• Share to Facebook
    • Twitter
    • Email
    • Print

March 19, 2013

Feeding Your Backyard Birds

Answers to your top questions about how and what to feed your bird neighbors

The Humane Society of the United States

  • Although they are often seen at bird feeders, red-bellied wood peckers primarily eat insects. iStockphoto.com

One of the best ways to enjoy wildlife in the comfort of your home is to watch birds at a feeder. You'll be amazed at the variety of birds that will come to your feeder throughout the year.

Experts disagree about whether backyard bird feeding will significantly help bird populations. But feeding certainly can help individual birds in your neighborhood.

The general rule for feeding of any wild animal is: do not feed when it might cause harm. With birds there are few situations in which we can imagine harm being caused, so we say, go ahead! These answers to common questions will help you get started. 

Should I feed birds year-round?
What if I have to leave town?
Where should I put birdfeeders?
How do I keep birds from colliding with windows?
What bird foods should I offer?
Are any human foods UNSAFE to feed birds?
Why are different feeders placed at different levels?
How to I choose a birdfeeder?

Should I feed birds year-round?

It's not necessary. Bird feeding is most helpful at times of when birds need the most energy, such as during temperature extremes, migration, and in late winter or early spring, when natural seed sources are depleted.

Most birds don't need your help in the summer. When they are nesting and rearing their young, many birds focus on eating insects, so feeding is less necessary at those times. It is also important for young birds to learn how to find naturally occurring foods, so take a break from filling feeders in summer.

Two exceptions to this rule are hummingbirds and goldfinches. Offer your summer hummers nectar in feeders to help fuel their high metabolism, and provide nyjer seed to your goldfinches—who nest later than other birds—until thistles go to seed.

What if I have to leave town?

Don't worry if you must stop feeding briefly—while traveling, for example. In all but the most severe weather conditions, wild birds will find other food in your absence, particularly in suburban areas where other birdfeeders are just a short flight away. If you live in a rural or isolated area, however, try to arrange to have a neighbor maintain the feeders during winter absences.

Where should I put birdfeeders?

Birds are most likely to eat where they feel safe from predators, including free-roaming cats. Place feeders twelve feet from a brush pile, evergreen tree, or bush. Birds can quickly fly twelve feet to reach the safe cover, yet predators cannot use it to hide within striking range of the feeder. As further protection, place chicken wire or thorny branches around ground-level feeders.

How do I keep birds from colliding with windows?

Windows that reflect the sky and trees around them or that are very transparent can confuse birds, causing them to see a clear flight path, rather than an obstruction.

Prevent collisions by placing feeders either more than 30 feet from a window or closer than 3 feet. A feeder that is 30 feet or more from a window is a safe distance from confusing reflections, while one within 3 feet prevents a bird from building up enough momentum for a fatal collision. 

Altering the appearance of your window helps, too. On the outside of the window, hang streamers, place static-cling bird strike prevention decals—especially those that reflect ultraviolet light that is visible to birds, but not to humans—about four inches apart—or paint a scene with soap. If collisions still occur, cover your windows with thin plastic garden netting, which will give a bird who still makes a wrong turn a better chance of surviving.

What bird foods should I offer?

Winter suggestions

  • Black-oil sunflower seed: high in fat so it provides good energy; seeds are small and thin-shelled enough for small birds to crack open.
  • White Proso Millet: high in protein content.
  • Peanuts: offer in tube-shaped metal mesh feeders designed for peanuts; use a feeder with smaller openings for peanut hearts.
  • Suet cakes: commercially made suet cakes fit the standard-size suet feeder (you can even find vegetarian options).
  • Nyjer seed: use a tube feeder with tiny holes to keep the seeds from spilling out.
  • Cracked corn: choose medium-sized cracked corn, as fine will quickly turn to mush and coarse is too large for small-beaked birds.

Suggestions for other seasons

  • Spring feeding: offer fruit, baked and crushed eggshells, and nesting materials, such as human hair, pet fur, bits of string or yarn, and small strips of cloth to help nesting birds
  • Summer feeding: limit to nectar for hummingbirds and nyjer seed for goldfinches
  • Autumn feeding: offer millet, peanuts, peanut butter, and suet cakes

Are any human foods UNSAFE to feed birds?

Yes. Birds should not be offered many of the foods humans eat.

  • Bread (fresh or stale): provides no real nutritional value for birds; moldy bread can harm birds.
  • Chocolate: toxic to birds, just as it is to dogs and cats (it contains theobromine); never offer birds any foods containing chocolate.
  • Table scraps: some may not be safe or healthy for birds; most table scraps will attract mice or rats.

Why are different feeders placed at different levels?

Many birds will feed at more than one level, but some species have preferences.

  • Ground level: mourning doves, sparrows, towhees, and juncos.
  • Table level: cardinals, finches, and jays.
  • Hanging feeders: titmice, goldfinches, and chickadees.
  • Tree trunks: woodpeckers, nuthatches, and wrens.

How do I choose a birdfeeder?

When searching for that perfect feeder keep the following tips in mind.

  • Plastic, steel, or glass feeders are easier to clean than are feeders with porous surfaces, such as wood or clay. 
  • Small feeders empty quickly, leaving less time for seeds to get wet or spoiled.
  • Choose feeders with no sharp edges or points; the design should allow birds to perch away from the food to keep it from becoming soiled.
  • Set up more than one feeder and allow ample space between them to avoid crowding.
  • Choose a feeder with drainage holes, and add a plastic dome to keep seed dry. 

Create a Humane Backyard

A place that offers food, shelter, water, refuge from toxic sprays, and safety from mowers—it’s what every creature wants, right? They want a Humane Backyard. By making simple changes, you can create that haven of comfort and security for local wildlife. And you can do it anywhere: in the city, suburbs, or country. So look around--at your backyard, balcony, or the park down the street—then let us teach you how to make your own Humane Backyard. Once you’ve learned how, take our Humane Backyard pledge.

  • Sign Up
  • Log in using one of your preferred sites
    Login Failure
  • Take Action
  • Create a Humane Backyard.

Solve Problems with
Wild Neighbors

Buy the Book