my bird-feeding basics (and favorite feeders)

NOBODY’S GOING TO STARVE around here, even if I take down the bird feeder from late March to Thanksgiving or so. That’s my usual routine, aimed to discourage local black bears from touring the garden unexpectedly. But one recent year I was frankly hungry for the continued amazement the feeder provides for me, and broke my winter-only rule, leaving up one feeder a little longer than usual.

I was so glad I did.

Even one small feeder (below right)—the deal I struck with myself—provided an informal census of who was around, which on the spring end of things hints at who’s nesting in the garden, and where. I watched where incoming birds arrived on the perches from, and where they headed back to after dining.

Rose-breasted grosbeaks can usually be heard, and glimpsed, at the garden’s woodland edge, but with a feeder up I was up-close host to many of them all season (including the photogenic young one, above). Tufted titmice are a familiar year-round bird, joining mixed flocks with chickadees, nuthatches and even woodpeckers here in winter, but often I only see the occasional individual or pair in the warm months if no feeder is out. Early that summer I was treated to a whole family’s impressive aerobatic antics, noisily chasing one another through the garden, back and forth to the feeder, since what seemed to be the progeny from a very successful nest (they can have from 3-9 eggs per clutch) had all taken to the air. Fun.

It’s also a treat to witness the pecking order played out at the feeder among individuals of a single species, or between different species (the red-bellied woodpeckers win here, though blue jays when around are pretty bossy). A primer from Cornell on pecking order and feeder behavior.

The feeder I chose (more on it below) shuts when a heavier animal tries to latch onto it (you know who I am talking about). The seed chamber is also cleverly ventilated, so hot, humid weather or a wet season doesn’t result in gunked-up seed in the tube. It’s small enough to be very easy to clean regularly, to prevent transmission of disease (such as house finch eye disease) from bird to bird.

Years ago I switched over from filling the tubes with sunflower seeds in their shells, to sunflower “hearts” or “chips,” minus the shells. The shells (and also roots of live sunflower plants, by the way) are allelopathic, meaning they contain a chemical that inhibits the growth of many other plants. Besides creating a bald spot in the garden where they fall, there is the issue of the debris. Though I can rake them up regularly, the shells are not a good addition to compost—their anti-plant effect can linger.

Shelled seed is much more expensive, but you’re not paying for waste, plus my local farm-supply store has pre-season promotions on it every fall at a good discount, when I buy maybe ten 40- or 50-pound bags.

I also feed big hunks of suet fresh from the local butcher, stuffed into large cages, but only during cold weather. Raw suet in the heat? Not a pretty picture. (The local opossum love the suet feeder, too; above.) I used to feed thistle seed as well, in special feeders, but I get so many kinds of finches at the sunflower feeders I no longer bother.

Whatever feeder and food you choose, remember: Position feeders either closer than 3 feet or farther than 30 feet away from the house and especially from glass expanses of windows or doors, to prevent confusing visuals that lead to fatal window strikes by incoming birds.  Choose a spot close to the safety of evergreen cover, if possible, or at least twiggy shrubbery, but not so close that those incessant gray furbearers can leap across and have at it.

Do you feed in the growing season, or in winter, or at all?

my favorite feeders

FEEDERS ARE no substitute for diverse habitat filled with plants that foster delicious insects, fruits and seeds. But feeders can deepen our connection with birds, and also supplement natural foodstuffs in the toughest months, especially.

I have been feeding each winter for 30 years, and gone through a lot of seed and devices—especially ones that claim to be squirrel-proof, the grail of any bird lover’s feeding dreams.

In the last five years, I’ve settled on one brand of feeder—Brome—that I think has the best combination of features, including a lifetime warranty and again, that ventilation feature and more. I have both the little ¾-quart one mentioned (photo at left), and one that looks identical but holds 2.6 pounds (the Legacy) as well as two of the larger models (1.4-quart and 3-quart capacity), and a couple of big suet baskets (not by Brome).

Nothing can stop squirrels from lunging toward and hanging on any feeder (especially if it’s not sited properly), but with the Brome design, the seed ports will be covered when their weight slides the outer housing down over them. Note: a chipmunk’s weight doesn’t do the trick, so those adorable demons stuff their cheeks if you feed in summer, when they are not tucked in napping; not a winter problem here mostly, though.

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  1. Interesting article and comments. We feed birds all year here in north Idaho, but not much business in the summer. Trays and a bowl of sunflower seeds; seed bell; suet cage, thisle sock. Until a few years ago no squirrels. It was entertaining to watch him figure out how to overcome all efforts, which didn’t take him long. He would also drop pine cones on to the metal roof of the shed making a loud noise. Very smart and athletic. One day he was gone. This year we had two new ones. Had to do something. In frustration I got out the pellet pistol. Three shots, three misses. Plan B…get a humane trap. Problem solved upon relocation. People said they’d be back in a week, not so. The sunflower hearts…will try them soon.

