Urban Wildlife Program
This page last updated: 3/30/99
Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries
Urban Wildlife Program Series: Feeding Birds
Watching and feeding birds are becoming increasingly popular in this country. Each year, millions of Americans venture out into the wilds in search of various species of birds that are seldom seen in their yards and around their homes. For many of these people, watching birds provides some stress-free relief from their busy, hectic lifestyles. Watching some of Mother Natures most beautiful creatures pursue their daily activities can be very enjoyable and very educational. It is not necessary, however, to travel far and wide in search of birds. You can bring them to you, if you know how.
All living things need food to survive, and if you were to provide birds with a supply of quality food in your backyard, you can enjoy them without leaving your home. Millions of people spend millions of dollars each year just feeding birds, and these numbers are growing. Buying a feeder and a bag of bird seed at a grocery store might be your first step in a backyard feeding plan, but what many people don't know is that they could be attracting a much wider variety of birds, and in greater numbers, if they would tailor their plans to meet the needs of the birds they wish to see.
Each year, grocery stores and department stores sell countless bags of bird seed to all kinds of people. Many of these commercial seed mixes though contain a large quantity of seeds that are not necessarily a favorite of birds. For this reason, much of the seed is wasted as the birds search for those that they prefer, and scatter the rest. By learning the birds and their specific needs and behaviors, you can plan a feeding program that you will enjoy, and at the same time, give some birds a well appreciated supply of food.
This does not mean that you must become an expert on birds. These web pages will give you the guidelines for starting a feeding program. Once you start, you will be amazed at how much you can learn in a short period of time.
So, how do you get started? There are several things to consider when starting a feeding program. Questions to answer are: Where do you want to watch the birds? What kinds of birds do you wish to attract? What kind of feeder is best? Are squirrels going to be a problem? What kind of seeds are best? These questions will be addressed here to give some guidelines, and once you get started, you can experiment on your own.
A good place to start is to decide where will you be able to watch the birds from. Selecting a location that will provide you with maximum enjoyment is very important. You want the feeder where you can see it from a comfortable location such as outside a kitchen window, at the edge of a deck or, or wherever you want to view the birds. Once you decide on a location, there are more things to look at. If the feeder is to be placed over grass, will there be a problem with spilled seed that germinates in the yard? Will you be constantly sweeping seed shells off the patio? The more you have to maintain and clean up the feeder area, the less you might enjoy it. Try to find a location that will require as little maintenance as possible.
Another consideration when selecting a location is the amount of cover nearby. Birds like to feel safe when feeding. If the feeder is placed too close to thick cover where a neighborhood cat may hide and ambush the birds, the birds may be reluctant to feed. Birds do, however, prefer some type of escape cover to retreat into when startled. A nearby tree will suffice. Feeders placed in thick cover or too far out in the open will not be as attractive to birds as a well placed feeder.
TYPES OF FEEDERS
The next question to answer is, What kind of feeder is best? There are numerous types of feeders on the market, each one having a different purpose. Probably the most popular is the hopper type. These are generally available in two styles. One is a tube type, usually made of clear plastic. The other is a box type. These are usually made of wood with a pane of glass on two sides. Both of these are excellent for feeding finches, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, and siskins. The box design, when equipped with a feeding tray, will also attract cardinals, jays, and sparrows, Black oil sunflower seed is most effective for these birds in these feeders. Different kinds of seeds will be discussed later. Hopper type feeders are a good choice to begin with. If a suitable structure is available, these may be hung with a wire, or they can be mounted on a pole. Some of the tube types are designed to dispense thistle (niger) seed. This is a tiny seed that is relished by finches. There are other types of feeders available and each is designed to attract something different.
Platform feeders are quite popular and are the simplest design. These are merely a raised platform of some type with seeds placed on top. Most of these are made at home and consist of a piece of plywood about two feet square with a strip of molding around the edge to keep the seed on the tray, and a few small drainage holes drilled through. When placed at ground level, and stocked with white proso millet, they are very attractive to doves, juncos, towhees, and sparrows. When placed at tabletop level, they attract many of the birds that use the hopper types. Platform feeders may be supported by whatever means available. Some are elaborate structures and others are very crude. The birds don't seem to care what the feeder looks like, as long as it gives them what they need. If you are handy with tools and build your own, be creative and build something that will make an attractive addition to your yard.
Window box feeders will bring birds right up to you for some close up viewing opportunities. These may be serviced from inside your home, through a window. It may take birds some time to become accustomed to feeding in such close proximity to people, but after a while, they will overcome their initial fears and readily feed from one of these stations.
