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Three Things Birds Want Most from Your Backyard

Updated on February 6, 2016
Sherry Thornburg profile image

Writer, photographer and birding enthusiast, Sherry Thornburg writes about birding and birding related topics.

Giving Them Cover

It was three years ago that I decided to get serious about bringing birds into my backyard. I already had one main attraction for them, a mimosa tree, some large overgrown Yaupon Holly bushes in a neighbor’s yard and large oak trees and pines. Cover for the birds was the only reason I had birds visit my yard. I had a massive rest stop, but no amenities.

Things changed when I cut down several trees that weren’t doing well. I suddenly had a small sunny meadow inside a great covered hideaway between the fence and the raised deck. Not much to look at as you see in the picture, but it was a start. Luckily, a protected place with plenty of cover was the number one thing birds want in a backyard stop over. I just needed to add the other two requirements to put my yard on their travel map. Those things are Food and Water.

What if You Don’t Live in a Forest? I have also lived in areas where trees were scarce, where I had no yard; just a patio. The rule remains. Cover for birds can include hanging plants, shrubs, a hedge; a brush pile works too. I know people up north that build Christmas tree piles to give birds cover during the winter. Tall growing container flowers and rose bushes will help too. All you need is something near the feeder to offer safety.

The Beginnings of a Backyard Habitat

Natural Cover and a Water Source
Natural Cover and a Water Source | Source

Giving Them Water

I bought the fountain in the above picture for a water feature as my start. Moving water is an added plus as the birds will hear your babbling bounty and follow their ears. Adding water gave me a sudden bonanza of Sparrows, Cardinals, Blue Jays and Hummingbirds.

Problems with Fountains That first fountain didn’t last long. It was made of a rubber like material that collapsed when treated to the blistering heat of a Texas summer. I had to replace it within four months with a simple bird bath on a stand. That unfortunately was knocked over often. Finally, I picked up a small three tier fountain on sale. It was sturdier, but still lite enough for me to clean easily. Upkeep takes periodic cleaning and drops of algae inhibitor that is labeled safe for birds. Not all of them are, so be careful.

Birds don’t really care if you have a big fountain. A simple bird bath or a shallow dish set out for them is fine. Just having water is what’s important. These days, I have a large planter dish set out for water on the deck and a low tray holding water in another area. The birds use all of them thankfully. Consider your climate to make sure what you get for holding water won’t break down like my first fountain. Beyond providing the container, your job is to keep it clean, algae and mold free and to change the water regularly.

Water in Cold Weather Every few years my section of Texas gets some hard freezes. Last year was one of them. My fountain froze over several times. The below heated bird bath is a solution to birds ice skating on their water bowl. I wish I had known about these things for insuring water in cold weather sooner.

Water for the Birds

Blue Jay Splish Splash
Blue Jay Splish Splash | Source

Giving them Food

My next efforts were to hang feeders. I started with hummingbird feeders with store bought nectar. The hummers love them; but store bought nectar is a point of contention with many long time birders. It’s the dye and additives they put into the sugar water that cause the problems. We have discovered that dyes and preservatives are bad for people, so why feed them to birds? The answer is to simply make your own. Hummingbird nectar is just water and sugar. Yep, that’s it.

  • Most recommend a 4 to 1 mixture of water and sugar.
  • Use 3 to 1 in the fall when they need more energy.

For best results, heat your water first so the sugar dissolves thoroughly. Then fill the feeders about half full when cool and store the rest in the refrigerator. Take down the feeders about once a week to clean and refill. In hot summer months, do it every 2 or 3 days.

Feeders for Other Birds I have tried several feeders for birds. I first bought a cheap grocery store gravity feeder. It worked just fine. The small birds loved it, but bigger birds couldn’t fit on the narrow ledge. Then I was given a very pretty feeder with a wider ledge. That was great, but you would never imagine the seed waste that came with it. And then the sprouts came up. I scooped up nearly a gallon of seed lying on the ground under it the day I decided there had to be better feeders.

Help for Tube Feeders A trip to a local nature center gave me the answer to the tube feeder waste problem. Install a seed catcher under it. You can make your own or purchase one like the hoop seed catcher below.

  • Their catcher was a large embroidery hoop with a mesh cloth turned upside down with string holding it up on a hook.
  • My answer for a while was to put a bird bath under the tube feeder. That worked well until it rained and then I had soaked seeds. The final version will be a wooden frame catcher with a mesh bottom like the one at the Nature Center.

Banquet Tables Checking out types of feeders, I decided to try a platform feeder made from a 1x4 plank that used to be a book shelf and hung it between two shepard’s hooks. This allows for larger birds like Cardinals, Grosbecks, Blue Jays and others. My husband made me a new one for Mother’s Day with a screen wire bottom to let out moisture and high sides for perching that would also hold the seed in the feeder.

