Betta Fish Care & Aquarium Tips

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When it comes to aquariums, betta fish are a popular choice for many people. There’s a good reason for this: in addition to their vibrant colors and large fins, they can be relatively easy to care for. When properly cared for, betta fish can live 3-5 years in captivity. But caring for a fish isn’t as straightforward as throwing a fish in a bowl of water- there’s a lot more to it. Although this post focuses on caring for betta fish, it has information which may be helpful for anyone looking to setup a freshwater fish tank!

My Experience with Betta Fish

I got my first betta fish when I was a sophomore in college. Long story short: I was very depressed at the time, and thought that having an animal that was entirely dependent on me would motivate me to get out of bed (it actually did, but that’s a topic for another day).

My initial setup may sound familiar to some of you: a small (<1 gallon) fish bowl with marbles and a couple of fake, plastic plants. I wasn’t great about changing the water as often as I should, and didn’t have any kind of filtration system. Sadly, I haven’t been able to find a picture of the initial setup

My junior year, I decided that my fish (Smaug) needed an upgrade. I switched to a 2.5 gallon filtered tank with live plants. I’ll be honest, I really didn’t know what I was doing. I lost the first couple of plants before finally getting a hornwort to survive. There was also a snail (named Gary). I honestly thought I was doing an amazing job at the time.

In hindsight, I know that I made a LOT of mistakes with Smaug, and I’ve always wanted another shot at a planted aquarium. I’m currently in the process of establishing a new 5 gallon planted aquarium (see details below). I am planning to get a betta fish once my aquarium and plants are fully established.

About Betta Fish

Like many houseplants, I’ve always found that understanding what a species is like in the wild makes it easier to care for in captivity.

Betta fish (aka Siamese fighting fish, Betta splendens) are freshwater fish native to southeast Asia, especially Thailand. They live in canals, marshes, rice paddies, and floodplains- shallow bodies of water with abundant aquatic and floating vegetation. Because these types of habitats are prone to low oxygen levels, betta fish have a labyrinth, a lung-like organ allows certain fish to gulp air from the surface. They often feed on zooplankton, crustaceans, and aquatic insect larvae.

In the wild, betta fish are drab colors: olive green, brown, and grey. The spectacular colors and fin shapes you see in the pet store are the product of selective breeding (aka artificial selection– a topic for another post).

Sad fact: they’re not doing great in the wild, primarily as a result of pollution and habitat degradation. Betta splendens is listed as “vulnerable” by the IUCN red list.

Reproduction and Bubble Nests

If you’ve ever had a betta fish, you might be familiar with bubble nests– clusters of bubbles on the surface of the water. Bubble nests play an important role in reproduction. After mating, the male will place the fertilized eggs in a bubble nest, which he will guard carefully as the eggs incubate (also see this paper). The bubble nest helps keep the eggs aerated and protected from potential predators.

By understanding their ecology, we can glean a few things about caring for these fish:

