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What to look for in the perfect backyard bird feeder.

Backyard Bird Feeder

February is “Feed the Birds” month in much of North America. And what great timing! If you’re going through a cold winter, you can help the wintering birds that are going through it with you. If you live further south, you’ll have not only year-round feathered friends to feed, but also an influx of migrating visitors from colder climates.

If you grow native plants in your garden, chances are good you already have quite a few feathered visitors already. If you’d like to supplement that, or if nothing in your garden attracts birds, here are some tips for successful birdfeeder use.

There are three main factors to consider when you choose where to place a feeder:

  • There must be easy year-round access. You’ll have to clean and fill the feeder in all types of weather.

  • There will always be debris under a bird feeding station, such as discarded shells, bird droppings, and so on. Choose a location where this can be easily cleaned up.

  • If there are squirrels in your neighborhood, you’ll want to place the feeder where they can’t reach it. Sure, they’re cute but they won’t share their food with the birds. The best solution for this problem is a pole-mounted feeder (the pole should be a least 10 feet from the nearest tree limb or trunk) that is either “squirrel-proof” or protected by a baffle.

    The first priority with the seed in a feeder is to keep it dry. Seed will spoil quickly when it gets damp or wet and can breed diseases like salmonella.

  • Look for feeders with some type of roof or dome to keep out direct rain water.

  • Be sure there are drainage holes in the bottom of both the seed hopper and any seed tray.

  • Clean the bird feeder regularly. How often will depend on the weather and the type of feeder you’ve chosen.

    Birds are notoriously picky eaters and they will methodically discard most of the seeds in a seed mix to get to their favorite. Seeds that wind up on the ground are likely to be contaminated by dampness and bird droppings and will be unappetizing to the birds. If you leave the debris there, you will most likely attract rodents.

    To prevent a great deal of waste, choose only the types of food that will attract the birds you want. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service recommends putting out separate feeders for each food. Why not give these a try?

  • With most birds that visit tube and house-type feeders, the hands-down favorite is black oil sunflower seeds. A tube feeder with sunflower seeds will attract goldfinches, woodpeckers, chickadees, and nuthatches. If you add a tray, you’re likely to also see cardinals, jays and finches. A bonus: sunflower seeds are NOT the first pick of crows and starlings.

  • Doves and several types of sparrows enjoy millet served in a house or platform feeder.

  • A hanging suet feeder will be a treat for woodpeckers, as well as chickadees, wrens, nuthatches and cardinals. Starlings also like suet but you can discourage them by using a suet feeder with access only at the bottom. Starlings are reluctant to perch upside down but chickadees and woodpeckers don’t mind at all. If you’re in a warmer climate, use commercially rendered suet cakes that are safe for use in the heat, rather than raw beef fat.

There is no research to indicate that backyard bird feeding has a negative effect on wild bird populations. In fact, it may help in many situations, such as when natural food sources are scarce or birds are migrating. Once you start feeding though, you should keep it up throughout the year. And don’t let the feeders get empty before re-filling, or the birds will look for food elsewhere and may take a while to find you again. What specific birds you attract and feed will vary depending on your location and the treats you offer. You can look in a bird field guide to determine which species are likely to be in your area and then look up what foods are their favorites. So get out there and feed the birds!

Debbie Rodgers, the haven maven, owns and operates Paradise Porch, and is dedicated to helping people create outdoor living spaces that nurture and enrich them. Her latest how-to guide “Attracting Butterflies to Your Home and Garden” is now available on her web site. Visit her at and get a free report on “Eight easy ways to create privacy in your outdoor space”.

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