The Definitive Guide to Feeding the Birds

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True story –

Numerous times I’ve been on the phone with someone while lounging about the garden, only to have the caller ask, “Where are you?” “I’m in the backyard,” I’d reply. “It sounds like you’re at the zoo or something.” Literally, several different people thought I was at the zoo and not because of the small herd of Chiweenies running around, but because of all of those birds!

My backyard is a haven for birds and not just because of the trees, but with everything I plant, feed, and the water that I provide for them, it’s a sanctuary for our feathered friends. Having birds around is both good and bad and most likely, the decision to offer safe haven depends on a variety of factors. While I’m certain they’re out there, I’ve never personally met a gardener that didn’t entertain birds in their gardens. Birds, like the sunshine itself, are addicting.

Singing birds lift the spirits, encourage outdoor time, educate children (and adults), decrease stress levels, aid the environment, and even help tend the garden!

We enjoy a Robin that gets especially friendly. She follows us around the property, begging like a dog! While she’s not up to eating out of our hands, she’s not particularly intimidated by us or our dogs. She hangs out all day and has for many years now. We feel like she’s one of the family! The thing about feeding the birds is that, when done properly, well, you’ll get a whole lot of them. I mean, a whole heck of a lot of them. Perhaps you’ll even wind up with more than you care for, but that’s a story for another day. If you can’t deal with a little bird poo, bow out now!

To feed or not to feed

Yes, that is the question. Bird feeding has been great for our family but it might not be for everyone. Hopefully, this post will help you identify if the birds are something worth your time or not, and give you a little information on how you can turn your garden into a zoo, too!

I’m going to preface this by saying, I’ve been a little terrified at times. When I walk out in the yard to find a few hundred birds in one confined area, it’s daunting, to say the least. Luckily, that small herd of Chiweenies makes excellent bird wranglers! While I back away from the masses, my dogs run straight into them, sending them up the trees and out of my pathway.

Feeding birds isn’t all pellets and poop and a scene out of a really old yet still painfully tragic movie. It’s also really super-duper relaxing. Not only are songbirds beautiful to look at, but their song is rather magical. Charles and I have more conversations than I should probably admit to, about those birds. We are always surprised by how interested we are in them! Believe it or not, if you spend enough time outdoors, you’ll soon be able to recognize specific birds within a species by their behaviors, and it’s really cool.

The key to bringing in the right types of birds is to feed the right types of food. Like most of my projects, I’ve waaayyy overdone it on making birdfeed mixes, as well. Luckily for you, my ability to waste money like I’ve got it growin’ in the garden has brought about some knowledge on the do’s and don’ts of feeding the birds. Let’s dive right in…

Where to buy

The word “cheap” (no pun intended) can mean a variety of things. When it comes to bird food, this is especially true. Cheap in price doesn’t necessarily mean cheap in quality any more than expensive in price equate to higher quality. The least expensive place to purchase bulk birdseed is your local feed store. It’s often high-quality seed, meant to feed a large variety of songbirds in your area. Buying seed at big box stores is the second most expensive way to feed the birds, topped only by buying it at specialty boutiques or nurseries.

You can find premixed bags of birdseed but to truly bring in the largest variety of pretty birds, you’re going to have to buy individual bags and mix it yourself. We have a large plastic Tupperware bin that holds our seed. I think it holds about ten gallons of seed, which is actually a lot smaller than I’d like. Premixed bags contain a lot of “cheap” filler seed that the stinkin’ doves-squirrels-rats-mice will love, but your beautiful finches and songbirds won’t pay a lick of attention to.

How to store food

Back to those squirrels-rats-mice…yeah, rodents really dig your birdseed. We keep our bin in the poolhouse, but before we got all fancy and got a bin, we stupidly just tossed the birdseed bags in there. One day I mosied on in to get something only to find that some obviously colossal-sized rats had ripped up the plastic birdseed bags completely! Not only did the pesky little devils spill seed, like everywhere, but they left all of the husks laying around. So not only was I grossed smooth out, but I also had one heck of a mess to clean up.

Also, the wet seed goes bad really quickly. If your birdseed gets wet, it’ll create a superglue quality paste that is friggin’ impossible to clean up. Those picky little feather friends turn their beaks up to it, too, so you might as well throw it out. But the dangers don’t end there! Dried out seed or really old seed brings in all sorts of gross bugs that turn it into a nasty powder that the birds. Believe it or not, even bug lovin’ Blue Jays won’t touch these little seed weevils! Oh no, that’ll be your job and it’s disgusting.

