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Feeders and Feed for Backyard Birds

Updated on May 28, 2015
Sherry Thornburg profile image

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

I belong to two very good Facebook birding groups. Around springtime, the posts from new birders abound. I love seeing the newbies arrive. It means the group is healthy and growing, and that more people are taking an interest in birds. The two most asked questions are

  1. What kind of feeders do I use?
  2. What type of food do I feed wild birds?

Well, I asked the same questions when I was new to birding. This is the general consensus from birders and birding organizations as to what types of feeders to use and what to set out in your backyard feeding station.

Hummingbird Feeders

Grocery Store Feeder with Commercial Nectar
Grocery Store Feeder with Commercial Nectar | Source
Antique Blue Bottle Look Feeder with Homemade Nectar
Antique Blue Bottle Look Feeder with Homemade Nectar | Source
Etched Glass Feeder with Homemade Nectar
Etched Glass Feeder with Homemade Nectar | Source

Feeders for Hummingbirds

Hummingbirds get their nutrition from insects and flower nectar. There are many different looks in hummingbird nectar feeders, but generally they are all gravity fed bottles that fill a reservoir which the birds get to through portals they put their beaks through. I first bought the cheap ones from grocery stores like the first picture under "Hummingbird Feeders." They are fine, but they wear out faster. In time they leak, come apart and become harder to keep clean.

Most all Hummingbird feeders have a glass bottle the sugar water goes into. That’s great, but the small openings make cleaning very difficult, especially if you leave it outside too long and get mold inside the bottle.

Cleaning Feeders

Dirty hummer feeders are a very bad thing that can cause infections and death in hummingbirds. The feeders should be taken down and cleaned about once a week in cool weather and in hot weather every two days depending on temperatures. You don’t want the sugar water to go bad. Any cloudiness in the look of the nectar is a bad sign.

The consensus is to just use hot water to clean them, as detergents can be hard to fully rinse away. But, I think that you should treat these bottles like old fashioned glass baby bottles. When they need a good washing, boil them in water on the stove. That will kill any mold and bacteria that may be present. The plastic parts can be hand washed in the sink with mild soap as they are easier to rinse. If you are still worried about residue, rinse with a 4 to 1 water/white vinegar solution.

What Nectar to Use

Here is where many birders get militant. Store bought nectar comes in bottles or packets that dissolve with water. Using most any of these is a point of contention because of the dyes and additives. We have discovered that dyes and preservatives are bad for people, so why feed them to birds? The answer to store bought nectar is to keep it simple and 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 the birds crave energy before migration.

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.

Others Like Nectar Too

You will find that nectar is also sought after by bees, ants, squirrels now and then, as well as raccoons and others. I walked outside one fall morning to find my hummer feeder taken apart and laying on the roof of the covered garden. That was a raccoon’s doing and the only thing to do about those guys is to bring your feeders in at night. Squirrels present a daytime problem, but I’ve never had that issue. Again, the solution would be pulling the feeders for at least three days.

If you have to pull your feeders, don’t worry about the birds. They won’t starve as the majority of their nutrition comes from insects. By the way, their exterminator services should be the second reason to try to attract hummingbirds after, of course, their beauty.

Bees and Ants

Bees and ants are another issue. Some feeders come with various types of bee guards. Always get those if you have the chance. Some have attachments that go over the port and some just offer smaller ports that insects can’t get into.

Several other types of more direct deterrents have also been used.

