ashley english by 16

small measures: winter wild bird care


Mesh feeder from Songbird Garden

When you or I learn that a storm is on they way, we fortify our pantries with provisions, make sure extra blankets and batteries are on hand, and stock up on candles and bottled water. We tune in to the Weather Channel, hang on to the words of local meteorologists, and know, for the most part, what’s coming and when it’s slated to arrive. In terms of preparedness, then, we humans have really got it easy. Not so for the winged creatures we share the airspace with.

Wild birds have a bit of a rough go of it in winter. Food supplies are already scarce, and when back-to-back harrowing storms are added to the mix, they struggle not just to eat but also to stay alive. Bearing that in mind, today’s Small Measures offers up some tips for helping out our aerial friends. Wild birds are absolutely gorgeous to gaze upon and marvel at. I can’t tell you how much time Hubs and I spend watching the neighborhood frenzy that occurs all winter long on the three feeders positioned outside our kitchen windows. If you’ve ever wondered which birds exist in your area, simply hang up a feeder and see who comes calling.

Their beauty, however, isn’t the main reason for looking after them. Wild birds are a fabulous low-fi means of insect control. If you’ve got a garden, you want birds on hand. They’ll tend to the business of picking off interlopers all summer, saving you a bundle of back-breaking work in the process (not to mention helping to steer clear of the use of harmful insecticides). Come winter, it’s time to return the favor. Severe weather, coupled with increasing development, produces a scarcity of food sources for wild birds in cold weather. A strategically positioned feeder helps them survive and thrive.

When considering a feeder, you have a number of options. Consider the pros and cons of each style, then make the selection that best fits you and your local flock’s needs. — Ashley

CLICK HERE for the rest of Ashley’s post and her bird feeder selections after the jump!


Tube feeder from Wild Bird Habitat

Bird Feeder Styles

  • Hopper Feeders: This style consists of a large, typically rounded vessel that holds the feed. Either a tray on the bottom or openings on the sides allow birds to gain access. Hopper feeders usually attract a wide variety of birds, so you’ll be able to get a real sense of who’s feathering their nest in your ‘hood. A disadvantage of the hopper feeder is the feed’s constant exposure to the elements. It can also be accessed by marauding squirrels.
  • Tube Feeders: A long, hollow tube with perches of varying heights characterizes the tube-style feeder. Models are available for attracting a variety of small birds or for specializing in one specific type, such as finches. Tube feeders are good at deterring squirrels, as the seed resides inside the tube itself.
  • Platform Feeders: Exactly what they sound like, this feeder style is a flat, fully accessible stand. Some models have roofs or drainage areas while others don’t. The upside to platform feeders is that a great number and variety of birds can access them simultaneously. Additionally, its surface allows for all sizes of food to be offered, from nuts and seeds to larger items, such as whole fruits. The obvious downside is that its openness permits it to be accessed by other creatures and the elements.
  • Suet Feeders: This type of feeder resembles a rectangular wire cage. As its name implies, the feeder is intended to hold suet, which is rendered beef fat. Mixed with seeds, suet cakes solidify at room temperature. They can be picked up from pet supply stores or made at home. Here’s an easy tutorial. The downside, at least from my perspective, is that they can attract unwanted creatures (like bears, if you live in a forest like I do), as well.
  • Mesh Feeders: Made of wire, plastic or fabric, this feeder style is accessed by pulling seed through openings in the mesh. A variety of sizes are available, including those intended to be filled with peanuts. On a completely personal note, I find mesh feeders to be the most attractive style feeder, especially the all-metal “No/No” (that’s “no wood, no plastic”) models.

Edible bird house/feeder from Terrain

Siting Tips

Once you’ve selected your feeder, the next step is to site it in an ideal location. Consider these tips when seeking out a spot:

  • Look for a protected area already housing birds, such as a bush or hedgerow. If you’re lacking such a landscape feature, make a brush pile with fallen branches.
  • The south-side of your house is the most ideal spot for siting the feeder, as it provides a barricade against harsh winds. The sun’s warm rays coupled with a ready supply of food will serve as a siren song to local birds.
  • Be mindful of areas frequented by cats, and hang your feeders high enough to keep birds safe.
  • Since it’s up to you to keep the feeder filled, hang it somewhere easily accessible. If that’s right outside your kitchen window, great. If it’s on your porch, superb. Make it easy and make it visible, and you’re that much more likely to stay on top of keeping it filled and clean.
  • Site your feeder no less than 3 feet from the nearest window (and preferably those with windowpanes). The reflection from the windows helps prevent birds from flying into them. Additionally, you might consider hanging a decal or sticker on a window lacking panels, to serve as a deterrent.