  1. Males are aggressive and territorial: most betta fish that you see sold at the pet store are male, so it’s not necessarily a great idea for a betta fish to have a “tank mate.” You might be thinking, “but what if he gets lonely??” Let me share my experience: when I had Smaug, I impulsively decided to try adding an African dwarf frog to his tank. It was fine for a while, until the frog took a bite of Smaug’s fin. Thankfully I witnessed this happen (and was able to intervene), otherwise that frog probably would have died at Smaug’s hands (…er, fins). Male betta fish are known kill other bettas (including females). By contrast, if you want female betta fish, they can coexist in small groups of up to 10 females. There are some small fish species that can coexist in a community with a male betta (especially in a large tank with adequate hiding places). If you’re just starting out, it is probably easiest to treat bettas as a single-aquarium fish.
  2. They like warm water. These fish are from the tropics, so they’re adapted to warm water temperatures (between 75 and 82 degrees F). You’re probably going to want to get a water heater, otherwise your fish may be chronically stressed (which is bad for their immune system and overall health).
  3. They like to have shade. Most aquarium kits come with an LED light. While this isn’t a bad thing (especially if you’re planning to add live plants), a fish that is adapted for highly vegetated ecosystems isn’t gong to be crazy about being stuck in bright light all the time. In the wild, betta are accustomed to floating plants which they use for shelter from predators (amongst other things). In other words, without some kind of cover, your betta may be stressed, bored, or both. To that end, it’s good to provide some shade- especially in the form of floating plants or structures.
  4. They like vegetation. Because bettas involved in highly vegetated habitats, they enjoy getting to rest and move through vegetation. They do best in a tank with plenty of places to rest and hide (especially silk or live plants). Just make sure there is space for the fish to be able to swim around.
  5. They can get bored. In the wild, bettas spend time actively foraging, monitoring and defending their territory, etc. Giving them a sizable, complex tank (with plenty of vegetation and such) will help them stay occupied.
  6. They can tolerate harsh water conditions. The natural habitat of betta fish is prone to a) low oxygen and b) sudden, extreme changes in water availability, chemistry, and temperature. This is part of what makes them fairly decent pets- they won’t die immediately if the water quality isn’t perfect.
  7. They are mainly carnivorous. Their diet should consist mainly of animal protein. They aren’t adapted to digest carbohydrates like corn and wheat. It’s best to feed protein-based pellets, flakes, or invertebrates (such as brine shrimp, bloodworms, and daphnia).
  8. They are prone to over-eating. This isn’t necessarily unique to bettas- most wild animals will capitalize on food whenever they can, since they don’t necessarily know where their next meal is coming from. It is best to feed bettas at most once a day to avoid over-feeding.
  9. Bubble nests are a good thing. If you think about it, the production of a bubble nest by a male is an indicator that he thinks the habitat is suitable for reproduction. In other words, if he makes a bubble nest, that’s a sign you’re probably doing something right.

What You’ll Need to Care for Betta

Something that is important to remember about setting up a fish tank: you’re basically setting up an enclosed ecosystem. It can take time, but also requires some more considerations for the environment than other pets in enclosures.

Water Chemistry & The Nitrogen Cycle

Fish are different from most terrestrial animals- which typically eliminate nitrogenous (nitrogen-based) waste as aurea or uric acid. Instead, fish produce ammonia, a toxic compound which they excrete into the water. Under normal circumstances, ammonia would be a) diluted in large bodies of water, or b) be broken down by bacteria into nitrite. In a fish tank, ammonia can build up and reach dangerous concentrations for your fish. It is very important to monitor ammonia levels and treat with chemical products that remove ammonia if necessary. Establishing a healthy bacteria population can help, since they’ll convert ammonia into nitrite. Nitrite is *also* toxic, but can be converted into nitrate (not toxic) by bacteria. (The conversion of ammonia to nitrite to nitrate is generally referred to as the nitrogen cycle). With any fish tank, monitoring ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate levels is critical to the health of your fish.


  • A 5+ Gallon tank. One of the biggest mistakes most people (including me) make with betta fish is using too small of an aquarium. Often, you see them in the pet store in small plastic cups and think that anything would be an improvement…right? In reality, male betta fish should have a minimum of a 5 gallon tank. This allows them to exhibit normal swimming and hiding behaviors. If you’re wanting a smaller tank, you might want to consider a different fish. Can they survive in a smaller tank? Sure. But they won’t be living their best life.
  • A way to monitor ammonia and nitrite levels. I’ve been using API test strips as a quick way to check nitrite and nitrate levels while I get my tank set up. I also have a more precise freshwater test kit, which I plan to use as I get closer to adding my betta.
  • A way to detoxify ammonia (either by establishing bacteria or using a product like Ammo-lock)
  • Substrate (pebbles, marbles, etc.)- if you’re going with live plants, you’ll want to do some research on this one.
  • Decorations– especially Shelter and/or silk plants. I can tell you from experience- decorations and plastic plants with sharp edges can tear betta fins. If you don’t want to go all-in on live plants, look for silk artificial plants instead.
  • Protein-based food
  • Dechlorinated water. In case no one has told you this: most of our tap water contains a small amount of chlorine. While this works fabulously to prevent transmission of water-borne diseases, it’s not great for fish. If using tap water, you’ll want to use a water conditioner that removes or neutralizes chlorine first.

