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Picking the right bird feeder and how to keep it stocked

A pair of American Goldfinches (Cardualis tristis) hang upside-down as they feed on thistle seeds from a bird feeder. The feeder is designed to encourage other birds that can't hang upside-down to eat elsewhere.
A pair of American Goldfinches (Cardualis tristis) hang upside-down as they feed on thistle seeds from a bird feeder. The feeder is designed to encourage other birds that can't hang upside-down to eat elsewhere. AP

Although some wildlife gardeners are not especially concerned about keeping the bird feeder full after winter turns to spring, there are still a few good reasons to do so.

For one, the early days of spring are not yet flush with nature’s bounty. Another good reason is to help support migrating birds who may lack the energy to forage widely and will appreciate a chance to fill up on a quick but healthy meal.

This issue came to mind as I was filling my own backyard feeder in mid-February, just as temperatures reached 80 degrees and several spring flowering plants were starting to (prematurely) bloom. Like many people, I enjoy attempting to identify birds that stop by the feeder and watching them interact as they vie for a turn.

Tube Feeders. My favorite feeder was a present from my niece and nephew a couple of Christmases ago. It’s a Droll Yankee mixed seed tube feeder that is easy to refill and doesn’t catch seeds at the bottom, where they can rot. Tube feeders are typically clear hollow cylinders with openings and perches that allow birds to dine in multiple locations.

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, tube feeders are best for smallish birds, chickadees, finches, sparrows and such, but too small for most bigger birds. Tube feeders can be hung in places that are difficult for squirrels to reach, which is a big plus in my book.

Tray feeders. Platform or tray feeders are just that – a flat surface that holds birdseed on top. Unless situated carefully, they are easily raided by squirrels. They also need to be cleaned quite regularly to avoid serving birds seed that has been spoiled by rain or the droppings of previous diners. If you are interested in attracting doves, jays and other ground-feeding birds, be sure to set your tray feeders at a low elevation.

House feeders. House feeders are what springs to my mind when I think “bird feeder.” These are covered platforms, often with partial side walls, that do indeed resemble tiny houses. House feeders, also known as hopper feeders, can be mounted on poles or hung from branches. They are not particularly squirrel resistant, however.

Other feeders. Other feeder types include thistle feeders – tube-shaped with tiny openings for narrow thistle seed that is preferred by a variety of small birds, such as finches; suet feeders that are made of wire and hold suet mixture that is particularly attractive to woodpeckers, nuthatches and other birds; window feeders that can attach by suction cups to your windows and provide birdwatchers a closer view; and hummingbird feeders that hold nectar for these tiny and colorful birds.

Stocking the feeders

Black oil sunflower seeds are what I usually stock in my tube feeder. They appeal to small birds like chickadees, cardinals, finches, nuthatches and some woodpeckers. Sometimes smaller birds are chased away by bigger birds, which can be a problem. According to the Birds and Blooms website (birdsandblooms.com), one solution is to offer a second option: Nyjer or thistle seed is not usually attractive to these larger bullies.

Black-oil sunflower seeds attract the largest variety of birds and may be fed in tube or house feeders. Shelled sunflower seeds are also available for those willing to pay a higher price. The benefit is avoiding the mess that shells make when discarded by hungry birds.

Striped sunflower seeds are also nutritious, but the shells may be too hard for some smaller birds to open.

Safflower is another type of seed served in house feeders but with a special advantage: they are largely ignored by squirrels – thus eliminating one of the most vexing problems in most yards.

Cracked or whole kernel corn is also an option. Along with Eastern bluebirds and other songbirds, game birds such as pheasants will visit a platform feeder where corn is served. But remember that rodents, raccoons and possums will also be tempted to dine.

Finally, almost every source I consulted warned that cheap birdseed mixes are best avoided as less nutritious and less tempting for most types of desirable bird species.

Contact Renee Elder at wildlifechatter@gmail.com.

Attracting birds

If you are interested in seeing particular types of birds at your birdfeeder, here are some suggested favorites from wild-bird-watching.com.

Blue Jays: sunflower seeds, safflower, cracked corn

Gold Finches: nyger, hulled sunflower seed, suet

Robins, bluebirds: sunflower seed, seed mixes, berries, suet

Cardinals: sunflower seeds, safflower seeds, cracked corn, peanuts

Nuthatches: sunflower, suet mix, cracked corn

Sparrows: sunflower, canary seed, suet

Woodpeckers: sunflower, suet, fruit

Juncos: sunflower, cracked corn, nyjer, suet

Carolina Wrens: sunflower, suet

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