Feeding wild birds is one of the easiest ways to experience the natural world right outside your door. But because there are almost as many bird-feeding options as species that visit feeders, it’s not surprising that novices can be overwhelmed by the many choices at birding shops and on Web sites. The good news is that it’s easier than it seems to get started.
If you want to begin feeding birds in your garden, you have two main choices to make: what type of feeder to purchase and what type of food to offer. Fortunately, there are foolproof options in both of these categories.
First, decide which feeder to purchase. The simplest feeder is a tube feeder. As its name implies, it’s a tube of durable plastic or glass with multiple feeding ports and perches along its sides. Tube feeders come in a range of sizes, colors, and styles that will fit into any yard or garden. Inexpensive models are easy to find. They’re also easy to keep clean.
Next, choose the type of food. Among the many food options available, black-oil sunflower seed is the clear choice if you’re not sure which birds you’ll be attracting. This small, black seed is available at birding specialty stores, pet shops, grocery stores, and discount stores. The most common feeder birds—including cardinals, juncos, chickadees, finches, jays, titmice, nuthatches, and woodpeckers—are sure to be attracted to a tube feeder stocked with these high-fat, high-protein seeds. Be patient, though, because it might take a few weeks for birds to discover and use your feeders.
Put the bird feeder in a safe place. Hang the tube feeder from a shepherd’s hook, not a tree branch. Placing feeders in trees, or too close to them, gives squirrels easier access. Make sure your feeder is about 10 to 12 feet from trees or dense shrubs. This distance is close enough to vegetation to provide cover for birds if a predator (such as a cat) shows up, and far enough away to make sure predators don’t have a convenient hiding place from which to pounce.
Maintain seed and feeders properly. Store your seed in a cool, dry place to prevent mold. A metal trash bin works well and is also rodent-proof. Every couple of weeks, empty out your feeder and wash it with soap, a scrub brush, and hot water. This will remove any seed shells, mold, bird droppings, and other disease-causing elements and will ensure that your avian friends have a clean place to enjoy a meal.
I have one warning, though: Bird feeding is addictive. Once you start, it’s hard not to become obsessed with keeping your feeders filled, experimenting with specialty feeders, and keeping lists of species that show up in your yard. But it’s a safe bet that the birds won’t mind your obsession one bit.
Plant a bird buffet. Bird feeders are a fun way to attract birds to your garden, but they serve only as a supplement to the foods birds rely on in nature. To provide for birds in the most natural way, feed them the way Mother Nature does—through your landscape. Here are some of the best bird plants available for the garden. Ask your local nursery for species native to your area.
• American cranberry bush (Viburnum trilobum, Zones 2 to 7)
• Annual sunflower (Helianthus annuus)
• Bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica, Zones 3 to 6)
• Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta, Zones 3 to 7)
• Clove currant (Ribes odoratum, Zones 5 to 8)
• Common juniper (Juniperus communis, Zones 2 to 6)
• Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis, Zones 4 to 9)
• Hackberry (Celtis laevigata, Zones 5 to 9)
• Limber pine (Pinus flexilis, Zones 3 to 7)
• Oak (Quercus spp., Zones 3 to 9)
• Oregon grapeholly (Mahonia aquifolium, Zones 5 to 9)
• Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea, Zones 3 to 9)
• Red osier dogwood (Cornus stolonifera, Zones 3 to 8)
• Shadblow (Amelanchier canadensis, Zones 3 to 7)
• Tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica, Zones 4 to 9)
• Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia, Zones 4 to 9)
David Mizejewski is the author of Attracting Birds, Butterflies, and Other Backyard Wildlife (Creative Homeowner, 2004), the host of Animal Planet’s “Backyard Habitat,” and a naturalist with the National Wildlife Federation.