Wild Bird Identification: Bird Watching Basics
Photo by Filip Tkaczyk

Wild Birds: To Feed or Not to Feed

Feeding wild birds doesn’t have to be expensive but once you start you should not stop feeding during the winter, once the birds become used to your feeding stations.  You can stop feeding in the spring once insects and other fruits become available.  Most people, once they start feeding wild birds, don’t want to stop because they enjoy having the birds around to identify and learn about their behavior.  Attracting birds to your yard will also help you control insect pests around your home, yard, and garden.

Of course, the easiest thing to do is buy some mixed seed and hang up a commercial feeder.  However you will have more fun feeding different types of seeds, at different feeding stations, and will attract a larger variety of birds.  After feeding wild birds for 30 years I am less attracted to store bought feeders for a variety of reasons.  Store bought bird feeders are for people who don’t want to put out food daily.

Food often becomes moldy in bird feeders during rainy seasons and this is not good for the birds. Putting food out daily insures that it is fresh, there is less waste, you will know if the birds need more or less, and can adjust the amount to just the right proportions that are needed on any particular day.

Planting seed producing flowers is a fun way to attract birds too.  Also collecting wild seed heads like grass seed, mulien, black-eyed susans, or wild sunflowers, and tying those in bundles to hang and dry to later be tied to a tree during the winter and will excite any hungry bird.

I was a wildlife rehabilitator for twenty five years and often answered phone calls on bird related questions.  I gave programs at many schools and organized groups on attracting birds without expensive bird feeders.  I think it’s important that when people feed the birds that they do what’s safe and healthy for the birds.  Nearly all the birds brought to me at my rehabilitation center were victims of window collisions, poisoning, or caught by pets.  All these injuries could have been prevented, if people were just a bit more responsible when feeding birds.

Keeping Feeding Stations Clean and Disease Free

Keeping store bought bird feeders, especially tube feeders, clean can be a problem.  There is a big problem with crusted eye disease, called conjunctivitis, which started with house finches and has spread to other species because it is spread at feeders, when an infected bird rubs its face on the perch or sticks its beak or head into the feeder holes.  Unless you bring the feeders inside everyday and wash them in soap, water, and Clorox you might be spreading this highly contagious disease.

Birds drop their feces when ever they take off or while feeding so the ground under bird feeders and the feeders themselves, especially those with trays to catch the seed, can get very messy and become a breeding ground for bacteria and food poisoning.  If you are going to feed birds you must clean your feeding stations regularly.  With feeding comes responsibility.   If you are going to be a lazy bird feeder, then don’t do it at all! Feeding birds is a commitment and just like cleaning up after a human meals, you must be willing to clean up the area where you feed the birds.

Squirrels Wars – you’ll never win!

Most people who hate squirrels started the squirrel wars first!

Every time a caller asks how to keep the squirrels out of their feeders, I would tell them to get rid of the mixed seed in their feeders, and they were all truly amazed that I knew what seed they fed their birds!  (After answering questions from about 2,000 calls a year, you know what people are doing wrong by the way they ask the question.)

Squirrels don’t like millet, they like the sunflowers seeds, and will empty a feeder, spilling the seed on the ground, just to get to the sunflower seeds.  Think about it.  Squirrels are persistent scavengers and will figure out how to get their favorite seed no mater what you do – so you might as well call it a truce and feed them on the ground, and learn about their behavior and feeding schedules.  I discovered most squirrels are late sleepers not arriving at the feeders until around nine o’clock.  Birds are up before dawn singing their lungs out and as the sky lightens they begin feeding.

I knew one man who trapped the squirrels in a Have a Heart trap and drove several miles to release them on back country roads in the woods.  After transporting sixty some squirrels he realized there are an abundance of squirrels waiting on the side lines for their chance to fill the void when other squirrels vacate their favorite feeding grounds.  So don’t bother to try this – it’s been done before.

It’s so much easier to scatter seed on the ground and cheaper if you use sunflower seed, whole dried corn, or whole peanuts. Or better yet, gather acorns, hickory nuts and other natural foods during your outings in the woods and save those for cold winter days.  The squirrels will get just as excited about finding these as will the blue jays!  Just don’t put mixed seed at any of your favorite feeding stations if you don’t want to have problems with squirrels.  I call them feeding stations because the feeds in this article are not commercial bird feeders.

Easy to Clean Home-made Feeders and Seeds

Ground feeding station

One of the easiest wild bird feeders you can make is to turn over an empty garbage can or wooden box in an open spot in your yard and put a large piece of plywood on it, then sprinkle some seed on the platform. It’s easy to clean and infected birds are not likely to rub their eyes while feeding on a flat surface. This platform feeder is the easiest to scrub clean and dries quickly in the sun.  It can also be moved from place to place so the ground under the feeder doesn’t become a breeding ground for bacteria or kills your grass.

On this ground platform feeder I put fine cracked corn or plain white millet or mixed seed.  This attracts the ground feeders like sparrows, towhees, jays, and doves.

