
    • Avoid spreading food on the ground, or using open-air platform feeders, as this attracts larger, aggressive breeds of bird.
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    Eliminate hawks. If your wild birds are being plagued by hawks while they try to feed, try taking the feeders down for a few days. Your birds will feed elsewhere, and the hawks will move on to another area with more prey. Then put your feeders back in place, and the small birds should return.[26]
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    Keep squirrels out of your feeders. Squirrels may be cute to watch, but they eat all your feed and scare the birds away. Squirrels are notoriously clever animals, so you may need to experiment a little to find a good solution.[27]
    • A squirrel baffle is an inverted plastic bowl that hangs above the feeder – when a squirrel lands on the baffle, it will slide off onto the ground. Some bird watchers use old vinyl records, 2-liter soda bottles, or plastic salad bowls as baffles.
    • Feeders that hang from a horizontal pipe or wire can be protected with plastic tubing. Thread the horizontal supporting line through sections of plastic tubing – when a squirrel tries to climb across the wire, the tubing will spin and dump the squirrel off.
    • Avoid coating poles with oil or grease to protect your feeders from squirrels. Animals can freeze to death when their fur or feathers lose their insulating properties because they are matted in oils or grease.
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    Eliminate pesky insects. If ants, wasps, or bees take over one of your feeders, you will probably need to move the feeder to another part of your yard. Avoid using toxic chemicals to kill insects in your yard, because most insects are an integral part of the food chain. Harsh chemicals may also injure or kill the very birds you are trying to help.[28]
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    Get rid of rats or mice. Rodents love bird food, and can quickly become a problem if you aren't careful. If one of your feeders becomes infested with mice or rats, take down your feeders for a couple of weeks to encourage the rodents to look elsewhere for food. Then clean your feeders thoroughly before returning them to your yard.
    • Try protecting your feeder with a large tray placed underneath it, to keep rodents from getting to the seed.
    • Clean the catch-tray regularly, because bird droppings from the feeder may contain salmonella, which will then spread among your birds.[29]
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    Don't feed the bears. Bears hibernate during the winter, and then emerge in late March. If bears are a problem in your area, you'll need to take precautions to avoid drawing them into your yard. In this situation, it's best not to feed birds at night from late March through November.[30]
    • Take your feeders down and bring them inside at night.
    • Always hang feeders 10 feet above the ground and 6 feet away from tree trunks.
    • Never feed birds by spreading seed on the ground, or leave seed on the ground after cleaning your feeders.
    • Store your bird seed indoors, or in a securely locked shed or garage with a sturdy door.
    • Avoid hanging bird feeders on your front porch, or near your doors.
    • If you do see a bear, remain indoors and call animal control. Never approach a wild bear.
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    Keep your cats inside. Domesticated cats are one of the main causes of death among wild birds in populated areas. Try to keep your cat indoors if possible, to keep it away from your birds – an indoor life is safer for your cat, as well. To avoid trouble from neighborhood cats, be sure there aren't any branches or fences near your feeders that could provide a cat easy access to your birds.[31]

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Categories: Birds | Theme and Feature Gardens