Things that may be helpful:

  • Quick start bacteria (to jump start bacteria in the nitrogen cycle)
  • Water pump and filter. It’s not a requirement, but getting a water filter will reduce how often you need to do water changes. Most aquarium starter kits will come with a pump and filter.
  • LED light
  • Water heater. Okay, this isn’t absolutely a requirement- a betta can survive without one. But heaters aren’t terribly expensive, and they definitely make things better for your betta.
  • Water siphon (this makes water changes SO MUCH EASIER)

Things which are totally extra (and not necessary):

  • Live plants (and everything that goes with that- grow lights, fertilizer, root tabs, tools for pruning, etc.)
  • Snails or other invertebrates
  • Live prey and treats

If you’re just starting out with a fish tank, I would recommend starting with the essentials. You can always build up and upgrade over time as you gain confidence for caring for fish.

My New Setup

As I’ve mentioned, I don’t have a new betta fish (yet), but I thought it would be worth mentioning what I’m doing for my new tank.

For the tank itself, I decided to use the Marineland Portrait 5 Gallon Aquarium kit. It includes an aquarium, lid, LED light, filter, and pump. By choosing a tank with a relatively small base, we thought that the aquarium would be more versatile in our small apartment. We chose 5 gallons because I wanted to make sure it was big enough for a betta, but didn’t want to get over my head or take up too much space. I also like that the water pump and filter are hidden out of sight- it gives a very sleek, organized look.

When it came to substrate, I wanted to choose something that was designed to promote healthy bacteria growth. I ended up going with a white Imagitarium aquatic substrate (partially because that’s the best option I could find at my local pet stores because I wasn’t patient enough to wait for shipping). For decorations, I wanted a natural and organic look, so I went with a small piece of driftwood and lava rock. I have had some fungal growth on my driftwood- allegedly this is harmless, normal, and will go away with time, so I will address that in future updates.

I never used a heater in Smaug’s fish tank. This time around, I got a heater designed for fish tanks under 6 gallons which maintains my tank at 78 degrees F (this is good for my plants too, since most aquarium plants are also tropical and do best in warmer water temps). I strategically placed it behind the driftwood so that you can’t see it from the front of the tank.


Here’s a picture of my aquarium from my Instagram (if you click to show the second image, I’ve labeled each of the plants with their common names)

For the plants, I tried to do a bit of research (instead of grabbing whatever looked cool at the pet store, which is what I did the first time around). I opted to buy most of my plants in person, since I had concerns about shipping in the middle of winter. I also wanted to go with several different species just in case the conditions in my tank didn’t end up being suitable for one of them. Currently, my tank has the following plants:

