Birdfeeding 101

For most people, the #1 way to attract wild birds to where you can see them is via putting out bird feeders.  Chickadee with sunflower seedBirdseed is like a magnet to species of birds that naturally feed on plant seeds out in the wild.  And birds learn quickly that seed in feeders can be a reliable, easy to get source of food.  So, they keep coming back for more!
The problem today is that due to escalating costs of producing food including rising energy prices, birdseed has become very expensive.  In the last 20 years, oil sunflower (for example) has risen in price almost 200%!  What this means is that you MUST be smart about:

  • Putting out birdseed that doesn’t promote waste,
  • Attracting the birds you want to have and NOT the ones you don’t,
  • Preventing nuisance birds and animals from vacuuming up all your seed,
  • Only putting out seeds that backyard birds are known to like

So, I’m going to pass on to you what I’ve learned in over 35 years of feeding the birds in different areas of the country.    Let me assure you, through thousands of hours observing birds at my feeders, talking to other industry people, and lots of trial and error, I’ve learned how to bring more birds to seed feeders – and without breaking the bank.
This summary is not intended to be a detailed description of every nuance of bird feeding.  I could easily write entire books on how to feed orioles or hummingbird feeding.  (I probably will, so please stay on our newsletter list so you’ll be notified when they come out.)

Backyard Bird Feeding – The Big Picture


Feeding backyard birds is a hobby that goes back hundreds of years.  In the early days, there were no fancy feeders or specialty bird foods.  Only bread and grain scraps usually thrown on the ground

White breasted nuthatch on treeAs hobbies go, backyard bird feeding is relatively new.  Most of the feeders you see today have been developed in the last 40-50 years.  But, it has increased in popularity tremendously in the last 20 years.  In fact, estimates by the Fish and Wildlife Service are that over 83 million people feed or watch backyard birds in the U.S. alone.  Add millions more in Canada and Great Britain, and you have one hugely popular pastime!

Why do people feed birds?  First, it’s fun to watch and listen to colorful birds.  It’s entertaining.  Second, it offers a relaxing respite from the stresses of modern day life.  Third, it’s educational.  We can learn a lot about nature by watching birds.  Fourth, many people have a need to “give back” to the environment.  It may stem from guilt over the damage man has done to the ecosystem over the years.  It’s hard to say.  And finally, we seem to want to “take care” of the birds in our yards in the same fashion as own dog or cat.  After all, it’s hard NOT to feel sorry for backyard birds on a cold, snowy day as they fly around outside our windows!

The last century has created a lot of changes for local birds – most of them bad.  Huge amounts of habitat have been lost to development and industrialization.  Air, water, and soil have been contaminated from pollution.  And alien species of birds from other continents have been released in the U.S. that compete for food and nesting sites.

So, helping backyard birds with feeders, bird baths, nesting boxes, and plantings is something all of us can do to reverse these effects.

The Big 4 Things Birds Need

According to the National Wildlife Federation, the 4 main things all birds are looking for in our yards are:
Food –seed, suet, insects, fruit
Water – for bathing, drinking,
Nesting Sites – bird houses, trees, shrubs
Shelter – roosting boxes, hedges, shrubs, brush piles
Certainly makes sense, doesn’t it?  In fact, these are the main elements ALL animals are looking for.   This is what creates a habitat suitable for a bird species to live and breed.  So, in order to attract more birds, you need to provide more of these 4 things.

Further, the greater VARIETY of food, nesting sites, and plants you provide, the greater variety of birds you will attract to your yard.

This report only addresses feeder food, which is only one kind of food that you can provide.  But, keep in mind the BIG PICTURE highlighted in yellow above.  What you want to do over the long run is create a bird habitat in your backyard.  Birds will respond to feeder food, but to keep them in the yard longer and possibly get them to nest, you need to think in terms of the 4 Elements that create a habitat.

Birds That Come To Feeders

Only a limited number of bird species are attracted to bird feeders.  Generally, only birds that eat seed, suet, or peanuts (the most common types of feeder food) will come to feeders.  There are over 700 species of birds found in North America, and most of them eat other kinds of food such as:

  • Berries
  • Insects of all kinds and other invertebrates
  • Meat – other birds, fish, animals, etc.
  • Aquatic plants
  • Seeds other than commercial birdseed
  • Flower nectar

So, try as you will to get Robins to come to your feeder, they won’t.  Earth worms are their favorite food.  What you must do is concentrate on the common feeder birds in your area.  If you’re not sure what they are, get a local field guide or stop into the local bird feeding store if your city has one.
In most areas of the country, there are about 20-30 species of birds that regularly visit feeders in a given yard.  In addition, there are more species of birds that only appear during winter or migration in the fall.  For instance, Junco’s (often called snowbirds) only appear at feeders in most parts of North America during late fall and winter.  Then they return to northern breeding areas in Canada in spring.

