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Bird Feeder Tips from a Bird Biologist

I get commissions for purchases made through Amazon affiliate links in this post.

Personally, I love having bird feeders- especially during the pandemic. Although my husband and I have been spending most of our time in our small 800 square foot apartment over the last 8 months, our bird feeders have helped us feel connected to nature and the outdoors. Whether it’s because of the pandemic or simply because of colder winter temperatures, I’ve found that bird feeders can help make being stuck inside a little more bearable. Strategically placing our bird feeders so they are visible from our desks has honestly been great for our mental health.

The information and recommendations in this post are based on a combination of scientific research and our own personal experiences. To be clear, I am not a bird biologist (aka an ornithologist)- but my husband is. He has over 5 years of experience working with and studying birds, so he knows a thing or two about attracting them to your feeders. Over the last year, we documented almost 30 species of birds at our feeders on our small apartment patio.

My husband, Tom, with a snowy owl.

Some people have concerns that bird feeders are detrimental to birds. For the most part, feeders provide birds with supplemental food. Currently, there is no scientific evidence that these supplemental foods are detrimental to birds. In general, bird species that commonly visit feeders tend to be doing better than species that do not. As long as you appropriate action to minimize disease transmission, window collisions, and predation risks (especially from cats), setting up bird feeders can be a good way to help support local birds.

Considerations

Keeping Birds Safe

If you’re genuinely interested in setting up your own feeders, there are a few things that you’ll want to think about to make sure you’re keeping birds safe.

Cats: Do you live on the first floor? This may seem arbitrary, but it’s important. Feral and outdoor cats kill an estimated 2.4 billion birds in the U.S. alone every year. If you live on the ground floor, birds may be more vulnerable to getting attacked by cats while visiting your feeders. For this reason (and many others we will discuss in another post), if you own a cat, it is best to keep it indoors. When my husband first moved to Ft. Worth, he refrained from putting up feeders because he lived on the first floor in an apartment complex with an ample number of outdoor cats.

Hawks: Inevitably, lots of bird activity at your feeders will attract bird-eating hawks such as Cooper’s hawks and sharp-shinned hawks- something my husband and I can personally attest to. If you start to have issues with hawks, take the feeders down for a few days and the hawks should move on.

Windows: It is estimated that millions of birds die every year from window collisions. During the day, this typically happens because windows can reflect vegetation or the sky. The best way to minimize window collisions are to break up the reflections on the window. This can be achieved in many ways, including the addition of streamers, suction cups, or decals. One product recommended by the ABC are Feather Friendly Window Markers (pictured below)- adhesive dots which break up the reflection of the window. The American Bird Conservancy has compiled a list of resources and products which help make glass safe for birds. Alternatively, you can reduce mortality from window collisions by moving your feeder within 3 feet of the window, which is a great practical option when you live in an apartment. When feeders are placed close to a window, it is difficult for birds to gain enough momentum to get seriously injured when leaving the feeder. My husband and I can attest to this. Our platform and small tube feeder are a couple of feet outside of our dining room window, and although birds occasionally collide with the window, it is always at a much lower speed than our living room window (which is about 6 feet away from the closest feeder).

Products like these adhesive Feather Friendly Window Markers help break up the reflections created by windows, reducing chances of bird collisions.

Squirrels: If you set up bird feeders, there is a VERY strong chance that you will attract squirrels. My husband can attest to the fact that keeping squirrels away from your feeders is an uphill battle. This video does a really great (and hilarious) job highlighting why squirrels are such formidable opponents. At my last apartment, a squirrel figured out how to scale the wall of my apartment building (like Spiderman) to reach the feeder. You can buy feeders which are designed to prevent squirrels from accessing the bird seed, mount feeders on a pole in an open area (at least 10 feet from the nearest shrub or tree), or create a dedicated squirrel feeder. If you live in an apartment, you may have to accept that it will be very difficult to prevent squirrels from accessing your feeders.

Feeder Cam Livestreams

Setting up bird feeders may not be a practical option for everyone. Depending on your finances, location, willingness to maintain feeders, or the layout of your home, setting up a bird feeder may not be realistic for you. If you have concerns or hesitations about setting up your own feeders, that doesn’t mean you can’t still enjoy them!