I use black oil seed instead of striped sunflower seed because it is higher in protein and the shells are not as messy.  Although black oil seed cost more, you get more seed for your money because the stripped seed has the same sized heart kernel but a bigger shell.  Sunflower seed is usually just scattered on the ground so the squirrels and birds are more spread out while feeding.  There is less chance that the squirrels will chase the birds away.

During rainy season or when snowing just add a top board supported by an over-turned flower pot to provide shelter for the food and birds.  It’s better to have the second board slightly larger than the bottom board.

If you don’t make soup from that holiday turkey carcass, put that out on the platform and watch how quickly birds eat bird!  Of course, these suggestions may attract neighborhood cats or skunks too, so only put this tasty treat out when you can watch.  Bring the turkey carcass inside at night if the birds don’t finish.

We have problems with bears so daily wild bird feeding is better and there is no wasted seed – the birds come as soon as seed is out, then the squirrels come, then the deer clean up what’s left before it gets dark, and by the time it’s dark and the bears or skunks come out  there’s nothing left.

Some times I just cut up stale bread and toast it in bacon fat, and then after it cools, put it outside on the platform for the birds – jays especially like this. The bacon fat is high in protein and is better than just plain bread. One year the jays were so eager for this treat that I could toss it in the air and the jays dived for it.

Stale donuts, bread, or left over cooked corn are all food magnets for birds.  Never put out fresh bread because it becomes paste in the bird’s crop and can cause all sorts of problems.  White bread has no nutritional value, whole grain breads are better. Some people like to put out left over spaghetti thinking it will attract worm eating birds.  I once put some macaroni and cheese out and the starlings were fighting over it within minutes!  Even if you only attract common introduced species like starlings and house sparrows you can learn about bird behavior in a way that is valuable for Kamana lessons.

Window wild bird feeding station

I hung a 10” board cut to fit on my window sill with eye-hooks and wire to hold it up and this feeding platform is even easier to clean and place seed on since I don’t even have to go out side!  I just open the window, brush off the old seed and bird droppings with a wide paint scrapper or stiff bush and put a cup full of fresh sunflower hearts or chopped nuts there.  I wash these platform feeders as needed with good hot water and soap.

Squirrels can’t jump to most window sills unless there are foundation trees or bushes near the window.  So make sure there are no foundation plants near the window sill or rain gutter leaders running down along the side of the widow for the squirrel to climb up on.  It’s sort of fun to watch the squirrels hang from the rain gutters on the eaves of the roof and try to swing in to reach the feeding shelf but it is too small and far away for them to land on, so they miss it every time!  It took 25 years before a really smart squirrel mastered this feat, but I had a lot of fun watching them try.

On the window sill platform is where I put the more expensive seed and nut mixtures.  This attracts the chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, finches, and siskins that aren’t afraid to come up close.  Some times I put suet on the shelf to see woodpeckers up close.  Sometimes I put corn bread on this shelf or stewed apples and raisins to bring in those Carolina wrens or mockingbirds.  It also makes it easy to photograph birds without expensive telescopic lens on your camera.

Make some corn bread following any recipe except use water rather than milk, because birds can’t digest milk.  Before baking, add chopped apples, raisins, currents, or peanut butter and put that out on your platform after it has cooled.  Then watch the birds fight over this exciting treat on a cold wintry day.

Tree stations for feeding wild birds

Nail an orange cut in half to the tree with a really big nail to give a perch for birds and you can attract orioles or red-bellied woodpeckers.  If you want to attract a variety of woodpeckers just nail a big chunk of suet to a tree.  Hanging suet in a plastic onion bag or those tiny suet cages usually only attracts the Downy and Hairy woodpeckers.  Raccoons often run off with those so nailing it to the tree is better. If you have a meat grinder, grind beef or pork suet up, then place that in a crook of the tree branch, many birds will benefit from this high protein source, especially during bad weather.  Make it easier for the birds to feed during the really bad days so they can conserve their energy more effectively.  Just don’t put suet out after the temperature stays above 40 degrees because then it spoils and the birds could get sick eating it.

feeding wild birds

If you’re not sure about which species a woodpecker is, cut the suet to 9” before you nail it to the tree then you’ll be able to tell if that’s a downy or a hairy because you can use the suet as a reference – if the bird is the same size or larger it’s a hairy.  In this case it was a downy with a longer than normal looking beak.

Make your own home-make suet cakes.  I save all the bacon fat in a coffee can and when it’s nearly full I melt it down and add corn meal, peanut butter, honey, and chopped fruit or nuts, then pour this in tuna cans, let harden in the refrigerator, and nail the can to a tree.  Don’t use seed in this mixture because birds that are attracted to suet are insect eaters, not seed eaters.  Most commercial seed cakes have seed in it and the birds attracted to the suet drop the seed to the ground which eventually gets eaten by a ground eating birds so why bother?  Home made suet mixture is very popular with lots of birds, but the squirrels love it too.  Put one tuna can on the window sill platform just for the small birds and one out on the tree for the squirrels and woodpeckers.

