Maintaining a bird feeder in your yard can be one of the most convenient ways to experience nature on a frequent basis.
Growing up, most of the households in my family featured a bird feeder in the yard.
My parents had one at their house. My grandparents on my dad’s side had a finch feeder that sat just outside the kitchen window, while my grandparents on my mom’s side had one tucked by the back steps, feet away from a small wooded patch along the Sheboygan River.
Over the course of my childhood, many an hour was spent watching the birds zip in and out of my relatives’ yards for a quick bite. This was how I learned my basic bird identification skills.
During my junior year of college, I bought my first feeder and put it in the side yard. For the rest of my college career, I spent afternoons at the kitchen table, tapping away at my laptop while occasionally breaking for a glance out the window to check for bird activity. I rediscovered the simple enjoyment that comes from having a feeder and sharpened my ID skills.
When my wife and I bought our first house, I quickly purchased a feeder for our modest yard. But, before doing so, I did some research. As an outdoorsman, I was concerned about how my actions may impact the order of the natural world. Long story short, I learned that feeding birds doesn’t necessarily affect wild animals in a negative way, so long as you follow some basic steps.
I’ve learned a lot about bird feeding over the last few years and here are a few tips to help you get the most out of a setup at your home:
Pick the proper location
Like many outdoor activities, optimizing your bird feeding experience is all about location. Sure, hungry birds aren’t always picky. But being intentional about your feeder placement will protect the birds and enhance your chances of attracting more birds as well as a wider-variety of species.
To prevent window collisions, feeders should be located fewer than three or more than 30 feet from your external glass. This helps the birds have a better perception of their surroundings.
Placing your feeder close to any cover your yard provides will make hesitant birds more likely to visit and can potentially extend the length of their stay.
It’s also crucial to offer feeders at a variety of heights. Each bird species has its own eating preferences. Presenting options increases your chance at seeing a wide variety of birds. More on that later.
Use the right feed
When it comes to bird feed, you get what you pay for.
When starting out, it can be tempting to purchase the cheap stuff in bulk. I was one of the people who took that approach early on. But there is a significant drawback to this way of thinking: many of the less expensive bags of bird seed have plenty of filler ingredients that few bird species actually value, such as milo, wheat, or oats. As such, many of your visitors will simply toss the feed aside and it will pile up in your yard. Even worse, the discarded remnants can attract rodents. This, in turn, can attract cats that won’t hesitate to turn one of your feathered friends into a quick meal.
Instead, change up your food offerings on a seasonal basis. As the weather shifts, so does the type of feed that most benefits birds.
In winter, birds need fat. Suet, peanuts, and sunflower seeds can all be good options.
Spring is a great time to bust out the buffet. The northward migration means you will likely find yourself serving an assortment of species. Make sure your spread reflects that. Sunflower seeds, suet, mealworms, peanut butter, nectar, jam, and a variety of thoughtful mixes can all be great options.
Many people take down their bird feeders in summer, sans a few choices for hummingbirds and goldfinches. For other species, a bird bath or other clean, reliable water source is likely more beneficial.
Come autumn, the migration is again in full swing. I take more of a spring-like approach in September and October. Try to offer a wide variety. If that’s not a choice available to you, opt for seed high in fat and protein. Don’t forget about the hummingbirds and finches.
Speaking of seasonality, suet is a popular option among backyard birders largely due to it’s no-mess packaging. But try to avoid using suet in the warmer months. No only is the added fat content not needed for birds in the spring and summer, higher temperatures can lead to suet blocks going rancid.
This is probably the most important tip of the bunch. If you start feeding birds, you have to be committed to it.
To an extent, local birds will come to rely upon your feeders as a source of nourishment. Don’t rip it away from them by not consistently re-filling your stash.
Sure, natural food stuffs disappear on birds all the time. But this is where those who choose to feed birds must contemplate their involvement in the natural cycle of things. Feeding birds is intervening with nature. There are consequences to that. Keeping your feeders full is the only way to make sure your impact on your feathered friends is a positive one.
If you plan to be away for an extended period of time, either ask someone to fill your feeders or begin weaning the birds off your backyard buffet in advance of your absence.
Vary your feeder types
Different birds enjoy their meals in different ways. While some don’t mind perching and pecking, others simply won’t fit on your feeders or naturally prefer picking at food off a flat surface.
To attract the widest variety of birds to your yard, you must present an array of dining options. Tube, tray, window, hopper, and suet feeders all cater to the feeding preferences of certain species.
Don’t be afraid to mix it up.
Clean your feeders
I must admit, I was ignorant to the importance of this step for far too long. But there is no way around it. Cleaning your feeders can be as important as keeping them stocked.
Dirty feeders can quickly become hotspots for a variety of avian ailments.
Plastic feeders can be cleaned with a brush and warm water. However, if mold or other residue is your issue, a diluted bleach solution is the ticket. Opt for 10 parts water to one part bleach. Let dry before re-filling with seed.
Wood feeders often become weathered. If the appearance of your wood feeders begins to bother you, feel free to add a fresh coat of wood sealer every couple of years. However, make sure your sealer or stain is water-soluble and do not apply it directly to any surface the birds may eat off of.
Regardless of your feeder’s material composition, be sure to promptly remove old seed that becomes caked on the bottom. This can quickly become a breeding ground for harmful mold.
Also, if you see a diseased bird in your yard, take your feeder(s) down. A host of these health issues are contagious and feeding infected birds is one of the quickest ways to escalate the issue. Give it a week or two for the coast to clear before resuming feeding.
Report your sightings
You may not realize it but, if you frequently observe your bird feeders, you are sitting on a treasure trove of data that can be useful to scientists. After all, no one is as familiar with the birds in your yard as you are.
Platforms like eBird, make it easy to report your bird sightings right from your phone. This information is used to provide data that helps shape policies related to science, conservation, and education.
Need help with identification? There’s an app for that. Use Merlin for a quick and easy guide to birds in your area.
You’ll be surprised what you can learn from tracking bird activity in your yard. Don’t be afraid to share those insights with folks who can put that information to good use.
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