Feeder Frenzy

A red-breasted nuthatch (left) and a downy woodpecker breakfast at a suet feeder.

Bird watching is most joyful in winter, when my northern garden is covered with snow. I watch the chickadees and finches flit about the snow-capped feeders, their playful antics, crisp colors, and wistful songs reminding me of my garden's rebirth still months away.

It's like giving someone unlimited front-row tickets to nature's matinee.

These days, bird feeders come in a dazzling variety of shapes and sizes. Many designs are based upon careful research so attract birds with spectacular efficiency. More than ever, anyone can quickly learn the basics of bird feeding and choose a feeder that will lure a wide variety of birds throughout the winter months.

Choosing a Feeder

There are five types of bird feeders: hopper, platform, tube, nectar, and suet. Variations of each type number in the hundreds. Many species of birds will visit hopper and platform feeders filled with seed mixes. Tube feeders are designed for finches, but will attract other kinds of birds, especially if a bottom tray is attached. Woodpeckers are attracted to suet feeders.

Find out from your dealer which birds visit your region and then determine which of those birds you're interested in watching. Choose a feeder accordingly. Success is as simple as providing the food they prefer in the manner they like it.

Buying a Feeder

Before buying a feeder, decide how many feeding stations you want, and where you'll place them. A feeding station is a single feeder, or a group of feeders in one location. Be practical at first. Check out seed prices and decide if you have the time and energy to fill several feeders weekly.

Several of the feeders shown on the following pages are available exclusively at franchise stores, but you can find many of the same feeders or very similar models at garden centers or wherever bird-feeding supplies are sold. Generally, name brands don't always mean better quality. Some feeders cost hundreds of dollars, but you can get excellent feeders for less than $15.

When shopping for a feeder, consider the quality of its materials and construction, its ease of filling and cleaning, and how much seed it can handle. Try to imagine the feeder after a heavy rain or snow. Are the seeds soaked? Is the seed tray filled with water? The best feeders include covers and built-in drainage systems.

Look for feeders with guarantees against any kind of damage, including squirrel damage. Several companies are offering these incredible 2- or 3-year unlimited warranties.

Where to Place Feeders

The location of your feeding station is important in two respects: Birds need the cover of trees or shrubs nearby to feel safe and welcome, and the feeder should be close enough to your window or porch so that you can enjoy their theatrics.

Feeding Basics

Start with a single platform, hopper, or large tube feeder. Each accommodates large and small birds and can be hung from a tree or hoisted on a pole. Fill any of these feeders with black oil sunflower seeds and you're certain to get visitors, usually within days. Remember to position the feeders where you can see them clearly.

Provide a birdbath filled with fresh water and make sure it doesn't freeze. Keep your feeders filled with dry seeds.

Squirrel-proof and discriminating feeders. If you have too many squirrels, buy a feeder without a seed tray, or, best of all, install a squirrel baffle. There are several squirrel-proof and squirrel-resistant feeders on the market. They range from metal vaults with spring-loaded feeder doors to caged tube feeders, upside-down feeders, covered bowl feeders, and even battery-power feeders that shock trespassing squirrels. Each has benefits and drawbacks. If unwanted squirrels visit your yard and you have the space or budget for only one feeding station, these feeders make sense.

If jays, grackles, and other large birds are crowding out smaller birds, switch to a feeder that discriminates, or blocks, them, but not the smaller, more desirable birds. Or locate an additional feeding station away from where larger birds feed. In my yard, jays and grosbeaks entertain me on one side of the house (large tube feeders with seed trays) and goldfinches, chickadees, and nuthatches feed in peace on the other (small tubes with no seed tray).

Attracting Exotic Birds. If you live where winters are mild and you want to lure woodpeckers, hummingbirds, or orioles to your yard, invest in specialized feeders. Woodpeckers will visit suet feeders hung from trees. Hummingbirds and orioles are attracted to feeders filled with sweet nectar. Keep hummingbird feeders clean and hang them away from your seed feeders.

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