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How To Feed The Birds

Do you have questions about how to feed the birds, select a bird feeder or avoid squirrels? You can find very good information about bird feeding on the web pages I suggest here. I would start at Project Feederwatch's About Birds and Bird Feeding page. These sites should answer your questions, but I do have some tips on selecting a bird feeder and a chart of bird seed preferences below.


Project FeederWatch  cardinal photo by C.C. Lockwood

Project FeederWatch  is a winterlong survey of North American birds that visit feeders at backyards, nature centers, community areas, and other locales all can take part in. They have an excellent page called About Birds and Bird Feeding.

The Great Backyard Bird Count is Feb 14-17 2003. I encourage everyone to participate. They have an good page on Choosing a Bird Feeder.
Bird Watchers Digest has a page of Bird Feedings Do's and Don'ts

The National Bird Feeding Society has a page of tips for Successful Winter Bird Feeding

Tips on selecting a bird feeder and what to feed

Types of feeders

Tube  Usually plastic, a tube that holds seed and has small holes along the sides. The tube may have perches attached or be surrounded with wire mesh. It may have a tray at the bottom to catch spilled seed. Tube feeders can be hung or mounted on poles.

The size of the perches and the bottom tray determine which birds can use the feeder.

Open platform, shelf, table, or tray  A flat surface, often with edges. Platform feeders can be hung, mounted on a pole or legs, or secured to a flat surface such as a stump. Homemade options include:

  • A very simple platform feeder can be made by attaching a large jar lid to a stake or old broomstick. Place among shrubs or near a window.
  • Edging attached to a thin piece of plywood. Tiny drilled holes for drainage will help keep seed from spoiling or sprouting.
  • Build two simple identical frames and sandwich screening between them.
Platform feeders attract the widest variety of birds, including ground feeders.

Covered platform, hanging table  A platform feeder with a roof. The roof helps keep the food dry and, depending on height, may also keep larger birds from monopolizing the feeder.

Hopper  A platform, often covered, with a container to dispense seed. The container helps keep the food dry. Homemade hoppers can be as simple as an large upside down can (with holes around the bottom edges) or a jar (resting on small pieces of wood) on a small platform.

The size of the platform and the height of the roof determines which birds can use the feeder.

Suet  Suet feeders come in many styles: hanging wire baskets, mesh bags, and wire mesh or a can attached to a small wooden tray. Homemade options:

  • A tree branch, 3-6 inches in diameter, with suet or a peanut butter mixture smeared on the bark. A cup hook screwed into one end (make sure it's in tight), and the branch is hung near other feeders. Mine is oak. Many birds find the suet when they use the branch as a perch on their way to the other feeders.
  • Coat pine cones with suet or a peanut butter mixture and roll in seeds. Hang in clusters.
  • Drill holes of various sizes in a small log and fill them with suet or a peanut butter mixture. Attach a cup hook and hang.
Suet feeders attract insect-eating birds.

Bowl, dome  Basically an small upright bowl with a larger upside down bowl above it. The distance between the two determines which birds can use the feeder. These are easily made with a fine-mesh colander as the bottom bowl.

Nectar  There are several designs. Those that require hovering will attract only hummingbirds. If perching is possible, orioles may visit. Homemade nectar feeders can be made from stoppered bottles or water bottles designed for pets painted or taped with a red stripe as a welcome sign. Nectar feeders must be cleaned frequently.

Where to place feeders

Location  Generally, feeders should be placed within 20 feet of cover. If there are cats in the area, placing feeders too close to cover may give them a place to hide and catch the birds off guard. If squirrels are a problem, using baffles and moving the feeders 10-15 feet from structures, trees, and shrubs should help.

Several types of feeders in different locations and at different heights will attract the largest variety of birds. Clusters of feeders are also attractive.

New feeders  The best way I've found to attract birds to a new feeder is to attach a small piece of aluminum foil to it.

Moving feeders  To move feeders, especially when moving them closer to the house, do so gradually. Even shier birds will accept a feeder that moves a foot each week.

Windows  Birds may be confused by reflections from windows if a feeder is placed nearby. If birds collide with the windows, the obvious solution is to move the feeder. However, it may be enough to move the feeder slightly, to change the angle of the birds' approach. Hanging pieces of yarn or using decals may also work. Closing the drapes or blinds will probably reduce reflection, but it will also defeat the purpose if your objective is to observe the birds.