Ideally, you’ll want a plastic or metal container with a tight lid. A plastic or metal trash can works great! You’ll want to store it a dark and cool(ish) place and use it completely up before pouring new seed onto the old stuff. Now if you’re lucky enough to have an air-tight safe of a room that is impervious to rodents of any kind, feel free to forgo the containers.

Click here for Amazon Prices on Birdseed

Types of Food

By far and away, my favorite type of birdseed to use is the Black-oil sunflower seed! Almost all birds love it and it’s relatively inexpensive. You really can’t go wrong with it. The other types bring in a more selective group of birds but are still fun to try. The mixes with the largest variety of seeds bring in the largest variety of species.

It’s possible to buy other types of seed for targeting specific birds but most of it is common sense. For example, if you feed whole corn, you’re going to wind up with larger birds because the smaller ones can’t eat it. The same is true with shelled peanuts. Stick to the provided list to get the largest variety of birds. For a list of seed types and the particular birds that eat each type, visit this resource or the one offered under the subheading Types of Birds near the end of this post.

  • Black-Oil Sunflower
  • Striped Sunflower
  • Hulled Sunflower
  • Thistle
  • Safflower
  • Cracked Corn
  • Millet
  • Shelled Peanuts
  • Dried Mealworms
  • Dried Fruit Pieces

Normally, I buy a mix of some of the above and toss in a random suet cake for a special treat, every now and again. If you’re strapped for cash, stick with multi-crowd pleasers like the Black-Oil Sunflower, the Thistle, and Cracked Corn.

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Feeders

Okay, I, much like you, love silly bird feeders. I have a feeder that looks like an old red barn, and another that resembles an old-fashioned schoolhouse. As much as I love the look of charming little feeders, it’s been my experience that these are a real pain in the hiney. The best way to feed the birds is to set a twice a day feeding, and put the food straight on the ground or in a confined area, like a wooden box or tray.

Feeders that are left out all night will host the rodents. In fact, half of all associated bird feeding problems (see below) can be eliminated simply by feeding them out in the open. Other benefits of hand-feeding include really getting to know your birds. If the feeders are left out all day, then many species might come to feed when you’re away and can’t enjoy the show. After just a few weeks of morning and evening feedings, you’ll arrive to find all of the birds patiently waiting for you!

Even squirrel-proof feeders only solve the problem of squirrels. When birds eat, they often drop whole seeds on the ground, which will inevitably bring in mice and rats. If the birds have a larger platform to sit on, like the wooden tray listed above, they are more likely going to keep the majority of the seed in the tray.

If you must leave food out for the day, stick with the suet cakes. They last a decent amount of time and appeal to a wide range of birds. Don’t worry-the songbirds will still build nests in nearby trees once you’ve established yourself as their premier chef.

Lastly, there are tons of videos on how to make simple DIY bird feeders like this one, that is a fun project for both you and the kids.

Bird feeding problems

  • Okay, bird feeding is a rather sensitive topic amongst neighbors. There are always going to be two types of people: those who love feeding/watching birds and those that put up fake owls to keep bird poo off of the lawn chairs. It would be great if those darn birds would just stay in my yard, but alas, they have wings. Your hobby could be your neighbor’s new nightmare. Be mindful.
  • I’ve already mentioned squirrels-rats-mice, and yep, feeding the birds feeds the rodents, as well. Plan for it and expect it. I have a serious love/hate relationship with squirrels. In addition to cleaning out my bird feeders every chance they get, they also dig up my bulbs! Unwanted birds can also be a nuisance. It’s annoying to drop $100 on birdfeed only to see the pretty little dainty birds being chased away by the absolute hoards of doves. It happens. While it’s possible to buy feed that doves don’t like, such as black-striped sunflower, in doing so, you’ll also be preventing other wanted birds from visiting your feeders.
  • Blue Jays are bullies. Personally, I really love them. They have attitude and I’ve always been partial to mean critters like unpettable cats (hey, it’s like a challenge) and a dog that growls every time you pick him up. If you feed birds regularly, however, you’ll soon find birds nesting in nearby trees. When a Blue Jay has a nest – TAKE COVER! If you even accidentally walk underneath the tree with the nest, you’re more than likely going to be divebombed.
  • Good news, however, it’s been my experience that Blue Jays are really smart and when they figure out dinner is being served up on a silver platter by yours truly, they tend to make nice. I’m just forwarning of potential problems and that is one. Jays also bully smaller birds and so Finches generally won’t eat until the Jays are finished. They’re like the alpha bird!
  • Birdseed often plants itself. You’ll find a whole crop of millet and unwanted plants, so be careful where you hang feeders. The upside? If you decide to grow the plants, you can harvest your own birdseed!
  • I’ve also mentioned poop, but it bears repeating. A plethora of birds means a plethora of poop. Anyone that has ever tried to scrub bird crap off of their patio furniture feels me on this. Definitely don’t feed birds by your cars.
  • Birds are gorgeous and yet totally yucky. They can carry a whole host of diseases (and bird mites) so it’s very important to clean their feeders often and always wash your hands immediately after messing around with anything bird-related.
  • Lots of birds in your yard probably also means lots of dead birds in your yard. Whether it’s our pets that kill them or they die of natural causes, we’ve found our fair share of dead birds in the grass and in the swimming pool. It’s sad, but it’s the cycle of life, after all. Along those same lines, we’ve found lots of fallen eggs on the ground which is equally depressing. Spring is bountiful slash horrifying as the mamma birds teach their babies to fly near their home (aka my feeders), right under the watchful eye of the pack of Chiweenie bird wranglers slash bird murderers.
  • Birds can be so very picky when it comes to purchased birdfeed, yet so incredibly easy to please when it comes to those Alyssum seeds you just planted. Beware, birds don’t discriminate between their provided food and your garden plans. Another fun fact: nothing decimates the migrating butterflies quite like a Blue Jay. Gardens tend to bring in both birds and butterflies, but one most certainly doesn’t go with the other!

