One of the best ways to enjoy wildlife in the comfort of your home is by watching the birds who visit your backyard. You’ll be amazed at the variety of birds you’ll see throughout the year—especially if you offer native plants that feed not only the birds, but also the insects that make up a crucial part of their diets.
Plenty of people choose to augment plants with birdseed, too. Yet experts disagree about whether this kind of backyard bird feeding will significantly help bird populations, and research indicates that it can even disrupt migration patterns or unbalance population sizes. On the other hand, supplemental feeding can help individual birds in your neighborhood, especially if plentiful native plants aren’t available.
The general rule for feeding any wild animal is not to offer food when it might cause harm (such as when there’s a local outbreak of avian disease that could spread through feeders). If you do choose to use a bird feeder, these answers to common questions will help you get started.
Should I feed birds year-round?
It's not necessary. Bird feeding is most helpful 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. 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. You can offer your summer hummers nectar in feeders to help fuel their high metabolism, and you can 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. In all but the most severe weather conditions, wild birds will find other food sources in your absence, particularly in suburban areas where other bird feeders 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 bird feeders?
Birds are most likely to eat where they feel safe from predators, including free-roaming cats. Place feeders 12 feet from a brush pile, evergreen tree or bush. Birds can quickly fly the 12 feet to reach 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 or paint a scene with soap. You can also place static-cling bird strike prevention decals about four inches apart; some decals even reflect ultraviolet light that is visible to birds but not to humans. If collisions still occur, cover your windows with thin plastic garden netting, which will give a bird who makes a wrong turn a better chance of surviving.
No matter how big or small your outdoor space, you can create a haven for local wildlife. By providing basic needs like water, food and shelter, you can make a difference in your own backyard.
What bird foods should I offer?
Remember to offer the appropriate food for the season from a clean feeder that is a safe distance from windows, and always keep cats indoors.
Winter (when natural foods are less abundant)
- 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 (for goldfinches): use a tube feeder with tiny holes to keep the seeds from spilling out
- Cracked corn: choose medium-sized cracked corn; fine corn will quickly turn to mush and coarse is too large for small-beaked birds
- Many types of birdseed are suitable for spring feeding, but you might also consider offering fruit for songbirds. (If you do use fruit, be sure to remove any leftover or spoiled pieces.) You can also offer crushed eggshells (rinsed and baked), which provide calcium for birds such as robins.
- Because spring is nesting season, you can offer natural nesting materials such as twigs, small sticks, straw and other plant materials (e.g., leaves, stems, cottontail fluff, cottonwood down, moss, bark strips, pine needs and grass or yard trimmings (as long as they are pesticide- and fertilizer-free)). Only offer natural materials that birds might find on their own, not synthetic products like acrylic yarn.
- During the spring and summer breeding seasons, over 90% of songbirds rely on insects to feed their young. While you can still offer feeders for adult birds, insects are crucial for nestling and fledgling survival. It is important to eliminate or significantly reduce the use of insecticides, which might prevent adult birds from finding enough insects to feed their young.
Limit to nectar for hummingbirds (follow these guidelines) and nyjer seed for goldfinches.
If you are providing feed in the summer months when it’s hot and humid, make sure to keep seed dry. If the seed gets moldy, it can produce toxins that are harmful to birds. Try filling feeders halfway (or less!) to avoid having the bird seed sit for long periods
Offer millet, peanuts, peanut butter and suet cakes.
Are any human foods unsafe for birds?
Yes. Birds should not be offered many of the foods humans eat.
- Bread (fresh or stale): provides no real nutritional value for birds, and moldy bread can harm birds
- Chocolate: toxic to birds, just as it is to dogs and cats (it contains theobromine)
- Table scraps: some may not be safe or healthy for birds, and 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 bird feeder?
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.
How often should I clean bird feeders?
To prevent the spread of disease, wash your feeder with a mixture of nine parts water to one part bleach every two weeks. Be sure to let it dry completely and scrub off any caked-on debris before re-hanging.
Don’t forget to regularly clean spillage around your feeder or periodically move feeders to reduce spillage build-up. Spilled seed might attract mice, rats or even bears—potentially leading to avoidable wildlife conflicts Be aware of potential bear problems in your area and if necessary, take your feeders down during summer to avoid unexpected bear visits.
Offer clean water year-round
A source of clean water is the most helpful resource you can provide for birds and other animals in your backyard. In areas where winter temperatures dip below freezing, you can use a bird bath warmer. Many options are available to keep ice from forming, including objects that absorb and retain heat, solar-powered warmers and even electric warmers.
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 a haven of comfort and security for local wildlife. And you can do it anywhere: in the city, suburbs or country, or even on an apartment balcony. Once you’ve learned how, take our Humane Backyard pledge.