  • A few drops of Dawn dish soap in the nectar - This won’t hurt the birds, the old timers say, but it will deter insects. It is true that Dawn dish soap mixtures make a good organic insecticide, but the jury doesn't think this is a good idea. Anything added to nectar is considered a bad thing.
  • Vaseline Petroleum Jelly – This idea has been around a long time. The jelly is used to coat over the string the feeder hangs by and areas around the ports to keep away insects. The problem is that petroleum jelly is thick and could transfer to the hummingbird’s feathers which they would then have to ingest to clean off.
  • Cedar Oil Spray - The birds don’t mind the scent and won’t be hurt by it, but insects will be driven off. Cedar is a natural insect repellent and will mask the pheromones the insects use to mark your feeder. Unlike petroleum jelly, it is thin and dries to the point it won’t transfer. I usually spray it on the underside of the feeder where nectar drippings can gather, if I notice insect problems. Just wiping the drippings off won’t kill the scent markers that the insects are using for location.
  • White Vinegar - The other stand by cleaner that will clean away the pheromones. A half and half solution will do the job leaving no residue to come off on the bird.
  • Insecticides – Never ever ever use commercial insecticides around a bird feeder. A poisoned insect is a poisoned food source.

Sock Feeder

Hopper Feeders

Enclosed hopper feeder. Nearly waterproof.
Enclosed hopper feeder. Nearly waterproof. | Source
Tube feeder for small birds.
Tube feeder for small birds. | Source

Feeders for Small Birds

Little birds like Finches and Sparrows are pretty easy to attract. They eat seeds and some eat nuts. The feeders you use for small birds can be mesh socks filled with seed (shown in the video) and hopper feeders such as tube feeders or gravity fed bins.

The best types of hopper feeders have some form of guard to keep larger birds and squirrels off of them. The tube feeder pictured is one I have had for three years. It has a spring cage on the outside that drops down when larger birds or animals get on it. This works great. Squirrels don’t even bother this feeder anymore. I still get the occasional cardinal, woodpecker or jay now and then; but they usually cause the guards to drop down, so they too learn to leave it alone. My red barn feeder, also pictured, also has a spring deterrent that drops a cover over the edge of the hopper if something larger than a finch gets on it.

It has recently become popular to use small window feeders that attach with suction cups or glue pads. This is considered the safest way to avoid window strike injuries. This could be true as attaching it to the window announces the window’s presence clearly; but so would UV stickers and liquids. But, for space limited yards and apartment dwellers, window feeders would be a good choice. Just make sure they are fully secure and won’t come loose. These do need to be cleaned regularly and checked to make sure rainwater doesn’t damage your seed. They generally only hold one day’s feeding.

About Feeder Placement

For anything other than a window feeder, the farther away from the house the better. Keeping feeders around the back perimeter of the yard, thus, well away from windows and doors is a good option. Birds don’t understand windows and will run into them or attack their reflections. Read more about it here.

Platform/Tray Feeders

Large platform/tray feeder with screen bottom for easy drainage and cleaning.
Large platform/tray feeder with screen bottom for easy drainage and cleaning. | Source
Doves cleaning out a spill tray under the tube feeder.
Doves cleaning out a spill tray under the tube feeder. | Source

Feeders for Bigger Birds

We love Blue Jays, Robins, Grosbecks, Woodpeckers and other large birds, but they don’t fit on hopper and tube feeders well. If you have ever seen one hanging from the tiny perches trying to get at finch food, you know what I mean. These birds require more room. Platform or Tray feeders are the equivalent of laying out a buffet for them. My first tray feeder was a 1x12 shelf board strung between two Shepard’s hooks. I attached edging to keep feed from getting knocked over the side. This had to be washed down about twice a week to keep clean and if it rained, the feed was often ruined. The better choice was the tray my husband made me, pictured in "Platform/Tray Feeders." It had a screen bottom for drainage and was much easier to keep clean. They are fairly easy to make, but are also sold online.

Trays can also be used to catch feed dropped from a tube feeder by small birds. I placed an old bird bath under the tube feeder after dealing with pounds of feed thrown out as birds searched for their favorites. This wasn't exactly waste food as other birds came in flocks to clean up the spills. Pictured is a flock of White-winged Doves cleaning up after the sparrows. Finches, wrens and others have also helped themselves.

The problem with tray feeders is that they are open to everyone. It is nearly impossible to keep squirrels off of them, not mentioning birds you don’t want to attract. If you can hoist one 10 feet up and put squirrel baffles on the poles; you might stand a chance of keeping those gate crashers away. Otherwise, like me, you may just have to learn to live with them.