There are quite a handful of bird feeder live streams from around the globe. Throwing up a live stream on your computer or TV can be a great way to connect to birds and nature without needing your own feeders. Plus, it can be a lot of fun trying to identify birds that you may not be familiar with. My husband and I have gotten a lot of enjoyment out of this Allen bird cam live stream from Pretoria, South Africa. Since we have a field guide for South African birds, we have a lot of fun trying to identify the different birds on the live stream.

Live stream of a bird feeder from Pretoria, South Africa.

If you have kids, trying to identify birds on live streams can be a great way to introduce them to naturalism. I could also see this being a great option for individuals living in assisted living facilities, dorms, or apartments where setting up bird feeders may not be possible. These live streams are a great way of bringing the outdoors in.

Here are some links to some other livestreams by Cornell:

Where to Shop

You can find bird seed and feeders from a wide array of vendors from Walmart and Amazon to Home Depot and other hardware stores.

Personally, I would do some research to see if you have a local specialty bird shop. These businesses tend to be much smaller, but have a much wider selection of feeders and bird food. We’ve also found them to be extremely knowledgeable, friendly, and helpful (which is really great when you’re first getting started or adjusting your setup). Personally, we like to shop at Wild Bird Center, which has a variety of locations around the country. Wild Birds Unlimited is another option that is a little more widely distributed.

Choosing the Right Food

Different types of food are likely to attract different types of birds. Project Feederwatch provides a good breakdown of the types of birds that different foods will attract.

Bird foods include (but are not limited to):

  • Sunflower seed: this is the most common type of bird food in North America. Its thin shells and high energy make it a favorite food of many common birds (such as cardinals, chickadees, sparrows, etc.)
  • Hulled sunflower seeds: these are sunflower seeds with the shells removed. This tends to be more accessible to a wider variety of birds, and makes less of a mess than traditional sunflower seeds.
  • Fruit: different fruits can be used to attract birds like orioles, mockingbirds, Cedar Waxwings, and more.
  • Mealworms: Mealworms are the commercially available larvae of the mealworm beetle. Whether live or dried, this is a favorite of many insect-eating birds like chickadees, titmice, and bluebirds.
  • Millet: typically found in seed mixes, millet is a favorite food of many ground foraging birds, like juncos and sparrows.
  • Milo: this seed tends to be found in inexpensive seed mixes, and is not a favorite of most birds.
  • Nyjer: nyjer seeds are very small seeds which attract finches, such as American Goldfinches and Pine Siskins. Because of their small size, nyjer seeds require a special feeder.
  • Oats: although not normally found in seed mixes, you can attract birds such as doves and quail by adding oats to a platform feeder.
  • Peanuts: we can personally attest that peanuts are a favorite of many birds including doves, chickadees, Blue Jays, titmice, woodpeckers, and more. Pre-shelled peanuts are best for smaller birds like chickadees. Avoid using salted or flavored peanuts.
  • Suet: in essence, suet is a chunk of beef fat which is highly appealing to many insect-eating birds. You can often find cakes, which are also made with seeds or fruits.

One of the biggest recommendations my husband has is using a pre-hulled seed, like Wild Bird Center’s Patiowise bird seed, which includes hulled sunflower seeds, peanuts, and pumpkin seeds. There are a couple of reasons for this: 1) without seed casings, it makes less of a mess (which is nice when have a patio or have downstairs neighbors that may not appreciate shells from sunflower seeds peppering the floor of their patio. 2) Not all birds can shell seeds like sunflowers. Cardinals, for example, have a large beak which is built to easily remove the shells from seeds. Birds like wrens however, have much smaller beaks that aren’t necessarily designed to remove seed casings. If you buy pre-hulled seeds, even birds with slender bills can enjoy sunflower seeds.

“Patiowise” bird seed (left) with hulled sunflower seeds vs normal bird seed (right).

Choosing the Right Bird Feeder

There are many different types and styles of bird feeders, which are designed for different foods and attract different kinds of birds.

Ground

Many species of birds prefer to feed on large, flat surfaces and may be hesitant to visit feeders. In our experience, Dark-eyed Juncos have never eaten from our feeders, but will readily eat seed if we scatter it on the ground. It’s a little bit of a mess, but we enjoy seeing the birds hopping around the patio.

Platform Feeders

Platform feeders are essentially a flat, raised or hanging surface onto which bird food is spread. It should have drain holes to prevent the accumulation of water. Some are made with covers to help keep seed dry, but ours is uncovered since the overhang on our patio usually shelters the feeder from rain. Platform feeders are well-suited for a wide variety of bird species, especially ground-foraging birds (like doves and sparrows). They are also compatible with a many food types, including most seeds, oats, mealworms, and fruit.

