Bird Feeders

There are many ways to feed bird guests without investing in or making a complicated bird feeder. Strew a little bird seed on a window ledge or garden table. Other easy methods are sticking oranges on pointed branches, tying corncobs or halved and drilled coconuts to trees, or threading unshelled peanuts and hanging them from a tree.

If these prove to be an insufficient lure, buy or make a more elaborate feeder. Bird feeder design is one of those limitless invention categories. There is always a new-fangled feeder or feeder adaptation on the horizon. The type of feeder may be governed by the type of feed. The more closely its design simulates the species’ natural feeding techniques the better.

Stay away from wire and metal parts. It is inconclusive as to whether birds’ feet and tongues stick to cold metal in freezing winter months, but why risk it? Plastic and natural wood are best. You will want a feeder that conserves feed and is safe from predators, and that birds can access in all kinds of weather. The general varieties are as follows:

  • Platform feeders: Wooden or plastic trays are best, preferably with a mesh base and a canopy so water does not accumulate. They are perfect for feeding large (or numerous) birds.

  • Ground feeders: These may resemble a platform or hopper, but they will be on the ground for ground-feeding birds like finches, sparrows, and fowl. A few corncobs on dowels or sticks will help attract attention to the grain. Otherwise, ground feeders will eat the grain that spills out of an elevated feeder.

  • Bowl or satellite feeders: Perfect for smaller birds, they have an adjustable lid that keeps out squirrels and larger birds. It might be plastic-covered mesh or some other lightweight material. Bowl feeders include perches.

  • Hopper feeders: The classic feeder type for seed and grains. Built like canopied silos, they provide a steady flow of seed and a place to perch. Food is kept drier and the feeder area neater. Buy one surrounded by a wide feeding platform so the birds will have plenty of room.

  • Tubular seed feeders: These are like natural plant stalks. They should have little perches in front of each port and dividers between them. You can put in several different types of seed this way and thus determine the favorite.

  • Weathervane feeders: These are a tray-type feeder that turns in the wind to protect birds from weather.

  • Hummingbird feeders: Usually clear plastic or glass with red surrounding the area where the bird feeds. You can also attract Hummingbirds and other nectar feeders like Orioles with red plastic flowers. Discourage ants from visiting your feeder by hanging it on monofilament fishing line. Coat feeding portals with salad oil. You can even use a hamster watering bottle for this mixture.

  • Window feeders: These feeders attach to windows with suction cups. They are available for dispensing either suet or seed. They can be dangerous unless the window glass is in some way evident to birds. Put decals on the glass or allow foliage to grow against it. Either one-way glass or see-through curtains can keep the birds from knowing they are in a viewing gallery.

  • Suet feeders: The challenge is to keep birds from making off with too much suet at one time. In addition to pine cones and stuffed-log suet feeders, you can also make suet boards. Nail two short pieces of plywood together in a simple L-shape. Lash the suet to the vertical piece with string. Or try securing suet to trees with wire mesh and string or even a soap dish. Put a little suet in a meshed produce bag, knot the top, and suspend it by wire from a tree.

Positioning Feeders

Feeders may make some birds more vulnerable to attack. To a cat or hawk, a platter full of feeding songbirds is a real buffet. Be sure you put ground feeders near thick shrubbery where birds can quickly hide. In thin cover predators can sneak up on birds from behind. Higher feeders, although conspicuous, better simulate foraging in the bush. They keep food debris under control and also make it more difficult for certain predators (such as cats) to reach their winged quarry.

Serve a variety of food in feeders at varying heights and you will attract a greater cross-section of species. Some feeders hang; others are mounted on posts. If you suspend your feeder on a rope with a pulley you can gradually edge it closer to your house for better viewing.

Try not to put nails into your trees. Rodents will chew through string and nylon, so wire is the best way to attach feeders to trees. Use covered wire, or run the wire through a piece of garden hose to keep it from cutting through the tree bark. You can also nail the feeder to a T-shape, with the bottom of the T attached to the back of the feeder and the top extending sideways. The measurements depend on the size and weight of the feeder and the size of the tree. This allows you to brace the feeder in the crotch of two tree branches without using nails.

Human: Friend or Foe?

With our usual combination of hubris and shortsightedness, our food and habitat requirements have altered appallingly, and probably irreversibly, the way birds live.

Think of it: Single species croplands. An estimated 80 percent of America's inner cities are paved and filled with buildings. Gardens and parks are landscaped with a limited number of plant species, many non-native. And these are not even our reckless habits. Add global warming, pollution, pesticides, and trash disposal—humankind is a baneful Earth-mate for birdkind.

Most bird species are dynamic and highly adaptable to the changes we levy. However, some are not. Make sure gratuitous bird feeding does not further impair our co-inhabitants. Contact the National Bird-Feeding Society and become a member. This group is a great resource.

Feeder Hazards

  • Predators— If there is dense cover within 10 to 15 feet of your feeder, healthy birds can usually evade hawks and other birds of prey. However, you don't want the dense cover too close, or cats could sneak up on your feathered visitors. Prevent cats from climbing nearby trees with metal rings around tree trunks. Keep cats inside during nesting season.

  • Squirrels— Put up squirrel-proof feeders and cylindrical or cone-shaped squirrel baffles to keep them from gobbling up your bird food. If the feeder is on a pole, you can also grease the pole to keep squirrels down. Whole corn on the ground, distributed as a decoy feeder, can distract squirrels.

  • Windows— Put wind chimes between the feeder and the windows so birds don't crash into the reflected landscape. Tape decals or the silhouette of a diving hawk to the glass. Some people put sheer screens in front of windows.

  • Peanut butter— Don't feed pure peanut butter to birds because it may clog their esophagus.

  • Sanitation— Accumulated bird droppings and wet or rancid bird food foster disease. When numerous birds crowd at a feeding station, it further increases the probability of contagion. Diseased birds sometimes survive longer with a supplemental food supply than they normally would and spread their disease to other birds. Three common problems are:

    1. Aspergillus fumigatus, a mold that grows in wet grain and attacks birds’ respiratory systems

    2. Trichomonas gallina, a flagellated protozoan that causes ulcers and obstructs birds’ throats

    3. Avian pox, a virus that results in protuberances on the feet or head and/or damage to the respiratory tract

If you notice sick or dead birds around your feeders, stop feeding for a few days to disperse the birds. Clean and disinfect the feeders and their surroundings. How to clean the feeder depends on what type it is:

  • Wooden feeders—Use hot soapy water and a stiff brush to remove accumulated droppings. Do not use bleach because the wood will absorb it. Let the feeders dry thoroughly before refilling them, otherwise you will encourage molds.

  • Tube feeders—lake the feeder apart and soak it in a mild bleach solution. Use a long-handled brush to scrub it thoroughly. Rinse and dry completely before refilling.

  • Hummingbird feeders—These hard-to-clean feeders benefit from a mixture of one-part vinegar, four-parts water, and a handful of uncooked rice. Fill the feeder and shake it vigorously. Carefully scrub the ports, then rinse carefully and dry.

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