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Wild Bird Feeding 101

Feeding backyard birds and creating habitat with bird houses.

Kept clean and well-stocked, the right bird feeder in the right place will make your yard a popular hangout for a variety of wild birds.

  • Where to Put a Bird Feeder
  • Keep Wild Bird Seed Dry
  • How to Clean a Bird Feeder
  • Bird Feeder Seed Capacity
  • Attract Specific Bird Species

Where to Put a Bird Feeder

Before you select a bird feeder, you will need to determine where you want to put it.

Pick a location that has year-round easy access for you. When the weather is bad and birds are most vulnerable, you may be reluctant to fill a bird feeder that isn't in a convenient spot near a door or accessible window.

Consider window feeders, but break up the reflection if the bird feeder is just off the window. Birds will come right to your window. Sometimes it takes a while for them to overcome their initial reluctance, so be patient. Don't worry that a bird feeder on the window will cause birds to fly into the window. Birds fly into the window because they see the reflection of the woods. Window feeders and decals can help break up the reflection.

Also consider the mess factor. Pick a location where discarded bird seed shells and bird droppings won't be a problem.

Put your bird feeder where the squirrels can't reach. Those cute little rodents seem to like sunflower and peanuts as much or more than acorns. Squirrels become a problem when they take over a bird feeder and scare the birds away, tossing seed all over.

What's worse, frustrated squirrels have been known to entertain themselves by chewing right through plastic and wooden bird feeders.

If you've seen squirrels in your neighborhood, it's safe to assume they will visit your bird feeder. Think long and hard before you hang anything from a tree limb. Squirrels are incredibly agile, and any bird feeder hanging from a tree, with or without a squirrel guard or baffle, is likely to become a squirrel feeder.

In the long run, a squirrel-proof bird feeder or any feeder on a pole with a baffle is the least aggravating solution. The most effective squirrel-proof bird feeder is the pole-mounted metal "house" type feeder.

If you must hang a bird feeder, select a tube feeder protected with metal mesh. Most plastic squirrel-proof feeders, despite manufacturers' claims, may eventually succumb to rodent teeth.

If you have the right situation in your yard, a pole with a baffle should suffice. Any wood or plastic feeder can be effective when mounted on a pole with a plastic or metal baffle if the pole is at least 10 feet or more from a tree limb or trunk.

  • How durable is it?
  • Will it keep the seeds dry?
  • How easy is it to clean?
  • How much seed will it hold?
  • How many birds will it feed at one time?
  • Which species will use it?

Keep Wild Bird Seed Dry

Moisture can get into any feeder. Bird seed will spoil when it gets damp or wet. Cloth, vinyl, nylon and metal netting bird feeders are inexpensive, but they do not protect the bird seed. You can improve them by adding a plastic dome.

Most wood, plastic, ceramic and solid metal bird feeders will keep bird seed dry, but water can get into the feeding portals. Look for feeders with drainage holes in the bottoms of both the feeder hopper and the bird seed tray.

Even bowl-type feeders and bird seed trays with drainage holes will clog with seed and bird droppings. Add rainwater and you have an unhealthy broth. Look for shallow plate-like bird seed trays. The purpose of a tray is to catch dropped seeds while allowing spent seed shells to blow away.

How to Clean a Bird Feeder

Though you don't have to wash the bird feeder daily, you should clean it regularly.

Diseases like salmonella can grow in moldy, wet bird seed and bird droppings in your feeder tray and on the ground below. It's a good idea to move your bird feeders just a foot or so each season to give the ground underneath time to assimilate the bird seed debris and bird droppings.

Keeping your feeders clean should not become a major undertaking. The degree of maintenance required is directly related to the types of birds you want to attract.

A thistle feeder for goldfinches should be cleaned about once a month, depending on how often it rains. Feeding hummingbirds requires weekly cleaning at the very least, preferably more. Sunflower and suet feeders may need to be cleaned once a month.

Bird feeders made of plastic, ceramic and glass are easy to clean. Wash them in a bucket of hot, soapy water fortified with a capful of chlorine bleach. Then give them a run through your dishwasher.

Use the same regimen with wood feeders, but substitute another disinfectant for the bleach so your wood won't fade.

Bird Feeder Seed Capacity

The ideal feeder capacity varies with your situation and the types of birds you want to attract.

If you feed hummingbirds, big bird feeders are not always better. One hummingbird will drink about two times its body weight, or less than an ounce, per day. Early in the season, these birds are territorial and won't share a feeder. In this case, a 16-ounce feeder can be wasteful or even lethal because artificial nectar (sugar water) can ferment in the hot summer sun.

If you see only one hummingbird in your yard, a 2-ounce feeder is more than enough. On the other hand, if you live in the southwest and have 34 hummers in your yard, a 16-ounce feeder may not be big enough.

If you opt for a large-volume bird seed feeder, be sure to protect it from the weather and keep it clean. If, after months of use, the birds suddenly abandon your feeder full of bird seed, it's time for a cleaning.

Attract Specific Bird Species

The species you attract are determined primarily by the types of bird seeds and bird feeders you offer.

Black oil sunflower seed is the favorite of all the birds that visit tube and house-type feeders. White proso millet is favored by birds who visit platform feeders, such as doves and sparrows. Ducks, geese and quail will eat corn.

Many of the cereal grains like corn, milo, oats, canary, wheat, rape, flax and buckwheat in mixed bird seeds are not favorites of the birds that visit tube feeders.

Watch a feeder filled with a seed mix and you'll see the birds methodically drop or kick out most of the seeds to get to their favorite -- sunflower seeds. Birds will also skip the artificial "berry" pellets; processed seed flavored and colored to look like real fruit.

Seeds that wind up on the ground are likely to be contaminated by dampness and bird droppings. If the birds don't eat them, rodents will.

The most effective way to attract the largest variety of birds to your yard is to put out separate feeders of each type of bird food:

  • starling-resistant suet feeder
  • a house feeder for sunflower
  • a bluebird feeder
  • a wire mesh cage feeder for peanuts
  • a nectar feeder
  • a tube feeder for thistle
  • a stationary or tray fruit feeder
  • a house or platform feeder for millet

Read more about how to select the right bird seed. Check out our bird feeding chart.