Wild Bird Center’s “Going Green” platform feeder ($32.99), made from recycled milk jugs. Photo from Wild Bird Center

If you’re going to pick one type of bird feeder, I would recommend a platform feeder, like this cedar platform feeder or this recycled plastic platform feeder. Many birds like doves, juncos, etc. are used to foraging on the ground, so eating off of a platform feeder comes naturally to them. Platform feeders attract a wide diversity of birds and may come more naturally to birds than traditional bird feeders.

Tube Feeders

Tube feeders are probably what most people think of when they picture a bird feeder. These are typically a hollow cylinder made of glass or plastic with ports that allow birds to access seeds from perches.

A red-bellied woodpecker visiting our large tube feeder.

The types of birds your tube feeder will attract can vary based on the size of the perches. Smaller feeders and perches tend to be best suited for small birds like chickadees, sparrows, and titmice. Larger perches tend to be more accessible to larger birds like large woodpeckers and Blue Jays. However, some determined and clever larger birds may surprise you with their dexterity. It’s not uncommon for Blue Jays and woodpeckers to visit our smaller tube feeder.

You may also want to consider attaching a tray to the bottom of a tube feeder, effectively creating a hybrid tube/platform feeder. This helps make your tube feeders more accessible to birds that may not be comfortable with perches or physically cannot use them. I’ve seen many doves try to use the perches on the tube feeder, but it’s definitely a struggle for them. We have found a tray to be especially helpful whenever you’re dealing with birds that are unfamiliar with feeders. It’s also a nice way to start off your bird feeder setup because it gives you the benefits of both a platform and tube feeder without needing two separate feeders. At our current apartment, we eventually decided to remove the tray because we found it made our tube feeder a little *too* accessible to the 30+ doves that regularly visit our feeders.

Many tube feeders are designed so removable trays can be attached to the bottom, like this tray from Wild Bird Center ($12.99). Photo from Wild Bird Center

Nyjer Socks & Feeders

These feeders have especially small holes which are designed to dispense nyjer (thistle) seed. Typically, this type of seed is eaten almost exclusively by finches- such as American Goldfinch and Pine Siskin which have small, sharp beaks. If you’re going to use nyjer seed, it’s best to have a dedicated feeder since most birds will not eat thistle seeds.

There are a couple of options when it comes to nyjer feeders. There are different styles of nyjer tube feeders, which typically cost $20 or more. Most nyjer tube feeders are made with mesh, where finches can land and easily remove the small seeds.

If you’re like us, you may not want to invest a lot of money in a feeder if you aren’t sure it will actually be used. Nyjer socks are a great option- they’re basically a mesh bag and tend to be a much more affordable option (you can easily get them for <$10).

To be clear, a nyjer feeder is not necessary to attract finches. Personally, our goldfinches and pine siskins seem to enjoy our normal bird seed more than nyjer seeds. I would only suggest getting a nyjer feeder if you know that you have finches who would use it.

Suet Feeders

Suet cages are designed to hold suet (beef fat) or suet cakes (suet mixed with seeds or other food). These feeders are good for attracting insect-eating birds like woodpeckers, nuthatches, and chickadees. I’ll note that I’ve seen other birds eat suet too- including doves.

Extreme heat can melt suet and cause it to spoil. We usually take ours down once temperatures begin to warm up in the spring, and put it back up in the fall.

Titmouse at a suet feeder. Image from Wild Bird Center.

Fruit Feeders

I was first exposed to fruit feeders was while I was studying abroad in Costa Rica. A large number of birds in the tropics enjoy fruit, so it was common to see bananas, papaya, and other fruit nailed to boards to attract birds. A less crude (but equally effective) option is to add fruit to platform feeders.

A blue-gray tanager inspecting bananas at a feeder in Costa Rica.

In North America, including fruit at bird feeders is much less common. Most often, fruit (such as orange halves or slices) can be used to try and attract orioles. Other fruits, such as grapes and raisins, can attract other birds such as mockingbirds and Cedar Waxwings. If you decide to add fruit to your bird feeders, you’ll want to keep an eye out to make sure they don’t get moldy.

