Care and Feeding of Our Feathered Friends

Every autumn, the air fills with falling leaves, and with feathers, as birds pass through on their way south, and winter residents begin to arrive. Although birds can often find the food they need in summer, lots of people put out feeders to give birds some extra food in the fall and winter. If you are one of them or want to become one, here are some tips to make the most of “feeder season.”

Black-capped chickadees are common winter visitors to bird feeders. Photo: Courtney Celley/USFWS

Setting The Table

Some foods are better for us than others — a candy bar can be a nice treat, but we need fruits and vegetables too. Birds also need healthy meals, and since they have adapted to eat food that naturally occurs in your area, a good feeder mix will offer similar nutrition.

Bird diets often change during the course of the year, as different foods become available — think of eating fresh corn in the summer, or pumpkin pie in November — so if you’ve been feeding birds all summer, you might consider switching up your feed mix. During the colder months, many birds need seed that is high in fat, such as black oil sunflower seeds, suet, or thistle.

The seed mix could even change depending on what birds are in your area during this time of year, or which ones you want to attract. Study what birds are in your area — eBird can help you find the species of birds found near you at different times of year — and that can help you decide which food to put out.

The Perfect Dining Room

As with seed, you can tailor your feeder for different species. In addition to the standard “birdhouse” feeders, there is a variety of others you can use, including:

  • starling-resistant suet feeder
  • a wire mesh cage feeder for peanuts
  • a tube feeder for thistle
  • a stationary or tray fruit feeder
  • a house or platform feeder for millet

Of course, the more different types of feeders you have, the more birds you are likely to see, so don’t be afraid to offer a bird buffet if space allows.

Woodpeckers, titmice and others love suet feeders. Photo: Tom Wall/USFWS

A Place With a View

Just like a restaurant might thrive in one location but not another, feeder placement can have an impact on what kinds of birds show up, and even on bird safety:

  • Usually, you want to keep feeders off the ground. This reduces visits from predators and contamination from mold and bacteria. If you live in an area with squirrels, you also might want to take steps to prevent them from reaching the bird seed — otherwise, you might just have a “squirrel feeder” on your hands.
  • Distance is also important — keep them either less than three feet or more than 30 feet from windows. Birds don’t perceive glass the same way that humans do, so following this placement guidance helps ensure that they are less likely to crash into a window. If you want to go the extra mile, you can also take a few easy steps to make your windows more bird-friendly.
  • If you have a hummingbird feeder in the summer, it is best not to keep it in full sun, as the sugar water can quickly spoil in the hot sun.
  • It may take a few days for birds to find your feeder, so don’t fret if they don’t appear right away. Adding some cover nearby such as a tree, shrub, or even a brush pile can serve as a sort of natural welcome mat.

Housekeeping

Although maintaining a feeder isn’t the most exciting part of bird feeding, it might be the most important. Feeders can act as “distribution centers,” not just for food, but for any diseases that sick birds bring with them. Normally, this can be prevented by cleaning them regularly — about once a week, depending on the type of feeder and food. You don’t need expensive equipment or cleaners, normally a simple solution of bleach and water will do.

Evening grosbeaks enjoy sunflower seeds. Photo: George Gentry/USFWS

Building The Neighborhood

When spring comes around, many people take down their feeders, but native landscaping can keep them coming to visit! And during the fall, you can take a rest and leave your leaves on the ground — they can provide habitat and food for birds and other animals while improving your soil.

Even better, you can make bird feeding and landscaping a community effort. Birds like connected habitat, so if you get your neighbors involved, not only will it be an enjoyable experience to share, but you might bring even more birds to your own yard. It’s also a good way to share tips and sightings. Over 57 million people feed birds, so chances are good that a few people in your neighborhood are already doing it. If you want to go the extra mile, you can become part of an even larger community, and share your observations with a citizen science program like Project Feederwatch.

Birds can add so much to our lives, with their songs, colors, and behaviors. With bird feeding, landscaping, and more, we have the chance to give them something in return, while ensuring that we are able to share the joy for years to come.

Here are some resources to get you started:

Native plant guides

By Christopher Deets, Migratory Bird Program
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service