A Beginner’s Guide to Backyard Bird Feeding

During May, we’re celebrating Garden for Wildlife Month by encouraging people to make wildlife habitat in their backyard, balcony, farm, community, or other garden spot. For every spot that becomes a Certified Wildlife Habitat®, we’ll plant a tree to help another habitat. Enjoy these tips to help you on your way to certify!

Bird FeederBelow is a quick guide to feeding birds year round. For more resources, check out National Wildlife Federation’s Bird Feeding 101 Tips Page.

When to Feed?

In the late spring and throughout the summer, birds have an easier time finding natural food from plants and insects. Still, they will make use of bird feeders year-round and especially benefit from them in the winter.

Types of Feeders

People who are new to backyard or balcony bird feeding sometimes wonder about what kind of bird feeder to get, where to put it and what seeds to provide. Most of them hold seeds, but others are designed to hold packets of suet or fat and still others provide sugar water or “nectar” — a favorite of hummingbirds.

  • House or Hopper feeders are a common feeder type comprised of a platform in with walls and a small roof surrounding the seed.
  • Tube feeders are another commonly used type of feeder.  They hold seeds in a central (refillable) tube and either have holes with perches along their length or deposit the seeds onto a lower tray.  Tube feeders are usually hung hanging to keep them (mostly) out of reach of squirrels. A smaller version of a tube feeder is a favorite of finches because it holds thistle or nyjer seed.
  • Tray or platform feeders are flat feeders usually elevated on a pole that provide a platform on which the birds can gather and pick through the seed.  There are ground versions too.
  • Window feeders are often smaller feeders that can be secured to the outside of a window by suction cups and provide a close-up look at the birds while they feed.
  • Suet feeders are most often cage-like containers that hold suet “cakes” made up of fat.
  • Hummingbird or nectar feeders hold sweet liquid for these tiny birds that mostly feed of the nectar of flowers.

Check out all of the bird products that you can purchase from NWF! Purchases support our mission to protect species in need.

What size bird feeder?

It’s important to put out feeders with good size capacity and/or use multiple feeders to provide ample food, especially during snow and ice storms.  There are many stores in your area that sell excellent bird feeders including bird-specific stores and most lawn and garden centers. You can also visit the National Wildlife Federation’s online backyard store to purchase feeders while also supporting the Federation’s conservation work.

Squirrel-Proof Feeders

In some areas squirrels will make it their main goal to empty your feeder before the birds get a chance.  The good news is there are a number of very effective squirrel proof feeders including a tube feeder surrounded by a cage with spaces the birds can get through but the squirrels can’t. Check out these 10 Tips for Outwitting Squirrels.

Bird Food Basics

Different birds eat different things, so it helps to offer a variety of food types.  For starters:

  • Black-Oil Sunflower is the most popular bird seed, and attracts a variety of birds to your feeder.  Blue jays, cardinals, chickadees, finches, nuthatches, and sparrows love it.  New to backyard birding?  Black-oil sunflower seeds are a great place to start!
  • Thistle or Nyjer is a small, high quality, seed that goldfinches love. These birds have a beautiful gold color and they are a pleasure to watch along with their cousins, the red-hued house finches and bright-colored buntings. Thistle seed requires a special bird (finch) feeder with smaller holes,
  • Seed mixes are popular for beginners because they attract many different types of birds.  They can be messy though because birds pick over unwanted seeds and toss them away.  “No-mess” seed mixes, that have been de-hulled, will cut down on the mess below your feeder.  They are more likely be picked up by ground feeding birds, such as doves, juncos, sparrows or even squirrels.
  • Suet is basically a cake of animal fat and is a healthy source of protein for birds, especially in the winter months.  When food is scarce, suet may be a lifeline for many birds in your yard. Suet is often mixed with some seeds and served through suet cages.
  • Nectar is colored sugar water and requires what is called a hummingbird feeder.  Hummingbirds are the most notable nectar-loving birds. They are a pleasure to watch in your backyard.  The increasingly rare oriole is a fruit-eating bird that also enjoys nectar.
  • Smorgasbird: there are many other types of food that you can feed birds. Many birds enjoy peanuts, peanut butter, cracked corn, millet, apple pieces and oranges.  Even bread crumbs can be attractive.

For more, read Which Bird Seeds Are Best?

Cleaning Bird Feeders

Your feeders can get a little grimy. Because natural food sources are scarcer in the winter, more birds may be attracted to backyard feeders and those feeders will need to be cleaned with some hot water and dried a few times during the season.

A few other pointers…

  • If you put out more than one feeder in different parts of the yard, more birds will come.  Some species are comfortable in crowds but others like their space.
  • Also, try to position your feeder a few feet from a bush or tree.  This gives the birds a staging area from which they can wait and then swoop in, pick a few seeds and retreat to safety.  Hawks are very crafty in their ability to catch birds hanging around feeders too long.
  • Once you start feeding birds in the winter, it is best to stick with it.  Birds need the most calories in colder months and they will come to depend on your kindness.
  • Finally, it can save money to stock up on seed, but keep it in a cool dry place.


Bird feeding can be a valuable addition to your wildlife gardening.  You are especially welcome to learn how, with your enthusiasm for backyard birds and wildlife, you can enroll your yard as a National Wildlife Federation Certified Wildlife Habitat® – right at home!

Learn more about attracting wildlife to your garden and how to create a National Wildlife Federation Certified Wildlife Habitat® >>