Hummingbird Feeders

These feeders are specially designed to disperse sugar water for hummingbirds. These feeders are rather unique, so I plan to describe them in more detail in a dedicated future post. We normally put our hummingbird feeder up around the same time we take our suet cage down in the spring.

Maintaining your Feeders

One of the drawbacks of bird feeders is that they can facilitate the spread of disease. If you aren’t willing to regularly clean your bird feeders, you may be doing more harm than good.

Regardless of what type of feeder you have, you’ll want to make sure you clean it regularly to remove any rotting food debris and disease-causing bacteria like Salmonella. One study found that soaking feeders in a diluted bleach solution for 10 minutes helps remove more bacteria than washing with soap and water alone. Alternatively, you can soak the feeder in a weak vinegar solution for 1 hour, then scrub any debris with a clean brush, and rinse thoroughly. A third option is to run them in a dishwasher with hot water (we use a dish detergent with bleach for good measure).

One of the drawbacks of tube feeders in particular is that they require birds to insert their heads into the feeder. This can facilitate the spread of conditions like conjunctivitis, an eye condition which occurs in finches. Sometimes called House Finch eye disease, this infection can cause birds eyes to become swollen shut, causing blindness in extreme cases. To minimize this, you should regularly clean tube feeders. My husband likes to run our empty tube feeders though the dishwasher about once a week. If you notice an outbreak of conjunctivitis, you may want to take down your tube feeders until the infected birds recover, pass on, or leave.

Various stages of conjunctivitis in House Finches, which causes red, swollen, watery, and crusty eyes. In extreme cases, this can result in blindness. Image gallery from Project Feederwatch

Our Feeder Setup

Our apartment is on the third floor and has several trees nearby, where birds often post up in before and after visiting our feeders. We live off of the Trinity River in Fort Worth (e.g. there is a fair amount of green space and trees around). We are fortunate in the fact that our patio is extremely difficult for both cats and squirrels to reach.

Our feeders are positioned along our patio so they can be seen from our living and dining rooms. Incidentally, we can also see our feeders from our desks, which has made working from home a lot more bearable.

This shows a portion of our feeder setup on our apartment patio. Currently, we have a nyjer sock hanging over a platform feeder next to a small tube feeder. With the exception of the nyjer sock, we use Patiowise seed for all our feeders.

Our setup varies with the seasons. Currently it includes: a platform feeder, a large tube feeder, a small tube feeder, and a nyjer sock. Aside from the nyjer sock, we only use Wild Bird Center’s Patiowise bird seed for our platform and tube feeders. We also have a suet feeder, but have not put it up yet for the fall. During the summer, we take down the suet feeder and replace it with a hummingbird feeder. As I mentioned earlier in this post, we have documented almost 30 bird species over the last year, including: goldfinches, Orange-crowned Warblers, Dark-eyed Juncos, Pine Siskins, Red-winged Blackbirds, Downy Woodpeckers, and many more.

If you’re interested in starting your own bird feeders but want a setup a little less extensive than ours, then my husband recommends buying one platform feeder and one small tube feeder for the most bang for your buck. The platform feeder will attract a wide diversity of birds, but if larger-bodied birds start to take over (like our swarm of 30+ White-winged Doves) the smaller and more dexterous birds (such as titmice and chickadees) can still visit and feed at the small tube-feeder. Something for everyone. 

Project Feederwatch

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology runs a citizen-science project every year from November to April called Project FeederWatch, where residents of the U.S. and Canada report on birds visiting their yards and feeders. Although it might seem trivial, data from projects like Feederwatch have been invaluable for assessing long-term trends in North American bird populations.

If you are interested, you can read more about FeederWatch on their website.

Not super confident in your bird identifying skills? Not to worry! If you need help identifying birds, there are many resources and apps (such as iNaturalist and Cornell’s “Merlin” app) which are very helpful.

Final Thoughts

I have obviously not addressed everything there is to discuss about bird feeders in this post. If you have additional questions about bird feeders, nonnative birds, squirrels, landscaping for birds, feeder placement, and more you can find more information at Project FeederWatch’s website.

Keep in mind that every setup is different. Even if you use the exact same feeders and seed as me and Tom, you will likely get different results depending on where you live and the surrounding habitat and vegetation. At my last apartment, we only had cardinals and house finches visit our feeder (even though we used the same feeders and seed we do now).

My biggest piece of advice: Be patient. It may take time for birds in your location to discover your feeders and figure out how they work.

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