Banquet Table Feeders

Table Talk: A Woodpecker and young Blue Jay
Table Talk: A Woodpecker and young Blue Jay | Source

When the Squirrels Come for Dinner

One day I was watching the old platform feeder and saw a squirrel happily climb a shepard’s hook and push the seed off onto the ground for his friends. Trying to prevent this involved me in “the Battle of the Bird Feeder.” Something all bird feeding people are drawn into.

It’s pretty bad when the all that the human mind can devise cannot out-smart a small tree climber.

  • I tried baffles
  • I tried giving them their own feeder close to the fence, but away from the bird platform.
  • I tried WW40 sprayed on the shepard’s hooks (non-toxic fish oil). Other products I have heard of include Vaseline.

The problem with the platform feeder was that the shepard’s hooks were too short. When I tried baffles the squirrels just did a standing long jump up to the board. I considered devising a taller feeder with a pulley to move the platform up and down like a drawbridge. It could be set 10 to 15 feet off the ground using PVC poles. I ran the plans by my husband and, well; it was vetoed. What we finally did was come to a détente. The squirrels were cute and could have what they want, but when their numbers climb to over four, the platform comes down for a while.

The Battle of the Bird Feeder

Not Quite Squirrel Proof
Not Quite Squirrel Proof | Source

Problems with Birdfeed

In the beginning, I fed the birds a nut and seed mix. That worked well, but the sprouts were making a mess. Sunflowers coming up here and there didn’t bother me, but a lot of the seeds coming up were, in my estimation, just weeds.

Asking around, I found that every birder with experience spurns cheap bird seed. The reason is that they contain fillers like red millet and oats. These are ingredients most birds won’t touch. Why pay for things the birds won’t eat.

Types of Seed for Feeders

  1. Black Oil Sunflower and Striped Sunflower seeds are considered the best feed. Both have tough hulls that birds like House Sparrows and Starlings (birds we don’t want coming around) can’t easily get into. You can also buy shelled sunflower hearts, but they will spoil fast if left out. So only offer what they can eat in a day or two.
  2. Safflower is also a hard shell seed and the year around locals such as Cardinals, Blue Jays, Chickadees, doves, titmice and native sparrows love them. House sparrows again will find these hard to crack and go elsewhere.

Problem Seeds White millet, cracked corn, milo, Golden millet, flax and others are often added to seed mixes as fillers. Birds love them, but so do those House Sparrows and Starlings as well as squirrels, raccoons, deer, bears etc. We really don’t want to invite the whole forest in for snacks.

Birds don't just eat seed. In the fall many birds will also eat fruit. Some birds like nuts. Orioles like jelly and some birds would rush your feeder if you added dried meal worms. These are just the beginning of what you can feed birds. When you know what birds you will be hosting, read up on what their preferred foods are.

Problems with Storing Seeds

Store bird seed and you will start noticing little larvae and fine silk forming around the inside of your container in the seed. Your box isn’t letting them in. These insects came with your seed. Pretty soon you will have little flies and moths flying out at you. The birds won’t turn their beaks up to extra protein, but if you have bugs forming in your seed; you have old seed, which could be harboring bacteria.

Bug Prevention

  • Freeze Your Seed – Yes, that’s right, freeze the seed when you first get it. Freeze it for two weeks, let stand for a few days and then freeze it for another two weeks to be sure to kill all the moth larvae and other bugs that may be present.
  • DO NOT Poison – Do not try to use pesticides on your bird seed. A large bird seed company tried this tactic some years ago and caused massive bird deaths in a five or six state area. They were hit with one of the largest fines ever given. The birds may not die at first bite, but you will have poisoned them.
  • Heating Bird Seed? – This is a tactic that has been around for a while to sterilize bird seeds thus keeping them from sprouting in your yard. If heat retards sprouts will it also kill bugs? Experiments say no. Those hard hulls protect the seed from heat. They may sprout anyway and if they sprout it is likely that any bug eggs in them will hatch too.

Final Word

Feeding birds is a great way to attract both spring and winter birds. The object is to attract the birds to your yard to enjoy, not becoming their main source of food. We supplement the birds when putting out feeders, so only put out what they will eat in one or two days at a time. Of the seed types out there Black Oil Sunflower, Striped Sunflower and Safflower are the best for backyard feeding. To keep your feed bug free, freeze it. That is the only proven method of dealing with bugs in seed. Offer the birds good food, water and cover and you will have all the birds you can handle.

© 2015 Sherry Thornburg


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