February is National Bird-Feeding Month, and for good reason! Unpredictable weather means many birds, both year-round residents and winter visitors, can benefit from supplemental sources of food. Plus, taking time to enjoy the beautiful, interesting, frisky birds at your feeder can help minimize the cabin fever that tends to set in this time of year. Whether you’re a seasoned backyard birder or just getting started, there’s no such thing as too much information when it comes to accommodating avian visitors.
Choosing the Right Feeders
Choose the right types of food and feeders to entice different types of birds.
A classic bird feeder, tube feeders are composed of one main compartment with small holes and perches that allow birds to pluck seeds out. If you decide to hang one feeder, a tube feeder is a great choice. Hang at least five feet off the ground on a branch or pole.
• Attracts a wide variety of birds, including black-capped chickadees, tufted titmice, white- and red-breasted nuthatches, house finches, American goldfinches, pine siskins, and even purple finches.
• Fill with birdseed mixes or sunflower seeds—black oil seeds provide much-needed energy and are special favorites for birds in our area.
These feeders, often covered and watertight, keep seeds protected and stored until a bird hops on, which releases a small portion of seeds. Like tube feeders, these should be hung at least five feet off the ground on a branch or pole.
• Attracts many of the same birds as tube feeders and larger birds, such as northern cardinals, blue jays, and blackbirds.
• Fill with anything you might put into a tube feeder. Safflower seeds are popular with cardinals and some sparrows; watertight feeders can sometimes work for blends with medium-coarse cracked corn, which is popular with jays.
Tube Mesh and Screen Feeders
Appearing similar to tube feeders, these have specific mesh or screening that allows seed to be pulled out. Feeders made from metal, rather than hanging bags, are sturdier and less likely to be ripped open by other tenacious wildlife visitors. Two popular types of these feeders hold Nyjer® (a heat-treated thistle seed) and peanuts. Hang near other feeders if possible.
• Attracts whichever kinds of birds favor the food you place into them!
• Fill with Nyjer® for finches, pine siskins, and possible common redpolls; whole or crushed peanuts will attract blue jays, woodpeckers, chickadees, titmice, kinglets, wrens, and nuthatches.
Suet, a mixture of fats and seed, are useful for birds building up fat reserves during the cold. The most common feeder is a rectangular cage that can be opened to place a cake inside. These work well when hung from branches, wires between trees, or near other feeders.
• Attracts nuthatches and Wisconsin woodpeckers (downy, hairy, and red-bellied being the most common). Chickadees, titmice, creepers, and wrens may also visit.
• Fill with suet cakes and nutrition-packed bird puddings.
Ground and Platform Feeders
At the most basic, these feeders are large trays with screens intended to keep seed clean and just off the ground. They may be covered to keep out precipitation or have mesh to prevent squirrels or larger birds. Place at least 10 feet from a tree or shrub so birds can flee if needed, and avoid using this type of feeder if feral or outdoor cats are common in your area.
• Attracts cardinals; mourning doves; and sparrows, including dark-eyed juncos, song sparrows, American tree sparrows, white-throated sparrows, fox sparrows, and even towhees.
• Fill with white millet, popular with the birds listed above. Sometimes bird seed mixes with dried fruit can be placed in these feeders to encourage American robins, cedar waxwings, and other frugivores.
No matter what type you choose, placement is key. It’s lovely to watch from our windows; however, bird collisions with glass can be fatal. To reduce this risk, always place feeders less than 3 feet or more than 30 feet away from a window. Even safer measures include installing window screens on the outside or applying visual references that birds can see, such as appropriately spaced dot stickers.
Keeping Birds Healthy
Feeders are communal spaces where many birds, including those that might not normally come into close contact, gather. Generally speaking, bird feeders should be taken down and cleaned approximately every one or two weeks. Use hot soapy water to scrub off any stuck food or debris. Then soak or spray with a 10 percent bleach solution (one part bleach, nine parts water) and rinse thoroughly. Once the feeder has air-dried completely, refill with fresh seed and replace.
Messy areas around feeders can also draw unwanted visitors. Small steps, like adding a seed tray under a tube feeder, can reduce the amount of spillage. In areas with problematic rodents, keeping the ground swept and properly installing a squirrel baffle on poles are useful preventative measures.
Remember to check often that the food is in good, edible condition—filling a feeder with a one- or two-day supply decreases the chance that too much moisture will build up inside. Immediately dispose of seed that has become damp, foul smelling, or moldy to avoid birds becoming sick. Any extra food you keep on hand should be stored in a cool, dry location inside rodent- and insect-proof containers.
Building a Long-Term Habitat
It can take days or even weeks for birds to locate and regularly return to new feeders. Thinking ahead in the fall to plant native plants and add a source of fresh water can also play a role in encouraging birds to stop by. For those with space in their yard, leaving a bit of overgrowth or a pile of discarded brush creates a space for birds to gather and hide from predators. And one of the best protection for birds is keeping your cat indoors, which provides your pet a cozy space and the wild birds a safer habitat.
With a little work, patience, and persistence, you can design a healthy, welcoming place for birds to thrive through the winter. We’ll be back next issue with more ways to keep wild birds happy year-round. Until then, happy birding!
Kaitlin Svabek is a communications specialist for Madison Audubon. Connect with the team at email@example.com or follow them on social media @madisonaudubon.