Feeders Preferred By Each Bird

A huge key you need to know is that different birds prefer different types of bird feeders.   This is related to the areas of their habitat each species likes to feed in.  For example, certain birds like many sparrows prefer to feed on or near the ground.  So, tube feeders don’t work well for them.  Similarly, birds like chickadees prefer to feed way up in tree branches.  So, they prefer to feed at hanging feeders near the trees.
The takeaway here is that the more kinds of feeders you can provide in your yard, the more kinds of birds you’ll see.  Although there are some good general purpose feeders, NO one feeder is best for all birds.
The next section will go into the main types of feeders you can provide and the types of birds each will attract.

Bird Seed Preferences

Just like people, different birds prefer different seeds.  If a restaurant only served one dish, they’d run out of customers very quickly!  So, again – variety is the key word here.  The more variety of seeds you put out, the more kinds of birds you’ll see.
For example, goldfinches like thistle seed the most, whereas cardinals prefer sunflower.  Other ground feeding birds with smaller beaks like mourning doves, sparrows, cowbirds, and quail prefer seed like white millet and cracked corn.
There will be a section coming up that describes most of the seed types you want to use in your yard.

Putting It All Together

As we’ve seen, offering a  variety of foods and feeders is a huge key to attracting more kinds of your favorite backyard birds.   In addition, you need to match the right kinds of seed in the right kind of feeders in the right location in your habitat to get the most birds.  If it sounds complicated it really isn’t.
This just means that if you want to attract ground feeding birds (for example), you need to put the seeds they like, in feeders on or near the ground.
Another example would be hummingbird feeders.  Hummingbirds naturally look for nectar at flowers, so the best place for your feeder is among or near flower gardens.
Again, in our following sections, we’ll cover the types of seed best used in each feeder type, where the feeder should be placed in the yard, and the general types of birds attracted to them.

 Best Types Of Bird Feeders

Here are the main types of bird feeders you should consider using.  If you stick with these, you will attract virtually all of the feeder birds in your area. We’ll include a brief description of each feeder and the type of birds typically attracted to it.  Remember, you can always start with one or two feeders and build up your feeding program from there as your time and budget allow.

 Hopper Feeders

Hopper Bird Feeder - courtesy Stovall ProductsHopper feeders are large, boxy traditional feeders that have a glass or plexiglass bordered hopper in the middle that holds birdseed.  The seed spills out at the bottom into a tray area where the birds land to pick out seed.  The feeder has a roof to protect the seed from the rain and snow – one of its big advantages.   Also, this feeder works well with seed mixes which attract the greatest variety of birds.  On the whole, the hopper feeder is the most versatile feeder in attracting birds, and can be pole mounted (preferred) or hanging.

 Tray Feeders

A tray feeder as the name implies is basically a 4 sided tray with seed in it.Tray bird feeder pole mounted  This is probably the oldest feeder design, but still works well.  One big advantage is the open design encourages birds to land on it, since they don’t feel enclosed and can see danger from all sides.  Another advantage is you can put almost any kind of seed or food in it.  The main disadvantage is being open, the seed is exposed to the elements.  Many modern versions of this feeder now incorporate a screen bottom to help drain water however.  This feeder attracts a very wide variety of birds.  It can be pole mounted or hanging.

Ground Feeders

Ground bird feederA ground feeder is simply a tray feeder with legs that elevate it off the ground.  The main appeal of this feeder is being close to the ground, it attracts a lot of ground feeding birds like doves, sparrows, quail, towhees, cardinals, and juncos.   Of course it’s also a haven for squirrels!  For ground feeders put a mixture of sunflower seeds, cracked corn, and white millet to attract the greatest variety of birds.

Tube Feeder – coarse seed

This popular type of feeder was created by Peter Kilham of the Droll-Yankee Company back in the 1960’s.Sunflower tube feeder - courtesy Droll Yankees  Today it’s a staple of backyard bird feeding continent-wide.   Basically, it’s a high-grade plastic tube with a lid and perches sticking out below openings where birds can pick out seeds.   It attracts mostly smaller, perching birds but can bring in larger birds if an optional seed tray is attached to the bottom of the feeder.  Tube feeders work best with single seeds like sunflower, safflower, or hulled sunflower (sunflower out of the shell).  Sometimes high quality mixes can be used in tube feeders as long as seeds such as millet, cracked corn, and milo are excluded.  Otherwise, the birds will sift through the seed in the feeder scattering what they don’t want all over the ground.

 Tube Feeder – thistle

Goldfinches on Droll Yankee finch feederThistle feeders are a specialized version of a tube feeder made to attract finches.  The feeding port openings are much smaller so that birds can pick out tiny thistle seeds. The thistle used is actually not from a native plant, but from Nyjer – a seed grown in hot, humid climate countries like Myanmar and India.  Since it’s imported Nyjer Thistle is very expensive – sometimes costing upwards of $1.50 per lb.  But, all the goldfinches absolutely love it (American, Lesser, and Lawrence’s) as well as Pine Siskins and House Finches.  Thistle feeders are best hung out in an open area from a pole or cantilevered arm.  Make SURE to keep the thistle in your feeder fresh.  Finches will stop coming to it if it’s gotten stale or moldy.

