Feeding Birds in Your Backyard or Garden

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By Lynn Ocone

Watching birds in your garden and at feeders is another pleasurable ways to enjoy nature all year.   Spring is a perfect time to set out new bird feeders. In addition to attracting local avian residents, you'll also attract birds during their stopovers as they migrate north. Keeping several different types of feeders stocked year-round ensures that a variety of birds will visit as they nest, feed, migrate, and/or overwinter in your region.On snowy days, their liveliness, colors and sounds are a source of fascination and joy. 

Where to Put Your Feeder

For the greatest variety and number of birds, try a variety of feeding spots and feeders. Start with one or two feeders and increase the number as you learn which foods and feeders the birds prefer. Place the feeders so you can watch them easily from a convenient window. Also, when the feeders are in sight, you'll see when they need to be filled or cleaned.

Hang feeders near shrubs or trees so birds have nearby cover and an escape route from predators such as sharp-shinned hawks. In extremely windy areas, choose sheltered locations for the feeders.

Where you feed is as important as what and how you feed. Set your feeder where it will be convenient for you to refill it. Ideally, place it about ten feet from a tree or shrub -- close enough so birds waiting their turn to feed will be protected; far enough to keep cats and squirrels from leaping to the feeder. Locate it in a sheltered area, away from prevailing winter winds. And finally, remember that feeding birds can be a messy endeavor so avoid hanging feeders over a porch or deck unless you don't mind cleaning the area regularly.

What Kind of Feeder?

Different species of birds have different preferences when it comes to food and feeders. Some birds prefer tube feeders, while others like hopper styles. If you want to see lots of birds, offer a varied menu at different types of feeders.

Hopper feeders have a seed storage area that spills down onto a small platform. This type of feeder attracts a wide range of bird types, especially if it's filled with black oil sunflower seed.

Platform feeders consist of an open area on which you set the seed. Mimicking open ground, platforms attract ground feeders such as juncos, white-throated and tree sparrows, towhees, doves, cardinals, jays, and many finches. Use any type of food, but know that if you fill the platform with mixed seed, much of it will be wasted as the birds pick out their favorites and scatter the rest.

Tube feeders attract perching birds such as goldfinches, redpolls, siskins, finches, chickadees, titmice, and nuthatches. The Audubon Society says that if you are putting out just one feeder, use a tube feeder filled with sunflower seed.

Thistle feeders have numerous perches and small holes, and should be filled with niger (thistle) seed, which is a favorite of finches.

Suet feeders will attract a variety of woodpeckers, as well as cardinals, nuthatches, chickadees, and wrens. It's loaded with calories, making it an ideal cold-weather food source. But during hot weather, avoid feeding supermarket suet in hot weather because it becomes rancid. Instead, offer small pieces of commercial suet cakes and refrigerate the extra.

In summer, set out nectar feeders to attract hummingbirds. The primary food of hummingbirds, the nectar you use in feeders mimics that found in flowers. You can make your own nectar by dissolving one part sugar in four parts boiling water. Allow to cool, then pour into feeder. Refrigerate extra nectar, and clean and refill the feeder every 4 or 5 days.

Some birds don't eat seed. To attract fruit- and berry-eating birds, such as waxwings, bluebirds, and mockingbirds, soak raisins or currants in water and place them on a platform feeder.

Types of Birdseed

Black oil sunflower seeds are relished by chickadees, evening grosbeaks, cardinals and finches, and are less attractive to non-native sparrows and starlings. White millet is the best small seed, especially attractive to juncos and sparrows in winter. Goldfinches prefer thistle seed (also called niger), which also attracts house finches and pine siskins.

Don't let stored seed spoil. If you purchase large bags, store it in a sealed container. This keeps seed fresh and prevents rodents from finding your stash.

Preventing Unwanted Visitors to Your Birdfeeder

Squirrels are a major nemesis of bird feeders. In some areas, so are racoons and rats. Luckily, there are several types of feeders and tips about placement that will help deter visits by uninvited guests.

Squirrels: To prevent squirrels from reaching the feeder, use one that includes an attached baffle or that has a funnel-shaped top. You can also buy baffles separately and attach them to your favorite feeder. Elevate the feeder at least five feet off the ground. Place it eight to 10 feet from the nearest building and overhanging tree branches.

Raccoons: To protect post-mounted feeders from raccoons, attach a cone shield with an 18-inch radius on the post below the feeder (at least four feet above the ground). To prevent raccoons and dogs from carrying off suet, place it in a wire or mesh enclosure and hang it well above the ground.

Rats: If rats are a concern, avoid ground and platform feeders, which are most likely to attract them. Regularly clean up under hanging feeders. Lay a tarp under the feeder to catch seed hulls and dropped seed. Offer birds the seeds they prefer rather than less attractive foods such as wheat, sorghum and cracked corn, which will end up scattered on the ground. Put out just enough food so the birds clean it up before dark.

Pest Birds: If larger birds such as grackles are a problem, choose feeders designed for small birds, such as a thistle tube or hanging globe.

Fall Cleanup and Birds

Birds have four basic needs: food, water, shelter from predators and the elements, and safe nesting places. In addition to setting out feeders to provide food, starting this fall and winter you can help birds meet their needs in the following ways.

As you clean up, leave a brush pile that birds can use for cover. Also leave seeds and fruits on plants such as sunflowers (for jays and chickadees); cosmos, chicory and evening primrose (for goldfinches); and grapes (for cedar waxwings).

Provide fresh water in a shallow container. Water should be no more than two inches deep. In winter, it is especially important to keep the water ice-free by changing it frequently or by using an immersion-type water heater designed for outdoor use.

Landscapes with abundant trees and shrubs, and a relatively small lawn, are most attractive to birds. To enhance your garden with plants that provide natural food shelter, develop a landscape plan this winter in preparation for spring planting.

Maintaining your Bird Feeder

Clean feeders periodically, especially if they are in a location where the seeds can get wet. Once you start feeding, try to keep the feeders stocked with seeds. Although the limited studies done to date suggest that birds don't become completely dependent on food in bird feeders, it's important to keep feeders filled during the coldest part of the winter since this is when birds have the hardest time meeting their calorie requirements. Also, don't let spilled seed accumulate under feeders; it can get soggy and moldy. Rake it up occasionally and discard.

Lynn Ocone is a gardener and bird-watcher who lives in Burlington, Vermont.

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