ChickadeeThis is a popular time of year to feed birds. Watching birds at the feeder is a fun and educational family activity that you can do from within the house when the days are cold or rainy.

November through April are especially good times to hang feeders, providing winter birds a source of food at a time when it might otherwise be scarce. But hanging a bird feeder doesn’t guarantee that you’ll see a variety of species at your feeder. In neighboring backyards, one feeder might attract bluebirds and the other only mourning doves. Why? There are many factors, but three are primary:

  • Location of your feeder
  • Style of feeder
  • Kind of food you supply

Here are a few tips to successful bird feeding:

Feeder location – Birds need a “staging” area–a place from which they can observe the feeder and surrounding area before the risky trip to, from, and at the feeder. If possible, place your bird feeder within 10 to 15 feet of a tree or bush where birds can take refuge. Don’t hang your feeder too close to a window (unless, of course, you’re hanging a window feeder); if a predator appears and a feeder bird needs to make a quick escape, crashing into your window can cause injury and even death. Make sure your feeder is visible and in a location where you can easily replenish it.

Feeder Style – Some species of birds prefer a particular type of feeder. There are feeders with perches, platform feeders, and feeders on which birds can cling and hang vertically. Suet feeders are good for clinging birds like woodpeckers and nuthatches. Perch feeders will bring in smaller birds like sparrows and finches, and platform feeders attract grosbeaks, cardinals, and doves. If you can’t hang different styles of feeders, try a hopper feeder. A hopper type feeder looks like a large see-through can with mesh wire sides and a flat top and bottom that extends well beyond the mesh sides. My hopper feeder attracts all kinds of birds–they can cling to the metal mesh or stand on the bottom disk of the feeder. Species at my feeder include; Juncos, American Goldfinches, Northern Cardinals, both White- and Red-breasted Nuthatches, Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, Mourning Doves, House Finches, Tufted Titmice, and Black-capped and Carolina Chickadees, just to name those that I have seen while writing this blog.

Type of Food – Sunflower seed is the best all-round seed for songbirds. It will attract the most species of birds and hulled sunflower (shell removed) leaves no waste. Be careful when you purchase bags of mixed seed–read the contents carefully. Millet (tiny little round white seeds) can bring in too many unwanted large birds like blackbirds, pigeons, and doves and their droppings can cause too much of a mess for some people. Suet is good for woodpeckers but requires a suet feeder. Bread contains no real nutrients for birds–it is generally considered “empty” calories. Bird seed and suet are best for winter feeding. Purchase your seed from a wild bird store if possible–where supplies turn over quickly so the seed is generally the freshest you can purchase. If you see moths in your bird seed, dispose of it immediately so they don’t breed. Store your seed in a dry, protected area where rodents and pests can’t easily access it.

Remember to keep your cats indoors where they can’t possibly harm our precious wild songbirds.

clean your feeders often (use a brush and clean with a solution of bleach and water and rinse thoroughly) and purchase a field guide to birds so you and your family can learn to identify the birds at your feeder.

Learn more about feeding and watching birds at the Project Feederwatch site. Visit the National Wildlife Federation for information on gardening for birds and other wildlife.

Happy feederwatching!

Woman with cameraJane Kirkland is the award-winning author of the “Take A Walk®” series of nature discovery books as well as “No Student Left Indoors: Creating a Field Guide to Your Schoolyard”, the acclaimed educator’s guide to helping students discover nature in their schoolyard. To learn more about Jane and her books visit:

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Published: January 30, 2008