How Much Feed?

When you use a hopper or tray feeder, the rule is not to put out more than can be eaten in a few days. This will allow you to keep track of who is coming in for meals and limit other guests such as deer, raccoons and bears. It also limits the amount of food that can be affected by rain. Getting seed wet will cause the shell to soften and let your seeds either sprout or spoil.

Seed Feeds

Fruit and Nut Mix - Mix of Stripped Sunflower, Raisins, Peanuts and Safflower with others.
Fruit and Nut Mix - Mix of Stripped Sunflower, Raisins, Peanuts and Safflower with others. | Source
Dried Mealworms
Dried Mealworms | Source
Shelled Saflower
Shelled Saflower | Source
Milo seeds visible in this Finch mix.
Milo seeds visible in this Finch mix.

What Type of Seeds Should I Use?

  1. Nijer This small black feed is thistle seed, but most nijer today can also be African Daisy seeds. They are tiny seeds for sock feeders and special tube feeders with smaller ports. Gold Finches, Pine Siskins and other small birds like this seed. Nijer is not a favorite for squirrels, so you won’t have much trouble with them. Nijer seed has a hard black shell that the birds will drop when feeding. Seeing the shells does not equate to wasted seed.
  2. White Proso Millet This a small starchy grain that is a favorite for many small songbirds such as Buntings, Mourning Doves,Dark-eyed Juncos, Northern Cardinals, Wrens and Finches. It is part of many seed mixes. Ground-feeding birds such as grouse, quails and sparrows like it too. This can be placed in hoppers or laid out in low trays.
  3. Black Oil Sunflower Seed and Stripped Sunflower These are all-around favorites for songbirds. They are not too expensive, and if served in their hard shells; will deter the birds you don’t want around. If you don’t want to clean up the hulls, sunflower seeds are packaged as sunflower hearts and chips. Squirrels love them too, so make sure to use baffles and other guards if you offer it.
  4. Safflower This is also a good all-around seed. An added inducement is that squirrels don’t seem to care for it. Test with your own squirrels to make sure though. This varies around the country. Blackbirds, Grackles and Starlings don’t like it either.
  5. Milo or Sorghum This is a good seed for ground feeders. Western birds such as Steller Jays, Western Scrub Jays and different quails like milo. You could also be feeding doves, pigeons, cowbirds and starlings if you use it. It is a BB size red grass seed. Because of its bulk, it tends to make up a large part of cheap bird seed mixes as a filler. The problem with that is that few songbirds other than those in the west will eat it. Many songbirds can’t even digest it. If you are in the right area and have the right birds, it’s a good thing, but be careful that you don’t use it for the wrong birds. It will just go to waste, rot on the ground and cause you the headache of cleaning it up.

Filler Seeds Besides milo, there are other seeds that are added to cheap seed mixes that songbirds don’t touch. It is a waste to even buy the mixes that have these seeds. Some filler seeds are

  • Golden Millet
  • Red Millet
  • Flax
  • Rapeseed
  • Canary seed
  • Cracked Corn
  • Weed seeds

There are birds that like these, but they are not the ones most backyard birders will want to attract. Avoid seed mixes that have any of these ingredients.

A Word About Storage

When storing seeds, keep them in a clean dry container that will protect them from bugs, rodents and moisture. However, you may notice a silky webbing growing in your containers and then larva wiggling about even in good containers. This isn't your fault. Your seeds were infected before you bought them. The birds won't turn their beaks away from extra protein, but you may have bought old seed, and therefore stale and possibly bad feed. That is another reason for backyard birders not to over buy.

If you want to avoid old seed, you need to know what to look for. See Melissa Mayntz's article, Can Bird Seed Go Bad? to become familiar with the signs of seed spoilage. She is a birding and wild bird expert I follow.