  2. carole roseman says:

    We live in Columbia County. NY
    We feed all year. Five feeders – and suet.

    We also bring in the feeders every night.

    We have a magical array of birds….

  3. Susan White says:

    So glad that you recommended the Brome bird feeder. I just bought the small one to add to our backyard collection and we love it.

  4. Norita Carlson says:

    I have a flat feeder with a grid in it so that small birds feed the best. It also has a semi circular clear top hanging over it. This keeps the seed dry. I feed mainly safflower seeds which squirrels do not like. Birds do not notice the lack of flavor and eat well. Result? no squirrels. many birds.
    Once the idea is settled I can add sunflower seeds since the squirrels have given up.

  5. John Ippolito says:

    We live in the western Chugach range of Alaska so feed only after grizzly and black bears are reliably in hibernation. Due to our drastically shorter winters, those dates used to be Nov 1 until April 15. Now it is more like Dec 1 until April 1.

    We will have to try out a Brome feeder. The only squirrel proof feeder I have ever found locally is a “Squirrel X”, which is utterly effective at foiling our smallish but very precocious red squirrels. We also switched to sunflower chips years ago. Less mess and no more dead zones under the feeders. Also many suet feeders.

  6. Barbara says:

    I’m in Portland OR. For a few years I’ve been tossing out a seed mix during our few really cold streaks. This year I bought a starter feeder… a seed bin with a roof and 2 places for the seeds. It attaches to a window with suction cups. Nobody seems interested. I put seeds under it, to attract the birds. They eat that seed, but pretty much ignore the feeder. So I started tossing out seed again, which they love. I also bought two suet things…. (hard suet with seeds embedded) … but nobody’s interested. I have one hanging from a tree and, when nobody seemed interested, I put one on the ground with the seeds… even sprinkled seed on top. They eat the seed only. Go figure. On the other hand, the hummers are loving their suction-cup feeder!

    1. John says:

      Determine what varieties of birds are feeding on the ground, then ask the folks at your local feed store. Maybe you have sparrows that tend to feed only feed on the ground.
      Also, is there sufficient cover of shrubs, trees close to the feeder for birds to take refuge from birdz of prey?
      Just a few thoughts. Good luck.

  7. Stella Neves Elbaum says:

    We live in southeast CT, and have a brook on our property that never totally freezes – a magnet for the birds and critters in our woods. I put out the bird feeders ( seed and suet varieties) after the first hard freeze – we don’t want to bring the bears into the yard. This past month , three ring-necked pheasants have joined the rest of the birds for breakfast. (They seem to enjoy whatever has fallen to the ground). It’s been wonderful. I wish I could post photos on your newsletter!

  8. Debbie says:

    I love the Brome feeders-I have six! My newest is the suet feeder-it’s amazing! Plus, their customer service is exceptional-highly recommend.

  9. Mary says:

    Feed the birds, yes of course. I live in NY, ( LI) The Squirrels need to eat also so what can be set out for them ? All things great and small….

    1. Meredith Klein says:

      I feed the squirrels, too. I would get upset when they raided my feeders but I realized it wasn’t good for my peace of mind to fret so, and yes, who was I to decide that they weren’t allowed to eat. I put an open feeder in the more wooded part of my yard and give them the same seed mix as I do the birds. As long as I fill that feeder when I fill the bird feeders they don’t bother with the other ones. I do enjoy watching their antics.

      1. MJ says:

        I live in Providence RI in a well-planted, medium-sized, protected city garden.
        We have nesting cardinals and robins, chickadees, jays, titmice, nuthatches, mourning doves, a downy and a wren now and then😊, and winter juncos. Oh, and chipmunks, and just a couple squirrels (there’s a story).
        Two platform feeders are supplied year-round with safflower, heavier in winter; there’s a finch feeder for two seasons. Nuts and fresh berries for treats. The bird bath is good until freezing, but we try to do something even then. In winter we add one of the smaller weight-sensitive feeders with mixed seeds.
        Our bird community has grown with more baby ones this year. We have created an urban sanctuary.
        I’ve learned a lot from Margaret on creating bird-friendly feeding spots and plantings.
        Love your work, Margaret! ❤️🐦

  10. Susan Clarkson says:

    I feed birds year around in Arizona, high dessert. Some change in customers between summer & winter but most are the same. I don’t have any squirrels, chipmunks or the like. I do have a big flock of white wing doves that raid the feeders after they eat what they find on ground. No lawn – just rocks over cliche so I have worried about sunflower shells. Takes a pick ax to dig more than an inch down.