 Small Bird Feeders

Sometimes large birds like jays and grackles can dominate larger birdfeeders.  Small bird sunflower feederSo, several very effective feeders have been devised over the years that only feed smaller birds like chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, and finches.  These feeders work best with oil sunflower seed and have small perch areas that bigger birds can’t land on.   Another good thing about these feeders is they get a lot of feeding trips and activity per pound of seed.   Why?  Many of the birds who come to these like to take one or two seeds, go off to a perch to hammer them open, and then return.  Hang it from a tree or near your kitchen window and enjoy the birds!

 Suet Feeders

downy woodpecker on suet feederSuet works great to attract woodpeckers especially – birds that aren’t as fond of regular birdseed.  Suet is beef fat that is a high-energy source of calories for birds.  It’s best purchased in “cake” form that is commercially made.  Making suet yourself from meat store fat is a very unpleasant experience!  Suet is best fed in a cage-type feeder where the birds land and peck out small bits.  The good thing is that there are different types of suet cakes that have higher melting points.  So, you can feed it year-round in all areas of North America.  Hang it from a tree branch or crook pole for best results.

 Fruit Feeders

Some birds love to eat fruit and will gobble it up if readily available. Fruit Feeder with oranges The easiest types of fruits to feed are oranges and apples.  They can be placed on specialized feeders that have spikes to impale the fruit and allow the birds to peck small bits of pulp from the fruit while sitting on a perch area.  Orioles love orange halves particularly, as do Red-Bellied Woodpeckers and House Finches. Note that fruit feeders get the best results in the spring and summer months.

 Window Feeders

Window birdfeederBirds can be enticed up close to the window with small plexiglass feeders that suction cup to the window.  It’s a great way to bring the birds closer in where children or people of limited mobility can see them more easily.  It’s best to put seeds like sunflower, safflower, peanuts, and hulled sunflower in window feeders.  And the best kinds of feeders have removable trays that can be filled and cleaned easily.   Window feeders can also help to reduce bird collisions on problem windows by breaking up the reflection on the outside of the glass.  Ideally, you want window feeders that are designed so there is no plexiglass between you and the birds – just the window.  This will make your viewing of the birds clearer and more fun.

 Nectar Feeders

Hummingbirds at nectar feeder

Photo courtesy of Aspects Inc.

Nectar in this case is basically sugar water.  This is what the nectar of flowers is mostly made of.   The most common bird that nectar is used to attract is the hummingbird.  There are around 12 species of hummingbirds that visit feeders in the U.S. with a handful more uncommon visitors – mostly seen in the southwest states.  Nectar feeders come in many shapes and size, but all are designed to dispense a sugar water solution made of 4 parts water and one part sugar.  Hummingbirds consume the sugar water mostly for easy energy, as they have very high metabolism’s.   The best hummingbird nectar feeders are the saucer shaped ones where the hummingbirds lap up the nectar from top feeding ports.  This prevents leakage unlike the traditional gravity-fed designs where the nectar comes out at the bottom of the feeder.  Nectar feeders MUST be cleaned out and filled with fresh nectar every 3-5 days to prevent molds and fungus from growing in them.  Also, some species of orioles will also feed from nectar feeders if they have perch areas and feeding ports large enough for them.

Peanut Feeders

Peanut feeder with Rose-breasted grosbeaksShelled peanuts are loved by woodpeckers, nuthatches, titmice, and chickadees.  These feeders usually have a metal mesh of 1/4″ sized square openings or slightly larger to allow the birds to peck small pieces through it.  Peanut feeders can be hung from trees or feeder poles.  But, be forewarned that if hung from trees  they are likely to be raided by squirrels.   Buy shelled peanuts – either raw or roasted.  Watch to make sure the peanuts don’t go bad however.  If they’ve been outside in the feeder for 2-3 weeks, it’s best to replace them. 

Mealworm Feeders

Mealworm feeder with bluebirds

Photo courtesy of Wild Birds Unlimited, Inc.

Since only a limited number of birds eat seed, it is possible to attract insect-eating birds if you give them what they want.  Mealworms are small beetle larva that birds like Carolina Wrens, Robins, Bluebirds, Warblers, and other species will readily eat.   Although you may see roasted or freeze-dried mealworms in the store, wild birds prefer live ones by far.  Mealworms can be fed year-round, but birds especially love them during nesting season when they require large amounts of protein-rich food to feed their young.  Mealworms should be offered in dish-type feeders made of smooth plastic, glass, metal, or ceramics.  The reason for this is that mealworms actually have small legs that enable them to crawl along rough surfaces (like wood).   Put mealworm feeders away from your other feeders to reduce the competition from other birds.  Feeders with a roof or cover will help protect the mealworms from the sun and rain.  You can buy mealworms from birdfeeding specialty stores, pet supply stores, or online.


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Cornell Lab of Ornithology