According to a 2016 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report, 57.2 million Americans age 16 and older feed wild birds around their homes each year. They spend a total of around $4 billion on bird food annually, providing 1 billion pounds of seeds, suet and other goodies birds like.
Most people (about 80 percent) have said they feed birds because they want to bring nature and beauty to their area or hope to enjoy the sound of birds in their yard. Almost as many say they pursue the hobby for the fun of it or because they want to help birds. Other reasons given for feeding our feathered friends include therapy or relaxation (65 percent of respondents), learning bird behavior and identification (61 percent) and gaining educational experiences for children (21 percent).
Regardless of why we feed the birds, we certainly want to be sure we do it in a way that ensures a healthy, nutritious buffet for a wide range of bird species to enjoy. But novice birders often make simple mistakes that can create problems. Feeding wild birds requires more than just scattering seeds on the ground like you’re feeding a flock of chickens. To do it right, you should try to avoid these top-five bird-feeding mistakes.
Using undesirable seed mixes
Bags of bargain-basement bird seed often contain inexpensive fillers such as cracked corn, milo, oats or wheat, which appeal to very few birds.
Take milo, for example. Also known as grain sorghum, it’s typically used for livestock feed and ethanol production, but is also a common filler in many wild-bird seed mixtures. The problem is, most birds you’re likely to see in Arkansas backyards are unlikely to eat milo, and if you feed mixes containing it, you’ve wasted money.
It’s better to buy more desirable types of bird seed in bulk so you’re feeding only what you know birds will eat. These include black-oil sunflower seeds, nyger or thistle seed, peanuts, safflower and white proso millet.
Keep a supply of your personal blend of bird seed on hand for conveniently refilling bird feeders. By offering the best winter bird foods, you’ll find a greater variety of birds visiting your feeders, even on the coldest days.
Using only one kind of bird feeder
Just as birds have different diet preferences, different species prefer different feeder styles. By including several types of feeders in your home viewing area and placing them at varied heights and locations, you help maximize the variety of bird species you’ll see.
Covered tray feeders, hopper feeders and tube feeders attract the widest variety of seed-eating feeder birds. But you also should consider adding one or more mesh socks or specialty thistle (nyger) feeders for finches and siskins; suet feeders for woodpeckers, nuthatches, chickadees, wrens, warblers and jays; mealworm dishes for bluebirds, grosbeaks, mockingbirds and other insect eaters; nectar feeders for hummingbirds (in summer); and low open platform feeders for attracting ground feeders such as song, fox and white-throated sparrows, towhees, cardinals, doves and juncos.
Placing feeders in the wrong locales
A feeder’s attractiveness to birds is often determined by where you place it. Our feathered friends prefer eating where they feel comfortable and safe, so it’s important to give some thought to ideal placement.
Think safety first, positioning bird feeders roughly 10 to 12 feet from suitable shelter such as shrubs, trees and brush piles to give birds protection from inclement weather and a safe, fast retreat if a natural predator, such as a hawk, should appear. At the same time, take steps to protect backyard birds from cats to make the feeding area even safer.
Because window collisions can kill small birds, it’s a good idea to place feeders either very close to adjacent windows (less than 3 feet) or much farther away (greater than 10 feet). From close feeders, birds cannot hit the window hard enough for injury, and distant feeders provide enough room for birds to safely maneuver. Decals and specialty guards for preventing bird/window collisions can also minimize this problem.
Remember, too, that feeders in quiet, less disturbed areas will do better than those placed in or near high-activity locales, such as children’s play areas, driveways and sidewalks. Wind chimes and other noisemakers can also frighten birds away, but placing feeders near fountains, garden-pool waterfalls and other natural sound producers can enhance the areas’ attractiveness.
The best places for feeders simulate birds’ natural feeding preferences. Suet feeders for woodpeckers and nuthatches, for example, are more popular if placed near tree trunks or thick branches. Platform feeders for ground-feeding birds do best in areas where those birds will normally feed. You get the idea.
Of course, you’ll want to have a clear, unobstructed view of your feeders from inside your house, so keep that in mind, too. Set up your feeders where you can enjoy watching them from a cozy, comfortable spot near a window or patio door.
Once your feeders are up, you should keep food in them all the time. Birds won’t completely abandon a feeder that’s empty for just a day or so, and they won’t starve if natural foods are available. But they won’t pay much attention to a feeder that’s consistently empty. Check the levels of seeds, suet, mealworms and other foods regularly, and refill your feeders promptly when they start getting low.
Using dirty feeders
Conscientious birders regularly clean their feeders. If feeders get too dirty, they can become clogged, and wet or spoiled seed can transmit diseases that can spread to an entire flock. Dirty feeders are also more susceptible to damage and wear, requiring more frequent repairs or replacement.
Ideally, you should thoroughly clean all feeders at least once a month—more often for those that receive heavy traffic. A solution of one part bleach to nine parts hot water works great for sanitizing, or you can use commercial cleaning mixtures or a mild solution of unscented dish soap. Be sure to wipe down perches, poles and other parts of the feeder as well.
After cleaning, the feeder and all cleaned parts should be rinsed for several seconds in clear, clean water to be sure all chemical residue is removed. There should be no stuck-on debris, lingering suds or chemical odors after the feeder is rinsed.
Dry the feeders completely before refilling. If any moisture remains, it could lead to mold and mildew that can cause illness and rotten, unhealthy seeds. Drying feeders in direct sunlight will further help to break down any lingering soap or chemicals.
Between cleanings, check daily to be sure seeds and other foods remain dry and fresh without strong or sharp odors. Any seeds that are clumped, moldy or sprouting should be discarded and replaced with fresh food that will attract more birds to your backyard haven.