Benefits of feeding

  • Thousands of birds die each year from environmental and other factors. While you might not be able to control many contributing factors that lead to bird death, you can certainly prevent your neighborhood birds from starving to death during the winter months.
  • Having your yard sound like an atrium is highly relaxing! Be lulled to sleep by the sounds of songbirds. Nothing inspires me more to spend time outdoors, and it’ll work for you, as well.
  • It’s educational to learn about the different species of birds, for you, and your kiddos.
  • Birds eat a host of pesky insects that make your outdoor time miserable.
  • Believe it or not, watching the birds is actually a pretty fun past time. They chase, fight over food and the ladies, bathe, sing, dance, and play. We’ve particularly enjoyed watching how different species interact with one another.
  • Feeding the birds help mother birds feed their babies! If your yard includes tall hedges or trees, odds are feeding them will encourage mother birds to build nests on your property so that you can enjoy the complete life cycle.
  • With a little planning, you’ll enjoy migratory birds and nourishment from the food will give them the energy they need to complete their journey.
  • Feeding the birds gives you an excuse to spend more time outdoors, which is positive for your own physical and mental health.
  • While the seed might bring rodents in, birds also help take them out. Ah, the balance of nature.
  • Many birds help with pollination, which in turn makes for pretty flowerbeds.
  • Birds aerate the soil by walking all over, pecking for seeds and insects.
  • Birds eat many different weed-growing seeds!
  • All that poop serves a purpose, too. You guessed it, birds fertilize the garden!
  • Many birds are simply gorgeous! The Red Cardinal remains one of my all-time faves, and they are but one of many different colorful species that visit my yard thanks to the bird feeders.
  • You’ll soon enjoy “regulars” as we do. In addition to our Robin, we have a family of hummingbirds and a Blue Jay that can be seen year-round. The Blue Jay isn’t friendly like our Robin, but he definitely provides lots of entertainment when he chases squirrels out of the trees! We also have an Owl and several Hawks that visit routinely throughout the summer months. Granted, they are coming more for the rodents our seed attracts than for the seed itself, but in either case, there’s something really special about sitting outside in the summer and having an Owl land nearby!

NOTE: Beware of the big birds. While they are by far the most fascinating in my humble opinion, they have also been known to take out domesticated pets. While they might not eat them, they are prone to dropping them from dangerous heights and/or tearing their flesh. When we see Hawks circling, our Chiweenies go indoors.

Other things to keep in mind

Water

Always provide plenty of fresh water. Naturally, bird baths also come with their fair share of probs. Mosquitos, stagnant water when you’ve been lazy, they dry out quickly in hot weather or sun and fill with leaves and debris requiring constant cleaning. However, you really should offer water along with the feed. After all, who would want to eat at a restaurant that served food without drinks? Not this chick (pun intended, this time!)

Native plants

Also, the brighter and wilder your garden is, the more varieties of birds you’ll discover. While my garden includes lots of formally designed areas, it’s the butterfly garden that sees the most action from the birds. Why? I’m planting tons of seeds, the plants are native to my area, and they’re bright, colorful, and often a bit unkempt looking. The birds feel at home in it, and they spend a great deal of time perched on the fence above it.

