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Bird feeding basics

Posted on Nov 6, 2013

We are now into the beginning of the bird feeding season in the U.S. as more chilly air filters down from Canada with every passing cold front. Observing bird feeders in a yard is one of the most popular hobbies in America, and we end up fielding a large number of queries about it each fall and winter. I wanted to go over some of the basic points plus tips and tricks to feeder and yard bird watching that I have learned over the years from observing my own to recalling what my grandfather did when I was a small child.

First of all, what type of home and yard do you have? Is it 40 acres full of fields in the middle of an agricultural area, two acres of suburban yard surrounded by woodlands, or an apartment in a city with feeders attached to your window? The mix of species you see and their quantities will be relative to the habitat surrounding your home or feeders. You probably won’t find Brown Creepers in urban areas or in grasslands, just as you may not find as many House Sparrows in deep woodlands. Typically the more varied your habitats the more varied your visitors. Region matters a lot as well as do elevation, date, and weather. In Connecticut I would have occasional Rusty Blackbirds at my feeders in December or January, but they would usually only come after a sizable snowfall. Being on the Atlantic coast was enough for them to try to survive through winter, but further north and inland or at higher altitudes they may not even be around the area.

White-breasted Nuthatch enjoying peanuts, House Finch enjoying sunflower seeds

White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) enjoying peanuts, House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) enjoying sunflower seeds

When it comes to the feeders themselves you should be sure to keep them fully stocked regularly from perhaps a date in October through March or April. You will want to watch out for mammals in all seasons, but beyond these times it is all the more important to be wary of bear visitors. Having a variety of foods means more variety of visitors, once again – suet, sunflower seed, thistle seed, peanuts, and so forth. Spacing out your feeders a bit gives the birds more room to eat, just as we enjoy when at a restaurant. Giving them nearby cover in the form of bushes and shrubs or even a brush pile helps them feel safer and escape predators. Speaking of placement, if you keep the feeders closer to your home (keep rodents in mind in this regard) you may help the birds not fly into windows. They’ll slow down or still be moving slowly when going to or leaving your feeders, respectively, and will have a much softer impact on any windows they fly into, which does kill billions of birds each year.

Keeping the feeders clean is extremely important, and a 10 to 1 water to bleach solution does the trick for the most part. They can spread disease easily when used by a lot of birds, especially ones like conjunctivitis. Good old soap, water and elbow grease can work well, too. The area under your feeders should be cleaned as well with old seeds and discarded hulls swept away. When you’re done cleaning up I suggest find some clean and pure water to put out for them. If you can add something to keep the water unfrozen and moving, like a small fountain or dripper, it will attract even more birds. Some species, like the Northern Mockingbird, have stayed in my yard all winter long only because they have fresh, clean and reliably unfrozen water to drink.

The longer your feeders are in place during a season and over the years the more birds will flock to them. There is a lot of luck involved, and certain areas simply won’t be hospitable to a given species. Keep in mind that birds are three-dimensional as well – wait, what!? People have a tendency to only observe what is in front of them on the feeders, in a bush, hopping on the ground, and so forth. What I mean is that while you doing this keep an eye to the sky and you may see something checking them out from above, like a Red-tailed Hawk, or some birds going by higher in nearby trees, like a Ruby-crowned Kinglet. One Thanksgiving I had this happen as a Nashville Warbler was in an oak tree over my feeders observing what all these birds were eating. That hungry bird didn’t find what it was looking for, but I enjoyed seeing such a late individual and unique feeder species.

Pine Warblers (Setophaga pinus) regularly enjoy suet

Pine Warblers (Setophaga pinus) regularly enjoy suet

Do not worry about birds getting “stuck” either as feeding them does not override their natural instinct to migrate or move around the area. Feeder foods are only a portion of a given bird’s diet. Finally, try not to fret too much about raptor attacks, either. Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks, the most common yard attackers, need to eat, too. Many individuals of both species meet their demise because of starvation. Their hunting ability is helping to thin out the weak, sick or old birds, keeping the species that they eat even healthier over the long run and allowing evolution and natural selection to continue.

What was my most memorable feeder bird? Probably a Red Crossbill that visited my house when I was a child of probably 8 or 9 that chomped down on some sunflower seeds right outside my window for a few minutes. I can still remember every bit of that moment. Good luck to you this feeder season!


Scott Kruitbosch
Conservation & Outreach Coordinator

Photos © Scott Kruitbosch