Bright red, pale blue, golden yellow, silky black… with their cheerful array of colors and beautiful songs, who doesn’t love watching birds flutter about? Now that winter weather is upon us, regular food sources for birds are scarce so it is the ideal time to feed birds with a backyard bird feeder. This article will discuss winter bird feeding basics, including what to buy, proper maintenance, and tips to attract birds. Let’s begin!
Choosing the Right Food
The first step to feeding birds is, of course, buying the food. While it might be tempting to purchase the most inexpensive bag of birdseed or whatever is readily available at your regular grocery store, it’s not necessarily the best idea. The birds know when you’re being cheap! Lower priced grocery store brands usually contain a lot of fillers that don’t appeal to most birds; check the ingredients in the feed before you buy it. If the primary ingredients include wheat, milo, hulled oats, rice, or rye seeds, it’s best to avoid it. Birds don’t like these seeds and will either pick out the “good stuff” from the mix and discard the rest, or avoid the feeder completely.
Better birdseed choices include black-oil sunflower seed, cracked corn, millet, peanuts, and suet. (Suet is a type of animal fat that doesn’t go in a traditional feeder; instead it hangs in a mesh bag that usually comes with it or a special suet feeder, which resembles a small cage.) Black-oil sunflower seed is the best overall choice, as it has the nutrition birds need (high fat/protein content to keep birds warm), it is easy to crack open due to its thin shell, and it attracts a very wide variety of birds. If you are only going to offer one type of seed in your feeder, this is best choice. Your best bet for finding appropriate birdseed is to go to a bird specialty store, your local hardware/animal feed store, nursery or a pet store with a bird section.
Choosing a Feeder
The second step is the bird feeder. There are 3 main types of feeders: hopper/house feeders, tube feeders, and tray/platform feeders. Hoppers, or house feeders, are house-shaped with a platform on the bottom for birds to stand on while eating. The advantage of hoppers is that they are weatherproof and can hold a large amount of food; the disadvantage is that they are relatively easy for squirrels to get into.
A tube feeder is a hollow, cylinder-shaped feeder with multiple feeding holes and perches positioned all the way around it. These are a great choice, as they are weatherproof and usually squirrel-proof, however they can be difficult to clean.
Finally, tray feeders, or platform feeders are flat, open surfaces that are covered in food, on which the birds can stand and eat. They may hang from a pole or tree or sit directly on the ground. Tray feeders are easy to make and easy to clean, but they are not weatherproof and are easily accessible to all animals, not just birds. Only a day’s worth of food should be placed on these at a given time. An example of a platform feeder can be seen here
Different feeders attract different kinds of birds. For instance, tray feeders most often attract ground-feeding birds such as juncos, sparrows, mourning doves and towhees. Tube feeders are versatile in that the size of the perches influence the size of the birds that use it. Small perches attract small birds and large perches attract large or small birds. In general, tube feeders are an excellent choice for drawing in titmice, finches, and chickadees. House feeders are especially good for large birds like cardinals, blue jays, and grosbeaks.
Proper maintenance is vital not only for attracting birds, but also for the birds’ general well-being. Allowing birdseed to sit in the feeder for too long can cause mold or bacteria to grow, which in turn negatively affects the health of the birds. Allowing sharp edges to form – even tiny ones – can cut birds, which can lead to infection. It is very important to keep the feeder clean. Scrubbing it approximately every 2 weeks (more often for platform feeders) with soap and water then dipping it in lightly bleached water should do the trick. Remember to rinse it well and let it dry completely before filling it back up with birdseed and placing it outside again.
Location, Location, Location!
Now that we have the food and the feeder, what do we do with it? Where should we set it up? The ideal location for a bird feeder is away from the house, but close enough that it’s convenient for you to refill and clean. It should be close to natural shelter such as trees or bushes, but not so close that squirrels can easily jump to the feeder, or so cats can hide before attacking any visiting birds. A distance of about 10 feet should be sufficient. If you don’t have any trees or bushes in your yard, try to make a brush pile near the feeder. Keep the feeder about 6 feet from the ground.
It may take a while for birds to find or get used to your feeder, so be patient. Attracting birds can take anywhere from a few minutes to a few weeks. Here are some tips for getting your feeder noticed:
- Scatter seed on the ground around the feeder so birds flying overhead will see it and swoop down.
- Check the quality of your seed. If it is moldy, insect-infested, or filled with the unattractive seed I mentioned above, the birds likely have no interest in it.
- Set up a bird bath. During winter many summertime water sources are frozen, but birds still need water. Installing a bird bath with a heater is a great way to attract birds.
If you’ve tried all these tips and there are still no birds in sight, a couple of different things could be going on: if the weather has been mild, it’s likely that there are still plenty of natural food sources around, therefore there is not a great need for birds to come to a feeder. Another reason could be a low number of birds in your area. The final solution could be a very simple one: maybe you are looking at the wrong time of day. Most birds will feed at dawn or dusk, so if you’re bird watching in the middle of the day, you’re likely missing all the action.
Bird watching and feeding is a great pastime and it can be very rewarding. It’s not always easy – there’s lots of cleaning involved, including bird droppings, cracked shells, and the feeder itself – but it’s worth it. Good luck! –Jodi Thomas
Jodi Thomas is a secretary with OhioHealth and also works part time at a women’s clothing store. She loves to volunteer and is involved with a few different non-profit organizations. And of course, she loves animals!