Feeder Care

Now that you’ve chosen a style and sited it properly, you’ll need to be vigilant about its care. Here are some suggestions for helping make your feeder the busiest on the block:

  • Clean it once monthly. Take it down, remove any contents and wash it with a mild non-chlorine bleach and dish soap mixture. Dry thoroughly before refilling.
  • Toss out any feed that is visibly moldy or wet on a daily basis. If left unattended, this matter invites bacterial growth, which could sicken birds.
  • Rake up and remove seed hulls and bird poop left under the feeder. If there’s too much snow on the ground to do this in winter, it’s fine to wait until a thaw.

Some great resources for wild bird information and feeders can be found on these sites:

I also love these roundups of modern bird feeders:

What about you? Got any ornithological tips? Beloved birds? Fantastic feeders? I’d love to hear about them. Otherwise, there’s a red-bellied woodpecker outside my window whose presence begs for the use of binoculars, so gotta run!

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16 Comments

Sara

This is perfect for me right now, thank you for all the info! We moved into a house that has a few old bird houses. We still need to clean them out, but I have also been looking for some feeders for out birds. Appreciate this guide!

Jerrica

They really do need feeders this time a year, thanks for supporting them! I got into birdwatching last spring. This winter our finches came in late (I’m in Georgia), I’ve never seen so many birds fighting for a spot! The bluebirds are regular visitors too. I must admit I hate the mourning doves though (ugh). But we scoped out a Coopers Hawk not long ago so the doves are keeping a low profile these days ;) I should really post pics! Oh! Woodpeckers are fun to watch — I love watching them hide the food in the trees only to see a nuthatch find it a few minutes later :D

Mary

I love to feed the birds that come into our yard. I have a big feeder that my husband made that is right outside my kitchen window. A small feeder in the tree, and I provide 2 hanging suet. The woodpeckers love the suet in the winter. The first year we moved to our house I kept a log of all the different birds that came through. In the spring we get quite a variety, and in the summer we get hummingbirds. I love to have the birds around and it seems I am doing them a favor in the winter by providing good food.

nicole

such a great post! my husband and i recently purchased a very inexpensive plastic feeder that sticks right onto to outside of our window using little suction cups. since our living space is very high up above the ground it was our simple solution for providing the birds with a feeder that we could watch and fill easily. we’re now thinking of getting more for other rooms.

rebecca s.

this is such a wonderful reminder post! we keep our feeders filled and offer them fruit as well. they seem to love pomegranates. i really like the feeders you’ve shared, especially the “cage” one and that last one from terrain.

charlotte

Great post- thanks especially for the important info re the birds and their ongoing struggle. The deer have eaten so much of their habitat around here.
I love the round cagey one, but unfortunately, I can see the squirrels playing soccer with this as soon as it’s put up.

kiki

if birds are ‘lo-fi’ insect control…then bats are hi-fi insect control! (because they have huge ears and hunt with sonar) bad joke, i know! hahaha

Sue

I have chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, redbellied woodpeckers, downy woodpeckers, carolina wrens and juncos at my squirrel-proof feeder as well as… Raccoons at 3am. They simply yank it down, beat it on the ground until the suet and seed cakes break up and then drag it down into the woods. Any tips on keeping the furry pigs out/off of the feeder?

wren

Did you know you can also put all those great bird watching moments to use as scientific data? Cornell runs a project called FeederWatch that has been around for 25 years. During the winter months you just make intermittent reports about what you see at your feeders. This becomes part of a sea of data from around the country!

I work at the Lab of Ornithology next to the guy who runs this project. My project, YardMap, is not yet public but extends birdwatching to include pretty maps of your yard that you draw yourself showing where feeders, compost bins, native pants, lawns, trees, etc are. We are trying to understand what makes a yard “bird-friendly” so we can give even better hints to folks around the country.

Hope you stop by and connect your new bird feeder observations to science! http://www.feederwatch.org

Janie

What a nice post! I feed birds from a feeder on my NYC fire escape and I’m amazed at the variety of birds that visit. I’d add that when it’s very cold, unfrozen water is as important as food, so put out a water source too if you can. And in NYC, hull-less seed seems to produce less waste and therefore attracts fewer rats (!) down below.
I love my urban birds — esp. the chickadees!

Sondra

Great post, I wanted to add that I use safflower seeds in any feeder that the squirrels can access. They don’t like that seed. We also have heated water (found a heated dog water dish online), suet in the winter, feed year-round and have corn for the squirrels. Just some thoughts and thanks for all of yours.
Best to you, Sondra

Superbadfriend

We use hull less feed for our bird feeders. The squirrels get their own flat dish of corn and seeds which makes it easier on the birds as they aren’t in competition for the bird feeder. A super cheap bird feeder that anyone can make, is the ol’ pine cone filled with peanut butter rolled with seeds. Tying a pretty ribbon to the top looks lovely and you can make and hang as many of these as you wish in your yard. :) xo

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