Backyard Bird Feeding
Feeding birds and other wildlife in your backyard can be as elaborate as you want it to be. You can simply use bird feeders, i.e. hanging feeders, platform feeders, and/or suet, or you can landscape your property to cater towards all kinds of wildlife utilizing natural food sources and food you provide.
Bird feeding may not actually benefit birds except during exceptionally harsh weather conditions but it allows you the joy of observing birds up close. Most people feed birds primarily in the winter when there may be is less natural food, however feeding during spring and fall can bring new and different migrant species to your yard. Bird feeders do provide some risks to wildlife, specifically increased chances for window collisions, predation by hawks, cats, and other predators, and increased chances for contracting diseases.
1. If you feed birds, it is important to maintain a clean, safe feeding station! Provide good quality seed.
2. Landscape with (preferably) native plants, to provide cover and additional natural food. Download Creating a Garden for Birds from Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
3. Adding a water feature to provide drinking and bathing water close by.
Choosing a feeder
Several types of feeders are available that provide food for different species of birds.
Platform feeders - These simple trays often have solid bottoms and sides for holding seed on the platform and providing a perch for birds. Some have mesh sides designed to reduce use by crows and squirrels. Seed is often tossed off the platform by birds, providing a second feeding area for your birds. Northern Cardinals, Carolina Chickadees, Mourning Doves, Dark-eyed Juncos, Blue Jays, American Goldfinches, several species of sparrow, and other birds will use platform feeders. In addition, Mourning Doves and many other birds will forage on seed that falls to the ground. Avoid placing platform feeders immediately next to shrubs to reduce the opportunities for cats to pounce on birds.
Keep Cats Indoors!
Sunflower-Seed Tube Feeders - If you are just starting out feeding birds and only intend to put out one feeder, this is your best option. These feeders are readily available at wild bird and home garden stores. Look specifically for feeders with metal feeding ports, which will help deter squirrels from chewing on your feeder. Hang the feeder at least 5 feet off the ground and enjoy a variety of birds that will visit, including Carolina Chickadees, White-breasted Nuthatch, American Goldfinches, House Finches, Tufted Titmice, Northern Cardinals, among others.
Suet Feeders - Suet is a popular option with bird feeding. Suet is a combination of fatty, high calorie foods that birds relish, especially when it is cold. You can purchase cage suet feeders or create your own way to hang suet for the birds. Avoid putting suet out for the birds when it is 80 degrees or above, as it can spoil and/or melt.
Additional information: Homemade suet and suet feeders.
North American Bluebird Society
Bird Feeders site
Thistle (Nyjer) Feeders - These feeders are specifically designed for thistle seed, which is favored by American Goldfinches and Pine Siskens. You can purchase hanging tube feeders designed for thistle or "thistle socks" at your local wild bird and home garden stores. Hang the thistle feeder from a pole at least 5 feet off the ground near other feeders. Squirrel baffles will help deter squirrels.
Selecting Bird Seed
There is no one type of bird seed prefered by all birds, so try offering a variety of seeds in different feeders. Ensure your feeder is compatible for the seed you are purchasing.
Black-oil sunflower seed
Sunflower seed attracts the majority of birds to a feeding station. Sunflower seeds have a high oil (fat) and caloric content, which is prefered by most birds. Providing sunflower seed will attract Northern Cardinals, Carolina Chickadees, Mourning Doves, Dark-eyed Juncos, Tufted Titmice, Blue Jays, American Goldfinches, several species of sparrow and woodpecker, in addition to the occasional large billed bird like Brown-headed Cowbird, Red-winged Blackbird, and Common Grackle.
White millet and its varieties are the favorite food of most small-beaked, ground-feeding birds like sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, Eastern Towhee's, and Mourning Doves.
Medium cracked corn is nearly as popular with ground-feeding birds as is millet; however it tends to spoil sooner with the water absorbent interior of the kernel. Supply small amounts, mixed with millet, on feeding platforms or in waterproof tube feeders. Avoid fine cracked corn, since it turns to mush quickly, while coarse cracked corn is too large for small-beaked birds. Cracked corn attracts sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, Eastern Towhee's, and Mourning Doves, Blue Jays, and crows.