What to offer


  • Sunflower seeds, especially the more nutritious black oilers, are the most popular. The hulls contain a chemical that discourages plant growth. If this is a problem, you can rake up the hulls regularly or put down a piece of screen to catch them. Sunflower seed hearts (hulls removed) are available.
  • Millet is a small grass seed eaten by many small birds. White is preferred to red by many birds.
  • Thistle or nyjer seeds are small dark seeds popular with finches and sparrows. It is usually more expensive than other types of seeds.
  • Safflower seeds are eaten primarily by cardinals, chickadees, and white-throated sparrows. More expensive than sunflower seed, safflower's strongest selling point is that most squirrels, crows, and grackles don't like it. They may find another food source if a favorite feeder only offers safflower seed for a week or two.
  • Mixes attract the widest variety of birds. Shop around to get the best price and compare labels to get the best value. Some mixes contain grains and seeds that birds don't like. Grains attract crows and grackles. Seed that doesn't appeal is often tossed off the feeder.
Grains  Oats, buckwheat, and cracked corn are often part of commercial mixtures. They attract larger birds, such as crows, that push the smaller birds aside. Cracked corn sprinkled on the ground distracts them from the feeders.

Nuts  Unless you have a homegrown supply, peanuts are the most economical nuts to offer. Try offering them with and without the shell. Use only raw peanuts. If you offer other nuts, such as walnuts, crack the shell. Nuts need to be offered in a squirrel-proof location.

Fruit  Fresh and dried fruit is popular with many birds, including those who won't visit a feeder for seed. Dried fruit can be added to seed in a hopper. Offer fresh fruit, such as half of an orange or chopped apple, on a platform feeder or in a mesh basket. Experiment to find out which fruits are popular in your area.

Suet  Suet mixtures contain rendered fat, usually beef, and a variety of other ingredients. In warm weather, it becomes rancid quickly -- use suet dough mixtures instead. Commercial suet cakes are available. To make it at home, melt a cup of suet, let it cool and solidify. Melt it again and add enough ingredients until you have a thick pudding-like mixture. Pour it into small containers (tuna cans, a muffin tin) and let it cool. Additional ingredients could include corn meal, crushed dog food, sunflower seeds, dried fruit, and chopped nuts.

Peanut butter mixtures  The possibilities are endless! Do not feed peanut butter alone though as birds may choke on it. A basic recipe combines equal amounts of peanut butter and cornmeal. Experiment by adding ingredients like those used in suet mixtures. Peanut butter cakes are often available where suet cakes are sold.

Leftovers  Bread crusts, cookie crumbs, and other baked goods will be gobbled up by the birds. Leftover rice, pasta, and potatoes are more nutritious. Stale dry pet food is eaten by larger birds, who often dip it in water to soften it. I put scraps in a small hanging platform feeder on the back porch. It stays drier there and I can easily watch for signs of spoilage.

Nectar  Nectar mixtures can be purchased but it is very simple to make at home. Combine 1 part sugar and 4 parts water (eg., 1/2 cup sugar + 2 cups water) and bring to a boil. Stir until the sugar has dissolved, remove from heat and let cool. Do not use honey (it may grow a fatal mold) or red coloring.


Feeders  Once a month, wash with dish detergent plus a mild bleach solution (1 part chlorine bleach and 10 parts water). Rinse thoroughly and let dry before refilling.

Nectar feeders  Clean twice a week as above.

Around feeders  Rake up hulls. Moldy hulls and seeds and those contaminated by bird droppings can spread disease to the birds.


Bird food preference table:
  Chickadees, Titmice, Nuthatches Finches Cardinals, Grosbeaks Sparrows, Blackbirds Jays Woodpeckers Orioles, Tanagers Pigeons, Doves
Sunflower X X X X X X    
Safflower X X X          
Whole Corn       X X     X
Millet   X   X       X
Milo         X     X
Niger   X            
Suet X       X X X  
Results based in part on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's 1995-96 Seed Preference Test, a National Science Experiment sponsored by the National Science Foundation





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Copyright 2013 Tulsa Audubon Society
Last modified: March 15, 2017




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