  11. Jen says:

    I live in SE Pennsylvania and have 4 feeders: 3 tubes, one flat. My husband moved the flat one maybe 10’ due to pond construction, further away from an evergreen, and usage dropped off considerably (though bird counts are down anyway). I also switched one feeder to hullless and like it – I don’t have to refill it as often. The ventilated feature of the Brome is intriguing as I do deal with gunk on a regular basis since my bird counts are down.

  12. Linda Margison says:

    Albany, NY here. We started feeding when I retired 10 yr ago. I wanted to make sure I’d have time.
    At that time we had a local bird store and they were very well versed in what we would need.
    We’ve had many grey-furred ninjas in that time and have settled on the feeder you pictured on the right. They last many years and work very well even if a squirrel manages to get above the pole cone. Jays can still feed, they are so smart, but they were the first magnificent color to our feeders.
    Where we are we’ve been able to leave the feeders out all year, so far. And we’ve used a hearted bird bath/fountain all that time too
    We feed mostly safflour, non-melting suet. No one seems too interested in thistle. Don’t know where al the gold flinches are. When the darling junkos arrive we toss seed under the arbourvite, I love the little cha-cha. We get the gamut of species of birds for our area. Including 5 different woodpecker. And wrens!
    I’ve noticed here that our male cardinals are ground feeding only. The females and adolescents eat on the feeder. We have noticed a sharp decline in the number of birds and are saddened. Pnly a couple hummers this year.

  13. Terry Smith says:

    Lovely post and my favourite is the Brome bird feeder but I do have a slight issue with them being top hung. I found squirrels really struggle if you use a freestanding pole and really grease it up. You can probably imagine how entertaining it is to watch them trying to propel themselves up but their hind legs don’t gain traction and they slide straight down. It’s such an important role we play feeding birds in the Winter. They really do struggle and you raise a great point about creating a habitat that will help sustain, rather than merely providing sustenance!

  14. Frank says:

    Here in Canada, I make suet feeders by drilling 1 or 1.5 inch holes in a log. Cover it with a square wire cage such as used as connecting book cages or cubes. Woodpeckers can fly in from the open bottom, but other large birds that feed & hide the feed can’t seem to figure out that the bottom is open. This defeats the Jays from hiding everything & scaring off the woodpeckers.

    Instead of “greasing” a pole, which sounds odd & dangerous to wildlife in winter as grease could prevent their fur from insulating them, as with woodpeckers getting suet grease on their breast or tail feathers, a sure fire way to keep off all squirrels, racoons, pine martens, etc. it to use an upside down bucket with the feeder pole going through the middle & held onto the pole with a screw on pipe clamp inside the bucket & attached to the pole about 3-4 feet up. In the 2 winters I’ve been using this, nothing besides birds have been on the feeders. The squirrels are welcome to clean up the spillage on the ground, so they get their fill. Cheap, easy & 100% squirrel etc. proof. Just don’t put your pole feeder too close to a tree that they could jump from, but really squirrels can’t jump vertically well at all & not that far horizontally either. Just do some tests & you’ll find the right distance of maybe 10-20 feet from a tree.

    Squirrel proof feeders that I’ve tried have never worked well & every one that I’ve tried has been defeated by red squirrels. My inverted bucket baffle has NEVER been defeated & costs a few dollars if new, but most people have a 5 gallon bucket around or you can get for free. I cut the ridges off the top that the handle attaches too, which shortens the bucket a few inches & does not give the squirrels a ridge to grab if they could even reach it. I’ve had as many as 5 red squirrels at a time feeding on the ground & none have been able to get past the inside of the bucket baffle.

  15. Ellen Lodwick says:

    Margaret, thanks so much for recommending my favorite feeder. I would add that these clean up wonderfully with a long-handled toilet-type brush with a slender head from the dollar store.

  16. Judy L White says:

    After reading Julie Zickefoose’s newest book, Saving Jemima, Life and Luck with a Hard-Luck Jay, which I highly recommend, I bought peanuts in the shell for blue jays as well as other birds. They won’t fit in our current feeder. Suggestions welcome on how to best feed peanuts without squirrels getting them.

  17. Alexa Freeman says:

    I have figured how to confound squirrels–I put a slinky up the bird feeder post and make sure that the post is too far away from a tree or shrub to leap from. It’s actually amusing to watch the squirrels try to climb a slinky. I almost feel sorry for them.

    However, I have not been able to figure out how to prevent rats. I added a tray below the feeder to catch seeds before they spill to the ground but even the few that fall (that aren’t grabbed first by squirrels or ground-feeding birds) attract rats.

    I also haven’t figured out how to prevent rats in my vegetable garden. They are worse than rabbits.

    I don’t live in a city, btw. I live in a quite bucolic, i.e. lush and clean suburb in Maryland outside Washington DC that is not densely populated and with large yards.

    I welcome thoughts on both these problems!

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