Placing seed directly on the ground is not recommended. While it is the easiest way to feed birds, it has its drawbacks. Seed that is left on the ground is easily spoiled. When seeds get wet, they will become moldy which can poison the birds. There is also a risk of spreading disease and parasites among the birds. You may put out seed on the ground, but follow some precautions. Only put out as much as will be consumed in one day. Don't put seeds out on wet ground, and clean up any seed that becomes spoiled. Birds may not eat the spoiled seed, but rodents like mice and rats will. You may not want to be feeding these animals as they can quickly become pests.
TYPES OF SEEDS
What kind of seed is best for your feeder? The two types of seed mentioned earlier, black oil sunflower, and white proso millet are the two most recommended seeds for backyard feeders. The black oil sunflower has been shown to attract the widest variety of species and in the greatest numbers than other seeds. The white proso millet is a favorite of the ground feeding species such as the doves, juncos, and towhees. As mentioned earlier, many commercial mixes contain seeds that the birds do not prefer and this results in seed that is wasted. It is wise to invest in seed that the birds prefer as this will give you and the birds the most for your efforts. The sunflower seed is best used in the hopper type feeders and the table level platform feeders, and the millet on the ground level platforms. These are not "carved in stone" rules that must be adhered to, but suggestions on getting started. There are other seeds that birds will readily accept and appreciate. Some of these are: striped sunflower, hulled sunflower, Siberian millet, safflower, corn, cracked corn, fine corn, and thistle (niger). These are available at feed stores either in bags or in bulk quantities. Do not use corn that has been treated with a fungicide. Corn for planting is frequently treated with capstan which turns the seed pink or red. This chemical is toxic to many animals including birds. You may create your own mix and see what works best in your yard. Do some experimenting and you will be amazed at what you will learn.
No matter what type of feeder you choose, some regular maintenance is required. If the seed inside becomes wet and moldy, the seed must be discarded and feeder thoroughly cleaned. Washing with mild soapy water and some bleach will work fine. Rinse well and let dry. For wooden feeders, use a disinfectant other than bleach because the bleach will fade the wood. Cleaning the feeders on a regular basis will reduce the chances of spreading disease among the birds.
Providing seeds is not the only way to feed birds. Many birds that do not feed on seeds can be attracted to your yard by providing suet. This is a type of beef fat that you can get from a butcher shop. Many insectivorous birds such as woodpeckers, kinglets, creepers, wrens, and thrashers will frequent suet feeders. Suet can be provided in a number of ways. A simple method is to place a small amount in a large-mesh onion bag and hang it from a tree branch. Another method is to use a wire cage that attaches to a tree trunk. Suet can be melted, poured into molds, allowed to harden, and placed in feeders designed to accept these blocks. These feeders are generally placed on a tree trunk. The suet can be melted and poured over a pine cone and the cone hung from a branch. Peanut butter is another food that may be provided that suet eating birds will enjoy. This may be melted along with the suet or provided separately. Try spreading some on a pine cone or directly on the trunk of a tree. You can make a suet log to present the offering. This is done by drilling some one inch diameter holes into the sides of a log approximately three inches in diameter and twelve to eighteen inches long. Suet is pressed into the holes and the log hung from a branch. Peanut butter may be mixed with corn meal or oatmeal to make it easier to work with. These foods are important to birds because they provide them with a high energy source in the winter. They are high in fat content and give the birds the necessary calories needed to sustain their body heat, especially during periods of extreme cold. Although our Louisiana winters are relatively mild, the offering will be much appreciated by the birds when their natural foods, insects, may be scarce. Suet will become rancid in temperatures above 70 degrees so restrict its use to cooler days, or only put out small amounts at a time. Suet is recommended for winter feeding. Pre-formed suet cakes are available that fit in wire cage feeders. These feeders and cakes can be found at stores that sell bird feeders. You may experiment with various methods and see which method is best suited to your particular situation.
Feeding birds pieces of fruit is yet another way to attract them into your yard. Species such as orioles and tanagers will accept bits of apples, oranges, bananas, and raisins. These may be placed on a platform feeder or impaled on small twigs for the birds to pick.
FEEDING WITH NECTAR
Nectar feeders are most commonly used for hummingbirds, but other species will use them if they can get to the sweet juice. Most hummingbird feeders have too small of an opening for any other bird. Hummingbird feeders are available in a wide variety of styles. Most are decorated with red and yellow colors. For this reason, adding food coloring to the solution is not necessary. You may use a prepared nectar or nectar mix from a store, or make your own. If you wish to make your own, dissolve one part table sugar in four parts boiling water and let cool. The solution should be changed and the feeder cleaned every two to five days. Sugar solutions will ferment rapidly in hot weather and when this happens, the solution will become toxic to birds. Cleaning should be done with a mild solution of warm soapy water with a dash of chlorine bleach. Rinse thoroughly and allow to dry. A bottle brush will help for tough stains or any mold growth. Orioles, tanagers and several other species will accept nectar from feeders. A good feeder for these birds is a type commonly used to water chickens. These consist of a quart size jar with a tray that attaches to the mouth. Once filled, the jar is turned over and the birds can feed from the tray. These are available at feed stores. Use the same solution and cleaning method as for the hummingbird feeders.