One way I have found to deter larva hatching is to freeze my newly bought seeds for two weeks, let sit out for a few days and then freeze again for another week. This is the same grain storage principle our mothers and grandmothers used when they put extra flour and cornmeal in the freezer. Freezing will kill any eggs or larva in the grain.

Other Types of Feed

  1. Peanuts They are not just for people. Peanuts are a great high calorie feed to give in the fall and winter. Blue Jays, Woodpeckers, Titmice and Chickadees will rush your feeder for them. They can be served in the shell or out, but if you opt for no shells, be careful not to put out more than can be eaten in a day as they can harbor aflatoxins, a toxin produced by fungi. Keep your peanuts in a clean dry container and don’t over buy unless you have good safe storage.
  2. Peanut Butter If you live in a cold climate where birds winter over, this is a great feed. As it is safe for human consumption, it is safe for birds. This is not a good feed for spring and summer months when it will be soft and prone to spoil. Get the cheap hard peanut butters. Many birders spread it on trees with rough bark. Softer peanut butters can be blended with cornmeal to add grit.
  3. Suet This is another high energy winter food. It is made of beef and mutton fat, which is why it must only be served in cold weather when it won’t spoil. The fat acts as a binder in suet cakes, wreaths, bells and blocks mixed with other ingredients, such as cornmeal, peanuts, fruits, or dried insects. I have served it by hanging suet wreaths and bells on a line of heavy fishing line to deter squirrels. Birds such as woodpeckers, wrens, nuthatches, chickadees and jays love it.
  4. Mealworms These are the larva of flightless Darkling Beetles. Robins, wrens and bluebirds will love you for offering them. They can be obtained live in containers. They can be raised easily if you wish to insure freshness. Or, you can buy them freeze dried. The birds don’t mind if they aren’t alive. I serve up half a cup or less of dried mealworms a day, and they don’t last to nightfall.
  5. Fruits or Fruit Seeds During spring migration season you can attract thrushes, waxwings, bluebirds, catbirds, tanagers and orioles to feeders by providing fruit. Try fresh berries; apple and orange slices, melon, grapes or raisins. On hot days your fruit could spoil, so do be careful to check the quality each day. Fruit and berries aren’t a good choice in the summer or fall as birds can find them fresh in the wild.
  6. Jelly This high energy food will attract fruit loving birds too. Offer it during cold springs, late cold snaps and when normal spring foods are scarce. Orioles, some warblers and catbirds are possible jelly feeders.
  7. Supplemental Grit Bird digestion requires some sort of grit as birds lack teeth. Birds will normally ingest tiny stones and sand for the purpose. Broken up shells from hard boiled eggs, sterilized during cooking, will also work well if you wish to offer this supplement. This offers the birds both grit and calcium. Unboiled eggshells should be baked for at least 20 minutes at 250 degrees to achieve sterilization. Some birders believe that offering eggshells in the spring may deter birds from going after other bird’s eggs for the mineral. This wasn’t a provable effect in the research I did for this article. However, birds do need a great deal of calcium during the nesting season.


The Final Word

There is no real final word when it comes to feeder design and what you can offer to attract birds to your properties. New designs and ideas keep coming. When you know what birds your region has to offer and during what season, you can target your offerings to their tastes. But the main thing to remember is that we are just supplementing to attract birds to our yards. We want birds around for our enjoyment yes, but don’t forget that birds are natures first insect controllers.

  • I've seen a Carolina Wren dig up and take off with dozens of grubs in just a few hours.
  • Blue Jays feed wasp larva to their chicks. They will clean a property to wasp nests in the spring.
  • Hummingbirds eat gnats, spiders, mosquitoes, aphids, caterpillars, and insect eggs.
  • Woodpeckers can hear insects inside trees, house siding and posts. Power companies have learned that they make great infestation inspectors for utility poles.

If you want to make your yards a safe welcoming habitat, do away with sprays and other insecticides and let nature do the job it was meant to.

Happy Birding

© 2015 Sherry Thornburg

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