Feeding Birds in Your Backyard: Selecting a bird feeder


Senior County Extension Agent
Clemson University

Feeding and attracting songbirds is an enjoyable activity for all ages, and it is a great way to introduce children to nature. Having a bird feeder in the yard enables one to learn bird behaviors, listen to their calls and songs and appreciate the value of wildlife.
As everyone works through this new normal of social distancing and other precautions during the COVID-19 pandemic, many folks are spending more time at home. Bird watching and bird feeding have become more important activities at farms. It has given me an opportunity to brush-up on identification skills of my feathered friends that visit my yard, as well as a new topic for my news article that I hope you will find interesting and informative.
The earliest known account of bird feeding in the United States was naturalist Henry David Thoreau at Walden Pond in 1845. The hummingbird feeder is believed to be the first commercially-made bird feeder on the market and dates to 1926.
Feeding birds is an extremely popular activity and supports a huge industry in this country. According to the most recent data published, more than 57 million people over the age of 16 participated in bird feeding activities in 2016 with sales of wild bird products reaching $2.1 billion in 2017. Data also indicates that people living in rural areas are more likely to engage in bird feeding activities than those residing in urban or suburban areas.
In most cases a properly designed landscape with native plants will attract numerous species of songbirds and requires little maintenance. However, bird feeders can be used as a supplemental food source when native plant food is scarce such as during winter months or periods of drought in the summer.
Bird feeders also allow for close observation of our feathered friends. Different birds are attracted to different types of feeders and food. Consider the type of birds you want to attract before placing a bird feeder in your yard.
To find the best feeder for your situation, you may need to try a variety of feeders and foods located in different spots around your yard.

Which feeder?
Backyard bird feeders come in many different styles, some being non-selective which appeal to a wide variety of bird species and some that are selective, used to attract only one or two species. The following is a brief description of a few of the more common bird feeders used in backyards.
• Tube feeders consist of a clear cylinder, usually constructed from plastic or glass with multiple feeding ports and perches and are suitable for hanging in a variety of locations. Seeds are visible so it’s easy to see when feed needs to be replenished. Some are made of metal, while more expensive, resist damage from squirrels. Small birds such as chickadees, titmice, finches and wrens are attracted to tube feeders. Goldfinches utilize tube feeders with perches located above feeding ports which allow these small birds to feed while hanging upside down.
• Hopper or house feeders are another common type of bird feeder that are available in a wide variety of designs and hold large amounts of feed, which require filling less often. As the name suggests, seeds are stored in a hopper and flow with gravity as needed or when birds perch on the feeder. Most hopper feeder designs do a good job of keeping seed dry. Hopper feeders attract larger species such as cardinals, blue jays, grosbeaks and woodpeckers, as well as the smaller species that use tube feeders.
• Platform or tray feeders consist of a tray with a screened bottom which hold seeds while allowing water to drain. Some platform feeders may have a top to help keep feed dry. Since feed is exposed to the elements, only enough seed for a day or two should be placed in them. Platform feeders require regular sanitizing to reduce risk of disease transmission, since bird droppings can mix with the seed. Platform feeders work well when suspended from a pole or tree limb or placed on a stationary post and attract numerus species of birds. These feeders should be placed at a height that will allow for convenient filling and cleaning. Platform feeders are more susceptible to visits from pesky squirrels.
• Fruit feeders are designed to hold large pieces of fruit which attract a wide variety of birds, including blue jays and woodpeckers. They come in a variety of designs and can be suspended or hung from a tree limb or placed on a pole. Fruit feeders are better suited for providing a food source in cooler months of the year, due to spoilage in warm weather.
• Suet feeders are particularly important in colder climates and provide energy for birds in the winter months. Suet feeders also attract insects that birds feed on. Suet is a mixture of solidified fats or peanut butter mixed with assorted bird seed or other grain products. These feeders consist of wire cages that hold the suet cakes inside and allow birds to cling to the outside and feed. Woodpeckers, bluebirds, cardinals, titmice, wrens and nuthatches frequent suet feeders. Suet will turn rancid in warm weather; therefore, it is a better option during the winter months.
• Hummingbird feeders, also called nectar feeders, are filled with a mixture of sugar water and are primarily used to attract hummingbirds by mimicking the flowers on which these birds feed. They come in a variety of shapes, sizes and designs, usually with an abundance of red which is the color that attracts hummingbirds. Due to the rapid fermentation of sugar water, hummingbird feeders should be cleaned and sanitized on a regular basis. Insects like bees, wasps and ants are also attracted to hummingbird feeders.
For more information on bird feeders and bird feeding, check out the following publication from the University of Florida Extension Service, Attracting Backyard Birds: Bird Feeder Selection.
(Information for this news article was taken in part from the University of Florida Extension Publication WEC; and Attracting Backyard Birds: Bird Feeder Selection by Emma V. Wilcox, Mark E. Hostetler, Martian B. Main and Manea Voigt.)