A Guide to Bird Feeders and Seeds for Backyard Bird Watching
Spring is here, and with it signs of life are popping up everywhere, including that familiar morning sound of birds chirping. And as our feathered friends build nests and lay eggs, they become voracious eaters.
To enjoy the sights of native birds returning home in spring, all you have to do is offer the right food in the right way, throw in some water and housing, and voila! If not for you, think of your indoor cats; birds at the feeders outside your window are like a feature-length movie that never gets old. Whatever your reason, read on for our guide to bird feeders and feed.
A Buffet of Bird Feeder StylesWhile you may be keen to dive right in by picking up a sack of colorful bird food, you'll first want to consider what type of feeder is right for your yard. It's a major part of the battle in enticing visitors to your outdoor space.
Tray or Platform Feeders
A simple platform feeder will draw the widest array of birds because it replicates ground feeding. However, it offers no protection against the varieties of birds you don't wish to encourage, such as doves and starlings. Also, food on a tray will get wet when it rains, and bird droppings can accumulate, polluting the food.
But if you're diligent, a mesh-bottom platform bird feeder mounted aboveground will discourage squirrels, deer, and bears, while still feeding the bellies of the birds.
These feeders are usually hung from above or mounted on a pole. They can hold a large supply of seed that is either dispersed at the bottom into a small tray or accessed by the birds via portals in the side of the seed chamber. These are attractive to most feeder birds. Since there is a mother lode of deliciousness inside, these feeders hearken to squirrels too, who will go through the most entertaining acrobatics for a taste.
The size of the tiny njyer seed (see below) and its needle-like shape allow it to be dispersed through a fine screen or even a cloth bag; birds can grab the top of the seed and work it out. However traditional feeder portals are also great for housing the thistle seed.
All of these feeders share one requirement: they must be kept clean to minimize the chance of spreading diseases or toxins. However, unlike many other feeders, hummingbird feeders can be hard to clean, since you're dealing with a sugar syrup. Look for feeders that can go through the dishwasher and have bee screens over the feeding tubes.
The right food in the right container isn't all you can do to attract birds to your yard; a birdbath will also do wonders for attracting your winged friends. Don't take the obligation too casually, though; if you put one up, you'll have to replace the water daily or you'll end up as the mosquito distributor for your neighborhood. You can get a solar birdbath that uses the power of the sun to churn the water to avoid breeding pests.
You might want to also offer an abode to the nesting birds in your neighborhood. A simple birdhouse of untreated wood properly sized and configured for the species could bring joy to a bird family. Many people find building a birdhouse fun, although there are plenty of pre-fab options — and the birds probably won't notice either way.
Fill Your Feeder with the Right Bird SeedMost people who feed birds favor colorful ones, like the cardinal and the goldfinch, or small songbirds such as wrens, chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, and the like. Not in favor, perhaps because they are invasive, gluttonous, dirty, aggressive, or simply unattractive feeder hogs are the house sparrow, cowbird, starling, pigeon, and the goose. Which you attract can be controlled in part by the choice of foods on your menu.
Most bird lovers choose to only attract seed-eaters to their feeders. Supplying bugs to insect-eaters like the robin can be expensive and rather icky. Among the most common bird feeds are:
Sunflower and Safflower Seeds
Sunflower seeds come in two types: black oil and striped. The black oil seeds are easier to open, and therefore a favored food of cardinals and finches. However, because they are packed with nutrients they are also a favorite of the birder's sworn enemy, the squirrel. The striped sunflower seed is tougher to open and therefore may discourage the voracious house sparrow and blackbirds. Safflower seeds, compared to sunflower seeds, are more thick-shelled, but still popular with cardinals, chickadees, titmice, and nuthatches.
Nyjer Seed (also known as Thistle Seed)
A feeder full of Nyjer seed will soon be festooned with goldfinches in their bright yellow mating plumage. What a beautiful spring sight! Nyjer is grown in Asia and Africa and is high in calories and oil content. It is not cheap, however.
Shelled or Cracked Corn
Corn isn't a recommended seed for your home feeder because it's beloved by sparrows, cowbirds, pigeons, starlings, and other species that can make a mess of your feeding zone. It also attracts larger pests such as geese, raccoons, and deer. Moreover, corn that stays outdoors and collects moisture can develop a deadly toxin: aflatoxin.
Goober peas are popular with jays, chickadees, crows, woodpeckers, and titmice. Unfortunately, they are also squirrel bait, and have a high propensity to harbor aflatoxins if not kept fresh and dry. Price hikes have also made peanuts a premium bird feed choice, but it will lure in some beautiful birds.
White millet is an inexpensive small seed present in most bird feed mixes. Millet attracts cardinals, juncos, and native sparrows by the flock-full. Milo (also known as Grain Sorghum) tends to attract western birds like the Steller's Jay and Gambel's quails and is also popular with ground-feeders. There are other seeds included in many mixes that don't appeal to most birds, such as golden millet, flax, and red millet, though cowbirds and house sparrows will gorge on the grains. They are considered fillers and many consumers prefer mixes without them.
One of the most beautiful birds is the hummingbird, which is easily attracted to sugar-water solutions (usually 1/3 to 1/4 cup of sugar per cup of water). Of course, bees and ants love sugar water, too, so you'll want a feeder that discourages them.
Offer the right food, the right feeder, the right bathhouse and the right roof over their heads, and you too can enjoy the spring spectacle of birds as they busily work to repopulate the branches of the world. The red of the cardinals, the yellow of the goldfinches, the blue of the bluebirds, and the green of the hummingbirds, can bring a riot of color to your yard and a warble to your heart.
This feature has been updated since it was originally published.