Mixed birdseed: Milo, oats, wheat
Seed mixtures of sunflower seed with milo, wheat, and oats are widely available, but birds typically pick out the sunflower seed and discard the other seeds to an uneaten pile on the ground that may attract rodents. There is little benefit of purchasing this mixtures as much of the "filler" is wasted by the birds.
Thistle is the prefered food of American Goldfinches and Pine Siskens. Nyjer is more expensive than most seed choices, but the seeds are small and it takes longer for the birds to empty your feeder.
The mixture known as suet attracts a large variety of insect-eating birds that irregularly visit seed feeders, such as Carolina Wren, Gray Catbird, various woodpeckers, among others. Seed-eating birds are also attracted to suet. Suet can be placed in purchased cages or in homemade hangers (see link to suet feeder section) high enough to keep out of reach of outdoor pets. Avoid putting suet out for the birds when it is 80 degrees or above, as it can spoil and/or melt.
Peanut butter pudding is a good substitute for suet in the summer. Mix one part peanut butter with five parts corn meal and stuff the mixture into the crevices of a large pinecone or holes drilled in a hanging log. This all-season mixture attracts a wide variety of woodpeckers, Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, and occasionally warblers.
Here are some links to recipes you can make yourself:
North American Bluebird Society
Crushed and whole peanuts placed on platform feeders or on the ground attract both bird that visit seed and suet feeders, but also other species of birds not regularly seen visiting seed and suet feeders, such as Brown Creepers, kinglets, Northern Mockingbirds, Brown Thrashers, Yellow-rumped and Pine Warblers.
Several birds are fruit specialists and rarely use seed feeders, such as American Robins, Cedar Waxwings, Eastern Bluebirds, and Northern Mockingbirds. To attract these birds, soak raisins or currants in water overnight and place them on a platform feeder. Premixed blends are also available for purchase. To attract Baltimore and Orchard Orioles and Summer and Scarlet Tanagers, cut oranges in half and skewer them onto spikes near other feeders, or provide nectar feeders.
To attract Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, place a sugar-water mixture in specially designed hummingbird feeders available at wild bird and home garden centers. The sugar solution is one part white sugar to four parts water. Boil the mixture briefly to sterilize and dissolve sugar crystals. There is no need to add red food coloring (some believe coloring may be potentially unhealthy) to the mixture. IMPORTANT: Feeders need to be washed every few days with very hot water to prevent the growth of mold.
The are several things to consider when choosing a feeder location. Several seemingly small considerations can make your feeding area safer and conducive to use by more individuals and species.
First of all, place the feeder where it is convenient to refill and the birds are easy to watch. Consider the specific locations in your yard. Placing feeders at least 10 feet from bushes and shrubs that would provide cover for birds when not feeding and a quick retreat if predators appear. Ample cover will also provide for more room for more birds, thus allowing a greater number of bird species to visit your feeders at one time.
For more information: Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Hang feeders at different heights. Hanging feeders at different heights reduces overcrowding and provides for the greatest diversity of birds that will use your feeding station. Sparrows, towhees, doves, and juncos usually feed on the ground, while finches and cardinals feed in shrubs, and chickadees, titmice, and woodpeckers forage in trees. Place platform feeders 4 feet off the ground for ground feeding birds. Hang tube feeders 5 to 6 feet high for birds that forage in shrubs and trees. Suet feeders should also be hung 5 to 6 feet high, to favor woodpeckers and nuthatches.
Avoiding or Safeguarding Birds from Windows
In the United States, approximately 1 billion birds die from flying into windows each year. At bird feeders, birds that are startled or avoiding a predator may hit glass with lethal consequences. There are several things you can do to reduce bird collisions:
1. Put feeders within 1 to 3 feet of a window so a startled bird can't build up enough speed to be injured by the glass, or 25 to 30 feet away from the window, so alternate escape paths are available.
2. Don't place houseplants near the window next to the feeder.
3. Suspend tree branches in front of window that birds frequently strike. This breaks up the reflectiveness of the glass, making it easier for the birds to see.
4. For windows where bird-strikes are common, a very effective method is to tightly stretch black netting, the kind used to prevent fruit or crop damage (available at garden centers and home improvement stores), over the outside of the offending window. It can hang loose, stretched taut, or tacked onto a frame. Depending on the window, it can be very unobtrusive and is 100% effective.
