If Santa brings your first bird feeder, here’s a beginner’s how-to


If Santa or some other Christmas gift giver leaves your first bird feeder under your tree or in your stocking, here’s some starter tips to get your backyard feeding program under way.

First, understand the type of feeder you’ve been gifted, how it should be installed and how it will serve up seed for the birds:

  • A house, hopper or bin feeder consists of a central box, into which the seed is poured for gradual disbursal through feeding holes or a tray. It can be hung or mounted atop a pole and will serve the widest variety of backyard birds.
  • A tube feeder, as the name implies, is a tube or several tubes arrayed under some form of cap and often above a tray to catch food dropped and spilled by the birds. Each tube has feeding holes along its length, usually with perches just below each hole. Tube feeders serve a wide range of bird species, regulated by the size of the perches. They generally are hung.
  • A finch, thistle or niger feeder is a variation on the tube feeder, with very small feeding holes and small perches intended to provide small seed – particularly niger seed – to species like the American goldfinch and purple finch. A very specific variation is the goldfinch feeder, which features feeding h
  • Tray or platform feeders are flat trays with raised edges. They generally are mounted atop a pole, but some can be hung. Just about any seed-eating bird will take seed from a platform feeder, but the open nature of the feeder leads to a lot of seed being knocked from the feeder and onto the ground.
  • Window feeders are smaller feeders designed to be attached by suction cups to the outside of a window for close-up viewing of the birds. They generally hold small amounts of seed.
  • Suet feeders are wire cages designed to hold cakes of suet, which are made of rendered beef fat and sometimes filled with seeds, fruits, nuts, dried mealworms and other things that birds eat. They can be hung or mounted to the sides of tree trunks, poles, other feeders and other vertical surfaces. Suet is a source of high-energy protein eagerly sought by most species of birds.
  • Could Pennsylvania see major flight of birds from the north this year?

Regardless of the type of feeder, base your decision as to placement on providing yourself the best viewing opportunities. Locate your feeder outside a window that is easily accessed and gives you relatively unobstructed viewing of the birds.

Close to shrubs or trees that will offer the feeding birds some protection to escape from predators, both airborne hunters like hawks and terrestrial threats like cats.

Multiple feeders relatively close to one another in one location tend to multiply the number of birds attracted to a feeding station.

Squirrels may be a concern with feeders in your backyard, sometimes dictating the placement of your feeders – squirrels can easily leap more than 15 feet horizontally – and calling for additional gear like anti-squirrel baffles and cages.

Various seeds are available for backyard feeding:

  • Black-oil sunflower is the most common seed and will attract the widest variety of bird species. Nearly every seed-eating bird in the backyard will eat black-oil sunflower seeds, which are relatively inexpensive.
  • Striped sunflower seeds, which are larger and harder hulled than the black oil type, are attractive to larger birds with stronger bills, such as jays and crows. Peanuts in the shell are similarly attractive to those birds for the same reasons: high nutritional yield for more effort and strength expended.
  • Hulled sunflower kernels and chips are especially attractive to the smaller birds, although offering them in most bird feeders will result in significant waste.
  • Thistle or niger seed is among the most expensive seeds. It is generally purchased by those wanting to attract goldfinches and offered in specialized feeders that thwart spillage and waste.
  • Safflower seeds, which have a bitter taste that is off-putting to many birds, is especially attractive to cardinals, one of the favorite birds among backyard birders. They can be made even more attractive to the bright red birds by offering them in tube feeders hung close to evergreens. Safflower is often recommended for bird feeders under assault by squirrels, because the mammals tend to avoid it when nearly any other food is available. Other birds attracted to safflower seeds include house finches, jays, nuthatches and house finches.
  • Millet, the small white globes in bird food mixes, is attractive to the bird species that tend to gather in large numbers at our feeders: buntings, doves, juncos and sparrows. Millet is also attractive to gamebird species like pheasants and quail.
  • Cracked corn is an inexpensive food that is high in carbohydrates and attractive to a wide range of ground-feeding birds, such as doves, grackles, jays, sparrows, starlings and towhees. It is a great addition, as a food to be cast on the ground, for those wanting to draw large numbers of common birds into their backyards.
  • Whole-kernel corn, both on and off the cob, can serve the same purpose, but mostly for larger birds. It also can be used as a large bait to divert squirrels away from bird feeders.
  • Seed mixes are of 2 general types: cheap or premium. Trying to save money by buying cheap, generic bags of “wild bird food” that include large portions of fillers like milo, oats and wheat is false economy. Much of those mixes are wasted as birds sift through it to get to the seeds they prefer. Read the ingredient list on the bag for any seed blend before buying. If it contains significant proportions of any of those filler seeds or cracked corn or ingredients that sound unnatural or chemical, leave it and move to a mix of seeds you can identify and know to be attractive to the birds you want to attract.

It may come as a surprise, but your backyard birds do not need the bird food you give them through your feeders. They will use your feeders because they are an easy source of top-level nutrition.

Readily available, ice-free water is much more critical for the birds’ survival, particularly during the coldest periods, when natural sources may become unavailable because of ice, snow and seasonal drought.

Nothing can enhance a wintertime backyard, including a backyard already packed with an array of bird feeders, as much as the addition of a water source. That source can be a bird bath, a hollow in a boulder or a pan.

Its most important aspects are clean water and available water. The first concern is a matter of regularly emptying the water source of refilling it. The second, particularly during periods of freezing temperatures, can be accomplished with the addition of a bird-bath heater, either electrical or solar.

If your backyard is new to bird feeding and having trouble in attracting the number of birds you would like to have visiting, playing the sounds of common backyard birds on outdoor speakers or speakers set up at an open window can pull in plenty of birds. Such sounds are available in any format you might need. Best times are just after dawn through mid-morning and late afternoon through sunset, prime feeding times among common backyard birds.

Contrary to what you might expect, having neighbors that also feed the birds can increase the number and diversity of birds at your feeders. More food being offered in a neighborhood can build the bird population, which will make daily rounds of all or most of the feeders in the neighborhood.

Encouraging your neighbors to join the bird-feeding hobby can pay dividends.

For fast, online help in identifying the birds you attract, visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website.

Contact Marcus Schneck at mschneck@pennlive.com.


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