Shelter

Make sure that you offer trees or tall shrubs or hedges so that the birds have a safe haven to escape predators (and you!) You can also build or buy a birdhouse to offer shelter, but our birds have managed just fine on their own due to a lot of tall shrubbery and trees. We feed the birds under two large shade trees and surrounded by hedges. The Finches, in particular, enjoy hiding in the hedges in between feedings.

Nesting Materials

Here’s a great resource for information on the DIY approach to providing materials that birds like to use for building nests. Of course, you can also buy these pre-packaged at Amazon. If you feed the birds and leave out something as simple as a cardboard box filled with nesting materials, I can almost guarantee that you’ll find plenty of takers. This reminds me of another reason why I love/hate squirrels, however. They took it upon themselves to tear up the cushions in our patio furniture one year to build nests of their own! Yes, squirrels build nests, too! I truly wish I would’ve offered nesting materials that year and saved myself a couple of hundred dollars in patio furniture cushions.

Pesticides

By far and away, the most controversial topic in the gardening sphere is the use of pesticides. Sometimes, the need for them outweighs the drawbacks, but this is certainly only from a human perspective. Of course, it’s always best to use organic ways to deter pests, whenever possible. If you do have to use chemicals, make sure to do so when the birds aren’t actively feeding or playing, and ensure you’re downwind. It’s also a really good idea to thoroughly wash feeders and birdbaths afterward or remove them prior to spraying. Neem Oil has been used by organic gardeners forever, and it’s safe for the birdies.

Other Predators

While my Chiweenies certainly run birds off, they are rather unsuccessful at catching them. This isn’t to say that it has never happened, but it doesn’t happen even once a year, let alone regularly. However, many dog breeds and of course, cats, have the will and the way to catch and kill birds. If you own such a dog or cat, you might want to stick with the bird feeders that you can hang far up in a tree, and keep the animals indoors during primo feeding times such as sunrise and sunset.

Plants that attract birds

Plants that are native to your area are the way to go in enticing the birds. I buy all of my wildflower seeds from Eden Brothers. I can personally vouch for their prices, variety, shipping times, and customer service. They are fabulous and unless something drastic happens, they will remain my go-to for butterfly and bird garden plants. What’s particularly impressive about Eden Brothers, is that their site offers wildflower seeds by geographical location, as well as tons of other categories such as color or for some specific draw, such as birds!

Birds also love fruits and nuts, so these trees and plants that they can graze on are always appreciated. Birds love shrubs that produce berries, so Hollies are big bird faves! Nandina berries, on the other hand, are highly toxic to birds, so get to know the sort of berry-producing shrubs on your property. Like the author of this post, I’ve noticed that birds instinctively steer clear of our Nandinas, and now I know why! Here’s a great post about specific plants that birds adore.

My website is constantly adding plants that attract birds. Many tropical plants attract birds, as well, especially hummingbirds. You can find those posts here.

Bird types

For a complete list of songbirds for North America plus information concerning food, feeder, habitat preferences, please see THIS TOTALLY AWESOME SOURCE. Not only does this give tons of information on individual bird types, but it’s also a great source for trying to figure out what that really cool yellow bird that’s been showing up lately is called! I am bookmarking this one!

Consistency

I love animals of all types. I’ve owned cats, dogs, ferrets, ducks, chickens, various lizards, a chinchilla, birds of many species, hamsters, gerbils, turtles, fish, hermit crabs, a super hateful sugar glider, and the list goes on. I even co-parented miniature donkeys, miniature horses, alpacas, and a miniature deer! One thing that is certain, is that not every animal is cut out for every human. If the benefits don’t outweigh the negatives in feeding the birds, then I’d recommend you steer clear of starting a habit that you can’t keep up. When feeding the birds, consistency is key, and can even be crucial to their mere survival.

Should certain birds take up residence at your home when you’re feeding in the summer and fall, and then you bore of the project come winter, you could be endangering their lives. What if they don’t normally stay in your area? What if the winter is harsh and they can’t find food on their own? Now they’re trapped. It’s too late to travel to a more southern locale, and they are depending on you!

I hope that more people encourage birds in their garden, but please don’t forget about them when it’s yucky and cold, either. Feeding the birds can be a really enjoyable hobby for the RIGHT family. Hopefully, this article helped you determine whether or not that family is yours!

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Crystal M

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