American goldfinches flock at backyard thistle feeders. Photo by Randall Sholten.

Tips for Better Bird Feeding

American goldfinches flock at backyard thistle feeders. Photo by Randall Sholten.
American goldfinches flock at backyard thistle feeders. Photo by Randall Sholten.

Bird feeding provides enjoyment to millions of North Americans each year. When proper feeding methods are followed, both humans and birds derive benefits from feeders. However, recent research on the impact of bird feeding has shown that feeders can sometimes be a source of disease for the birds visiting them. There is good news, too: With minimal effort, any feeder operator in North America can provide a safe, healthy feeding station for birds.

Tips for a Healthy Feeding Station

  • Give your seed feeders (especially thistle and tube feeders) a shake before you refill them, to dislodge any compacted seed. Dump out any wet clumps of old seed.
  • Clean all hulls off platform feeders and out of seed trays daily.
  • Keep some old spatulas and brushes handy by the feeding station for cleaning purposes.
  • Disinfect feeders by scrubbing with a weak bleach solution (one part bleach to nine parts warm water) every few weeks, more often in summer or rainy periods. Rinse and allow feeders to dry before refilling.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly after filling or cleaning your feeders.
  • Move your feeding station when the ground beneath it becomes covered with seed hulls and droppings. Rake the old site to remove hulls and to give the grass a chance to recover.
  • Store your seed in a clean, dry, air-tight container, such as a metal or plastic garbage can.
  • Don’t allow large amounts of seed to become wet, as on platform feeders. Instead, when it’s wet outside, feed primarily from covered feeders that will keep seed dry, or put out only a handful of seed at a time on platforms.
  • Don’t put hulled sunflower hearts (or bits) out where wet weather can cause them to spoil. Offer them in a tube or hopper feeder.
  • Don’t put out more seed than can be eaten by the birds by nightfall, especially where raccoons, opossums, bears, deer, or rodents are a problem.
  • If you see a sick or dead bird at your feeders, halt your feeding for a few weeks to allow the healthy birds to disperse. This lessens the possibility of disease transmission. Report sick birds to your local wildlife officials, many of whom monitor wildlife health. Remove dead birds and discard in the trash.
  • If you provide suet, reduce the amount you offer in hot weather. Heat can make suet rancid and unhealthy for birds. Melted suet can stick to birds’ feathers, making them hard to keep clean and useful. Use rendered suet or heat-resilient suet blocks that are available commercially.
  • Reduce window-kills of birds by placing feeders a safe distance away. If birds regularly strike a particular window place a screen, crop netting, or a series of branches over or in front of the outside glass panel to break up the reflection.
  • Though birds may not be entirely dependent on your feeder, it’s best to wean them from your buffet for a week or so if you plan to be away from home in midwinter. Or, purchase an over-sized feeder with a large seed capacity, or ask a willing neighbor to continue feeding your birds. Even in midwinter, healthy birds won’t die if you suddenly stop feeding them.
  • Don’t discontinue feeding as soon as the grass greens and the weather warms in spring. Many birds will continue coming to your feeders all summer long.
  • Don’t use grease, oil, petroleum jelly, or similar substances on your feeder poles or wires to thwart squirrels, ants, or other feeder-raiding creatures. If these substances come into contact with bird feathers they are impossible for the bird to preen or wash out. Gooey feathers can become useless for flight or insulation, thus putting the birds at risk to predators, extreme weather, and disease. For squirrels and other mammals, use a pole-mounted baffle (many are sold commercially). For ants, use an ant moat that prevents ants from reaching the feeder. Feeder baffles and ant guards are available on the Internet, by mail-order, or in retail stores that sell an extensive array of backyard products.

Tips for Better Feeding

  • Black-oil sunflower seed is the most widely used birdseed, popular with the greatest number of bird species. Its thin shell and large nutmeat are ideal for most feeder species.
  • Offer a variety of seeds and food in a variety of appropriate feeders (sunflower seed in tube, hopper, or platform feeders, thistle in tube feeders, peanuts in peanut feeders, suet in suet cages, and mixed seed on platform feeders or scattered on dry ground).
  • Thick-shelled gray-striped sunflower seed will attract cardinals, grosbeaks, jays, chickadees, titmice, and nuthatches, but not finches or other small birds.
  • Offer safflower seed for cardinals. Squirrels and blackbirds generally do not like it, but some snack on it occasionally.
  • If your feeder is overrun with blackbirds, pigeons, or house sparrows, stop offering mixed seed on the ground or on platform feeders. Feed only black-oil sunflower seed in tube or hopper feeders until the problem species disperse.
  • Don’t offer so-called wild bird mixes in tube feeders. These are better offered on platforms or in hopper feeders. Birds that prefer sunflower seed will empty the feeder to get at the sunflower seeds.
  • Establish a brush pile near your feeder to make sparrows, towhees, and other shy birds feel more at comfortable, but be sure it won’t harbor roaming cats.
  • Add natural features to your feeding station, such as branches to perch on, to make birds feel more at ease.

Hummingbird Feeding Tips

  • Don’t use hummingbird feeders that are difficult to clean, or have many small parts.
  • Do wash your hummingbird feeders thoroughly with hot, soapy water and rinse completely every time before you refill them.
  • Don’t allow mold or yeast to grow in your hummingbird feeders. When the nectar appears cloudy, empty and scrub feeders immediately.
  • When making hummingbird nectar, blend water and white table sugar in a 4 to 1 ratio (4 parts water to 1 part sugar). Add the sugar to boiling water to facilitate dissolving, then let cool before filling clean feeders.
  • Don’t use insecticides, such as wasp killers, anywhere near bird feeders, especially hummingbird feeders.
  • Don’t use anything but white, granulated table sugar. No powdered or brown sugar, honey, molasses, artificial sweeteners, nutrients, or red food-coloring should be used.

Tips for a Healthy Bird Bath

  • Don’t situate birdbaths under feeders or perches where droppings can fall into them.
  • Rinse and scrub birdbaths daily in summer, or whenever they become fouled with bird droppings. Once a month, scrub out with a light bleach solution (one part bleach in nine parts water), rinse thoroughly, and refill.

1 thought on “Tips for Better Bird Feeding”

  1. You made an interesting point when you explained that it is a good idea to add natural features to your bird feeding station. I would think that it would be a good idea to place a bird feeder in a tree. Placing the feeder in a tree would probably give you all of the natural features you would need.

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