  • Java fern (Microsorium pteropus)- this was the one plant I knew my tank needed. These plants are fairly tall, have large leaves and are supposed to be beginner-friendly (aka easy to care for).
  • Asian water fern aka el Nino fern (Bolbitis heteroclita): this was somewhat of an impulse buy. There weren’t a ton of healthy looking java ferns to choose from, so I did some quick Googling in the middle of Petsmart when trying to decide what other leafy plants I could get.
  • Needle leaf ludwigia (Ludwigia arcuata)- I got this plant as a bit of a challenge- it needs moderate to high light, so it tends to be harder to care for than the other plants I chose. So far, it looks like they’re putting out new growth, so I’d say it’s going well!
    • If you look closely at the setup of my tank, you’ll notice that the floating plants are on the opposite site of the tank from the ludwigia. This was deliberate- I wanted to make sure it was getting as much light as possible.
  • Cryptocoryne wendtii “Green”: I wasn’t initially searching for this one, but came across it at Petco and decided to look it up. It is supposed to thrive in all light conditions and be easy to grow. (Can confirm- all 4 that I purchased have put out a fair amount of visible root growth in the last week.)
    • Rookie mistake: I didn’t read the instructions carefully before I started setting up the tank. Unlike most other plants (whose roots should be buried in substrate), this plant does best when placed on top of rocks or other surfaces. Over time, its roots grow to hold it in place. Had I realized that before I began setting up my tank, I would have glued these plants to the driftwood and lava rock in my tank. Instead, I had to awkwardly wedge them between the rock and sides of the tank to hold them in place. They’ve come loose several times, so these aquascaping tools have definitely come in handy.
  • Floating plants: I wanted to include floating plants for a couple of reasons: 1) to capitalize on the height of my tank, and 2) to create shade for the betta fish. My tank doesn’t have a ton of clearance between the water and lid, so I ended up choosing Amazon frogbit (Linobium laevigatum) and water spangle (Salvinia minima), which both have flat, lily-pad shaped leaves and long roots. These were the only plants that I ordered off the internet instead of purchasing in person, and I was really impressed with how healthy the plants were when I received them.

When it comes to floating plants, it’s not uncommon for them to completely cover the water surface of an aquarium, which can prevent other plants from getting enough light. As a way to balance the needs of my future betta with the other plants, I created and secured rings using airline tubing and suction cups that serve as enclosures for the floating plants. I can’t take credit for the idea- it’s based on something I saw in a YouTube video a while back, but it seems to be working extremely well.

Floating plants in my aquarium. I chose Amazon frogbit (Limnobium laevigatum) and water spangle (Salvinia minima) because of their small lily-pad esque structure and long roots. Both sets of plants are enclosed by a short length of airline tubing, which are secured to the sides of the tank with suction cups.

One of the big changes I made this time around was adding a grow light (in addition to the LED light that comes with the tank). Not providing enough light is a common problem when it comes to planted aquariums, so getting an LED grow light isn’t necessarily a bad idea. Like all of my grow lights, this one is plugged in to a outlet timer (so I never have to worry about turning it on or off).

Because plants require additional nutrients, I’m fertilizing my aquarium twice a week with Aqueon aquarium plant food. When I initially set up the tank, I also used a handful of root tabs. I don’t think these were actually necessary for the particular plants that I purchased, but I figure that they couldn’t hurt (especially since I didn’t choose a substrate designed to provide nutrients to plants). I haven’t had any issues with algae yet, but I’ll update this post if/when I deal with that in the future.

I recently added a Nerite snail. There’s a few reasons I’ve decided to go with a Nerite snail- for one, they eat algae and waste (but not live plants). However, unlike other snails (which can be real aquarium pests), Nerite snails can only reproduce in brackish water (a mixture of salt and freshwater). In other words, one Nerite snail will stay one nerite snail. I’m 90% sure that Gary was a Nerite snail, and he and Smaug seemed to work very well as tank mates.

The Nerite snail I recently got for our aquarium. Let me know if you have any name suggestions! (Not Gary. I’ve already had a snail named Gary).

The tap water is EXTREMELY hard where I live. To try and balance this out, I’m alternating between distilled and (dechlorinated) tap water for water changes. I’m testing the water chemistry regularly using API test strips, which measure water hardness, pH, nitrite, and nitrate levels. I’ve been writing down the values each time I use the test strips so that I can monitor how the water is changing over time.

Final Thoughts

I plan on doing future updates about how to deal with aquarium algae, as well as my aquarium progress.

If you’re interested in starting a freshwater fish tank, I hope you found this post helpful! Let me know if you have any thoughts, insights, or questions in the comments.


Bird Feeder Tips from a Bird Biologist

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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.


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.


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.