See links below for other ideas.
Bird Watchers Digest
North American Bluebird Society
American Bird Conservancy
Keep all cats indoors! The most common predator at bird feeders is the house cat. Cats kill hundreds of millions of birds annually in the United States, often sneaking up and pouncing on ground-feeding birds and those dazed by window collisions. Caring and responsible cat owners keep their cats indoors. Keeping cats inside also protects them from being hit by cars, disease, and fights with other animals. Outdoor cats are especially dangerous to birds in spring and summer when young birds are on the ground being attended to by adults, and in the fall when birds are migrating through unfamiliar areas. Surprising to many, bells placed on cat collars are usually ineffective for deterring predation.
For more information about keeping your Cats Indoors: American Bird Conservancy - Keep Catrs Indoors
Cleaning your bird feeders and bird baths is critical in preventing the spread of disease between birds. There are several diseases birds can spread through bird feeders, including Trichomoniasis, avian pox, Salmonellosis, Aspergillosis, and avian conjunctivitis. Symptoms of diseased birds may include birds that are less alert or active or swollen eyes or growths or sores on the mouth or bill.
Protect your birds by:
Clean your bird bath and feeders in a one part bleach-nine part water solution one to two times per month. If you are experiencing a disease outbreak, clean your feeders twice as often and consider removing the feeders for several days.
Change bird bath water daily. Brush or wipe it clean, rinse, and refill.
Disgard old seed in your feeder when you clean the feeder. Also sweep up left over seed on the ground under feeders to reduce chances of tramission of the Trichomonad protozoan.
If possible, provide more than one feeder to reduce overcrowding, which increases the chances of disease transmission.
House Finch Conjunctivitis information.
Squirrels are notorious for getting on bird feeders with their acrobatic abilities and unstoppable determination. You may never completely keep squirrels off your feeders, but you can take a few steps to reduce squirrel use and enjoy your birds more.
Exclusion- Place feeders on poles at least 5 feet tall and far enough away from buildings, fences, trees, and other structures to prevent them from jumping onto the feeder.
Squirrel baffle- Attach a store bought squirrel baffle or a sheet metal cone at least 18 inches in diameter to the pole immediately under your feeder. An 18 inch or longer piece of metal stovepipe attached to the bottom of the feeder, crimped on the ends, also helps reduce squirrel access. If you have feeders hanging from a horizontal wire, place old records, plastic soda bottles or other items on the wire to prevent squirrels from walking along the horizontal line and dropping onto your feeder.
The Ruby-throated Hummingbird is the only hummingbird that breeds east of the Mississippi River. These tiny birds can hover in place, fly backwards, and flap their wings more than 50 times per second! The Ruby-throated Hummingbird winters in southern Mexico and Central America, flying 500 miles nonstop across the Gulf of Mexico every spring and fall.
Hummingbirds are pollinators. Many plants depend on hummingbirds to facilitate reproduction where hummingbirds inadvertently collect pollen on their feathers and bill while feeding, and carry the pollen to the next flower.
To attract hummingbirds, you can take several steps to make your yard more attractive to hummingbirds.
- Erect one or more hummingbird feeders to provide a supplemental food source. This is especially rewarding in late summer and fall when the birds are migrating. See hummingbird feeders above.
- Plant trees, shrubs, vines, and flowering plants that will attract hummingbirds. Hummingbirds are attracted to all kinds of flowers, but especially like red tubular flowers. For a list of native species.
- Install a water source that drips or sprays water, which is more readily usable by hummingbirds than a traditional bird bath.
- Reduce or eliminate pesticide use in your yard. Pesticides kill the insects that hummingbirds and other birds need for obtaining critical protein in their diet.
- Encourage your neighbors to make their yards hummingbird friendly and make a long stretch of habitat suitable for birds in your neighborhood. Work to develop a neighborhood flower garden that is important for migrating birds.
When to put your feeder up and take it down?
Ruby-throated Hummingbirds can be found in Tennessee from mid-April to early October. So, put your feeders out in April but there is no hurry to bring them in. In recent years there have been a growing number of western hummingbirds wintering in Tennessee. Perhaps you will be lucky and attract a rare visitor.
For more information:
Hummer Bird Study Group (with Bob and Martha Sargent)
Habitat for Wildlife