With cheerful chirps and a flutter of wings, a flock of goldfinches descend on a bird feeder. Feasting on sunflower and thistle seeds, the tiny brown birds have begun to molt, shedding their drab winter plumage for vibrant yellow feathers. The sight is a reminder that spring is just around the corner.
Bird feeders attract life to a property, especially during the quiet winter months, when natural sources of food can be in short supply. They bring joy to the people who tend them, and in some cases they can help birds through tough times. But this popular backyard fixture isn’t as simple as it first appears.
When feeding wild birds, there are many decisions to make, including what type of seeds to purchase, where to place your feeder and what time of year to fill it up. Here are a few tips from bird experts, some of which are truly eye-opening.
Feeding birds is more beneficial during certain times
In general, birds benefit more from bird feeders during the winter, when cold days require them to expend more energy to stay warm.
“The extreme cold can challenge small birds, especially during the darkest days and coldest days of winter,” Steve Kress, vice president of bird conservation for the National Audubon Society, said. “Feeders help them build up fat reserves to get through the cold winter nights.”
In addition, studies show that birds visit feeders more frequently when extreme weather events limit their access to natural food sources, Kress said. These events include winter storms, which can cover natural food sources in snow and ice.
That being said, for the most part, birds don’t rely on feeders.
“I do think there’s a general misunderstanding that somehow birds have come to live in a welfare state and need food subsidies,” Kress said. “I think some people are really worried that if they don’t feed them, birds aren’t going to make it, but they have made it for thousands of years here and are well adapted to winter. They serve an ecological function in the natural community they live in.”
Many people enjoy feeding birds year-round because migration patterns will bring different species to their feeders during different seasons, and Kress said there’s no harm in that.
“Bird feeding is as much for people as it is for birds,” Kress said.
Bird feeders can contribute to science and conservation
Bird feeders throughout the United States and Canada are observed for Project FeederWatch, a citizen science program in which people identify and count birds. Founded in the mid-1970s, the program is administered in the U.S. by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in and Canada by Bird Studies Canada.
“[Participants] feel like they’re contributing to something bigger than their backyard, and they really are,” Emma Greig, leader of Project FeederWatch for Cornell Lab of Ornithology, said. “It’s a fantastic data set for looking at population changes.”
In 2017, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the program, the Cornell Lab’s Living Bird magazine published an article that highlights how years of FeederWatch data has helped researchers detect changes in bird species populations and ranges.
Similarly, bird feeders are often used for the annual Great Backyard Bird Count and Christmas Bird Count, two global citizen science projects that involve the identification and counting of wild birds at feeders and in their natural environments.
Cheap seed mixes can be a waste
“One of the most common mistakes [in bird feeding] is being a bargain hunter at the grocery store and buying cheap mixtures of seed,” Kress said.
Sunflower seeds, cracked corn, white millet and niger (also called nyger or thistle) seeds are among the most popular seeds for wild birds, he said. Inexpensive seed mixes usually have a low percentage of these popular seeds. Instead, the mixes contain mostly undesirable, “filler” seeds, such as red millet and flax.
At a feeder, birds will search through these seed mixes to find the best seeds. In the process, they’ll discard the filler seeds on the ground, where they pile up and accumulate mold and fungus. And if birds try to pick seeds out of the pile, they can become sick.
To avoid this, Kress suggests purchasing seeds separately and placing them in different feeders rather than mixing them. That way, the birds that prefer sunflower seeds can feed from the sunflower seed feeder without sorting through other seeds and making a mess. And the bird that prefers thistle seed can likewise eat at the thistle feeder.
Feeder placement and type is key
“Different feeders will attract different species,” Greig said. “A tube feeder with small portals will probably only attract little finches, while platform feeders or house feeders will attract bigger birds like doves, cardinals and bluejays.”
On the Project FeederWatch website is a tool that will generate a list of common feeder birds you might see at your bird feeder based on the type of feeder, the type of food, and your location.
To attract a greater variety of birds, experiment with a variety of feeder styles, and place your feeders are a variety of heights. Some birds prefer to eat close to the ground, while others are more apt to visit feeders that are hung high in a tree. You can also place cages around some of your feeders to prevent large birds and squirrels from dominating and raiding all the seeds. These cages allow smaller birds to fly through and eat in safety.
Another thing to consider when it comes to feeders is their proximity to windows. Because birds can’t see glass, they often fly into windows, especially when startled — for example, when a hawk swoops down at a bird feeder to snatch up a songbird.
“About half of the birds that hit windows don’t die immediately,” Kress said. “They get concussions and die later. So the window loss is much greater than those birds you’ll find just under the glass.”
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put your bird feeder by your window. In fact, the opposite is true. According to a frequently-cited research by Daniel Klem, Jr., an ornithology and conservation biology professor at Pennsylvania’s Muhlenberg College, feeders placed within 3 to 30 feet of a window are especially dangerous because this placement gives startled birds enough distance to gather speed before crashing into the glass. By placing the feeder closer, you reduce the birds’ likelihood of being injured. And if you place the feeder father than 30 feet from the nearest window, the bird is less likely to collide with the window altogether.
Bird feeders can cause problems
“When you concentrate food, you concentrate the birds, and it does set up potential problems,” Kress said. “Probably the biggest problem with bird feeding is that it makes birds more vulnerable to accidental deaths from collision and predators, like cats, and also diseases.”
Certain types of feeders, such as tube feeders, should be cleaned regularly with hot water and a brush to prevent the buildup of mold and fungus that can give birds infections that are sometimes fatal.
In addition, try locating your feeders near bushes and trees where birds can find shelter from predators. And if you own a cat, consider keeping it indoors.
Another common problem is bird feeders attracting other types of wild animals, including animals that can be dangerous if in close proximity to people, such as bears. In the north, bears typically visit feeders in the spring, when they’ve just emerged from hibernation and natural food is scarce.
“That’s one time we recommend you take down your bird feeder for a while,” Greig said.
Let the bear move on, then get back to feeding the birds.
Bird feeders are only the first step
Once you’ve set up a bird feeder, don’t be discouraged if you don’t see action right away, Geiger said.
“It takes a little time for birds to discover your feeder,” she said. “Birds have little routines they follow, checking places for food, and if you’ve never been on their agenda, they may take a while to find [your bird feeder].”
It’s also important to remember that bird feeders only attract certain species of birds. For example, birds that eat primarily insects, such as woodpeckers, bluebirds and kinglets, are rarely seen at a feeder unless there’s mealworms or suet provided. And feeders hold no interest for waterfowl.
To attract a greater variety of birds to your property, Geiger suggests providing a bird bath, where birds can drink and clean their plumage. You can also consider birds when gardening and landscaping.
“Only a fraction of the birds that are on a property will benefit from feeders,” Kress said. “If people really want to do something helpful for birds, then planting native plants is a really good direction to go. That provides not just food, but also shelter and nesting places, protection from predators and shade in the summer. Feeders are fine, but it shouldn’t stop there.”