What about squirrels, will they be a problem? With any backyard feeding program, squirrels are likely to visit, looking for a free meal. Unless there are no squirrels in the area at all, you will see them trying to get to your feeders. Some people welcome these critters, while others take extreme measures to discourage them. If you wish to discourage squirrels, there are several precautions you may take. Using predator guards above feeders that are suspended, and below feeders that are supported on a pole will help restrict access. These guards are cone shaped devices that are installed on the support structure of the feeder, usually pointing upward. Squirrels cannot bypass these guards. Feeder placement will help too. Try to locate feeders at least ten feet away from trees, roof tops, and other structures that a squirrel may jump to your feeder from. Squirrels love sunflower seeds, and will attempt almost anything to get to them. This can be very entertaining to watch. For the platform feeders, it may be difficult to discourage squirrels. If they take over a feeder, putting out more than one may give the birds a chance to feed elsewhere as the two seldom feed together. The birds tend to lose out when competing with squirrels.
If you welcome squirrels, you may provide feeders for them as well as the birds. Squirrels will take roasted peanuts from a platform, or corn from a dried ear of corn mounted on a special squirrel feeder. Hanging a platform on the trunk of a tree and placing corn, nuts, sunflower seed or other foods for the squirrels may reduce competition at the bird feeders.
Some uninvited guests may appear in your yard as a result of attracting the birds. Cats can be a real or perceived threat to birds. Birds will avoid feeding in areas where a cat is lurking nearby. If you have cats, keep them indoors. If you let them out, at least put a bell on their collar. This will make it difficult for the cat to sneak up on the birds. If your neighbor has cats, you may be able to convince them to do the same.
BIRDS OF PREY
There are birds that may visit the yard that are not interested in seeds, suet, or nectar. These are birds of prey, looking to catch another bird. Cooper's hawks and Sharp-shinned hawks feed on other birds and may try to catch a meal at one of your feeding stations. If you see one, don't be alarmed. These birds play an important role in the natural community. You may feel fortunate to witness one of these beautiful birds. If you do feel uncomfortable with any that may visit your yard, it is important that you do not try to trap or poison them as all birds of prey; hawks, eagles, and owls are protected by federal law.
Some other birds you may see that may or may not be welcome are European starlings and house sparrows. These are not native to North America and compete with native species. In many, if not most cases, the native species are out-competed and lose to the sparrows and starlings. Starlings and house sparrows will invade nesting sites and feeding sites and run off the native species. The result is fewer of the birds people wish to see and more of the nuisance birds. These two species are not protected as songbirds and their nests and eggs may be destroyed if you find them and wish to do so. If you decide to eliminate nests of these birds, make sure you positively identify the species before you take any action. There are many native sparrows that are protected. A good field identification book and a pair of binoculars is highly recommended for identifying the birds in your yard.
Keep in mind that not all backyards will be in the ideal location to bring in all of the birds mentioned, but wherever your yard is, there is potential to attract many of them. By following some simple guidelines, and with some creative experimentation, you will be amazed at what you will learn. Get your children involved. They will learn a great deal and develop an appreciation for birds and nature that may stay with them for the rest of their lives.
This fact sheet in no way covers all there is to know about feeding birds. It is intended to serve as a guide to help you get started, and give you some ideas you may not have considered in the past. More information is available at your local garden center, bookstore, and stores that specialize in feeding birds. The best time to get started is now, so go out, look at what you might be able to do in your yard, and start feeding birds.
Dove, L.E. Feeding Birds in Winter. Urban Wildlife Managers Notebook #3.Columbia, MD: National Institute for Urban Wildlife, 1983.
McElroy, T.P., Jr. The New Handbook of Attracting Birds. 2nd ed. Nick Lyons Books. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1960. 258 pp.
Peterson, R.T. A Field Guide to the Birds - Eastern Birds. 4th ed. The Peterson Field Guide Series. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1980. Pope, T., N. Odenwald, and C. Fryling, Jr. Attracting Birds to Southern Gardens. Dallas: Taylor Publishing Company, 1993. 164 pp.
Tufts, C. The Backyard Naturalist. Washington, D.C.: National Wildlife Federation, 1993. 79 pp.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Backyard Bird Feeding. Washington D.C.: Department of the Interior, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1990. 24 pp.
This document is part of
The Urban Wildlife Program Publication Series
Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries
2000 Quail Drive
Baton Rouge, LA 70808
Contact: Jimmy Ernst