Bird Feeding: The Basics

By Edie Parnum

When I was growing up, my mother had a bird feeder, but I never saw many birds there. I guess there were finches and chickadees, but not much else. The squirrels helped themselves freely, and my mother got discouraged. The feeder stood empty for many years.

Years later after I had become a birder, a friend persuaded me to try feeding birds even though at the time I lived on a small property in the city. I purchased a tube feeder and a squirrel baffle. My friend suggested I fill it with black oil sunflower, since many birds prefer this seed; and it doesn’t have the cheap fillers of the supermarket mix my mother used. Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, and House Finches came to the feeder right away. Northern Cardinals, Mourning Doves, White-throated Sparrows, and Northern Juncos ate the seed that spilled onto the ground.

I was thrilled, but wanted to attract a greater variety. The beautiful American Goldfinches came as soon as I offered thistle seed. With the addition of suet and peanuts, White-breasted Nuthatches, Carolina Wrens, and a variety of woodpeckers came, too. As I found out, bird feeding, like any other enterprise, is more successful when you know more. Now that I have been feeding birds in the city and the suburbs for ten years, here are my recommendations about feeders.

Tube feeder:This is a good basic feeder for perching birds. If you leave off the tray at the bottom, you can discourage European Starlings, Rock Doves, and other nuisance birds. Buy a quality feeder made from thick plastic with metal port covers. One type has little holes for dispensing tiny thistle seed for the goldfinches. Some are designed with very short perches or for birds to feed upside down. This allows the very acrobactic goldfinches to feed but excludes their ravenous, awkward house finch cousins.

Hopper feeder: This traditional bird model holds an ample supply of seed and dispenses it at the bottom where the birds can feed from a flat surface. Some birds like cardinals prefer this design, because they don’t usually feed from a perch. One model has the platform attached to a spring that closes and cuts off the seed supply when a squirrel or heavy bird lands.

Platform feeder: This is a tray with wire mesh on the bottom so that water drains off and keeps the seed dry. Cardinals, juncos, and other sparrows like feeding from a flat surface especially if it’s close to the ground. When the tray is outfitted with a wire cage, squirrels and large birds can’t easily gain access to the seed.

Suet cage: A wire basket with plastic-coated wire holds a cake of suet. One design that is starling-proof has the wire mesh only on the bottom and a roof on top. Woodpeckers, chickadees, and nuthatches have no trouble hanging upside-down to feed.

Peanut feeder: You can offer peanuts, a favorite of the woodpeckers, Carolina wrens, and nuthatches, in a steel mesh tube. Sometimes you can find these enclosed in a cage that thwarts the squirrels.

Locate your feeders in a place where you and your family can enjoy watching the birds. Unlike my mother whose feeder was more than thirty feet from the house, I have a close group of feeders within easy view of the window over my kitchen sink. A birdbath and a brush pile are located nearby. Another group of feeders can be viewed from the table where our family eats most of our meals. In the summertime I move some of the feeders to be near the porch where we spend a lot of time. There is plenty of cover near each of these feeding stations; in fact, the birds seem most comfortable when they can move along a row of trees and shrubs on their way to the feeders.

Next month’s column will include more information on thwarting squirrels. It will also explain types of food to offer, keeping the feeders clean, and attracting the less common species.