At Christmas time we decorate a spruce tree outside for the birds with popcorn and cranberries strung in long string and placed around the tree. (Let the popcorn get stale then it’s easier to string.) Stringing whole lines of peanuts in their shell then wrapping those around the tree keeps the birds busy too.  Tie some string on a pine cone, put it in a paper cup then pour some of that homemade suet and cornmeal mixture over the pine cone – put in the refrigerator to harden, then tear off the paper cup, and hang that pine cone from a tree limb.   Don’t be surprised if a squirrel runs off with these treats.

Pole feeding stations

Another easy to make feeder only requires an old pizza pan screwed to an old broom stick pounded into the ground – this was my favorite feeder to place thistle on for the finches.  It can be moved easily until the ground freezes.  Squirrels won’t bother it – they don’t like thistle.  But if you want to put sunflower hearts on the pan and don’t want squirrels up there, put a coffee can over the top of the broomstick before you screw the pizza pan on.  I never had to do make the squirrel baffle because the squirrels were conditioned to think there was only thistle at this feeding station.

In this photo a red bellied woodpecker is enjoying a handful of chopped nuts that I put out, just so I could get this photo, while the squirrels were gathering seeds at the other feeding locations.   When the nuts were gone I put more thistle seed on the pan and the squirrels never knew what they missed.

feeding wild birds
Feeding stones for feeding wild birds

Look for interesting large flat rocks with a slight curve in the center to use as a feeder or bird bath.  I found a perfect stone to put on top of an old bird bath stand after the original top broke.   I scrub it off every morning with a stiff brush before adding the seed.  Or scrub it with water if it really needs it.  This way there is no built up.  Cleaning doesn’t have to be a major production if you clean up the feeding area every morning before placing more seed out.  Just carry a good stiff brush with you.

feeding wild birds

You can make your own cement feeding tray.  All that is required is a box half full of moist sand and some cement mix.  Make a small round mound of sand in the middle then add the wet cement and let dry then turn it up side down and brush out the loose sand. For those of you that are more artistic, I saw a very pretty and clever bird bath made from a rhubarb leaf up side down placed on the mounded sand before the cement was poured.  It turned out very pretty after the leaf dried and was brushed off and painted.

Birds of prey

Just use your imagination and you’ll have lots of fun attracting birds to your yard and learning about the birds.  Once you attract them and start watching their behavior at these feeders you will learn a lot.  For example if you notice the feeders get very quiet and the birds freeze – check your trees for a sharp-shinned or Cooper’s hawk!  Immature hawks are often attracted to the feeding frenzy!  Sharpies usually go for the sparrow sized birds, whereas the Coopers like starlings and doves.  If you feed the birds in several locations the small birds can be more alert to these predators, and not as focused waiting for their turn at one feeder.  It creates a more balanced predator / prey situation.

Feeding wild birds from windows

Many beautiful hawks end up flying into windows because they see the reflection of birds in the windows.  So part of being a responsible bird watcher and feeder is making sure that the reflections of trees or feeding stations in the windows is broken up somehow.

If you have problems with birds flying into windows hang stained glass window ornaments on the windows with suction  cups, or pretty fall leaves placed in-between two pieces of 3” wide clear tape, or hang a wind sock or banner near the outside of the window.    One year my kids made stain glass pictures on paper with colored markers and I hung those on the windows in various places.  Those were especially pretty with the sun shinning through them.

If you have a persistent problem with a particular bird flying at your window, it’s because it is a male thinking there is another male in his territory and he is fighting his reflection. First check if there are any small trees or bushes that this bird likes to sit on. where it can see itself in the window.  Simply trimming a branch or pruning back the bush may correct the problem.  If none of the above suggestions work, you can soap your window on the outside.  After the bird is busy feeding it’s young it won’t have time to fight its reflection (about two weeks) then you can scrape the soap off the window with a straight edge razor blade, then wash with water and vinegar.

Pets catching birds

Cats and dogs often bring in birds that they catch and people become upset with their pets.  Most cats and dogs can’t catch a healthy adult bird. That bird was first a window victim, or a very sick bird.  The cat or dog brings you their catch as a gift, and we should not scold them, or they won’t bring you the next one.  Cats do kill a lot of baby birds because these babies, when they leave the nest can’t fly well, and must develop their flying skills over a period of two to four days before they are able to follow their parents around.  This is the time when most kids, cats and dogs find baby birds and pick them up.

The simple solution to this problem is keep your pets indoors, in a fenced area or on leash if you are going to attract birds with seed or food.  Putting a bell on a cat can help but baby birds don’t learn that a danger is around until their parents teach them, and a sick or injured bird won’t be able to move even if it does learn to recognize the bell as a warning.   Being a responsible pet owner is also required if you wish to be feeding wild birds.