If you’re shopping for new bird feeders, then this guide will you help sort out your choices. The number of styles to choose from can seem overwhelming. But here you’ll find some helpful tips and warnings about specific features of seed and suet feeders. As with most products, the more you pay, the better (and longer-lasting) the feeder you will get.
Luckily, technology has advanced in the past few years in the human vs. rodent battle. You’ll be amazed how the new feeder technology can actually keep squirrels (and unwanted birds) away.
Before we get into specifics, a general warning is in order. You’ll be wasting your money if you buy: • Feeders that look cute or artsy but lack functionality • Feeders that have no anti-pest features • Feeders made from cheap plastic that squirrels can chew • Feeders that are difficult to clean
Stick with the brands that specialize in manufacturing feeders, like Droll Yankees, Duncraft, Woodlink and Rubicon – many of them have guarantees.
Songbirds love seed, so depending on your geographic area, you’ll attract chickadees, finches, cardinals, grossbeaks and woodpeckers.
You’ll see many types of seed for sale, but the classic favorite among all is the sunflower seed, and birds prefer the black-oil variety. Lots of species enjoy this highly nutritious seed, so it’s a great one to start with.
Avoid the cheap “wild bird seed” (mostly yellow) sold at grocery stores. It contains very few sunflowers and mainly attracts sparrows. Not that there’s anything wrong with sparrows, but a whole flock can dominate a feeder and prevent songbirds from coming.
The next most popular seed is thistle (also called niger or nyger). All types of wild finches enjoy it, so be prepared for a whole flock to appear.
If you’re willing to spend a little more, you can feed cracked peanuts – but again, they require a specially-designed feeder. Peanuts for birds should always be roasted, with no salt or sugar. Peanuts can get moldy, so make sure they stay fresh in the feeder.
There are four basic types of seed feeders: • tubes (or silos) • mesh bags (thistle only) • hoppers (shaped like a barn or covered bridge) • platforms
Tube feeders come in large-capacity models, and they offer the best squirrel-proofing technology. Tube feeders for thistle are different because they have smaller seed ports. You’ll even find “upside down” thistle feeders — many birds don’t mind standing on their heads to eat!
For thistle only, mesh bags are now commonplace. Some types of bag material hold up better than others (synthetic is better than cotton), although they don’t get too much abuse because squirrels usually show little interest. But the bags will need periodic replacing.
Hopper feeders are a time-honored style, but keeping squirrels away can be difficult. The best defense is to mount them on a pole with a squirrel baffle.
The last type, platforms, have been problematic. But nowadays, some come with coverings (to keep snow out) and chicken-wire fencing (to deter squirrels and large birds). The benefit of a platform is that it allows more species to feed. Ground-feeders, like cardinals and doves, prefer platforms. These feeders can either be placed on the ground or suspended from a wire.
Tips: Look for a tube feeder that’s easy to clean, or buy a special brush to do so. Look for a feeder with a lifetime guarantee, like the Droll Yankees brand. They cost more, but in the long run will save you money replacing cheap feeders that go bust. If you want to attract cardinals or grossbeaks, make sure the perches are long enough to accommodate them.
Cautions: Feeders that lack squirrel-proofing technology will cost you lots of extra money due to (1) chewed-up feeders that need replacing; and (2) all the seed consumed by the varmints. So buy the technology. Baffles alone aren’t always successful. Also, when it comes to perching areas, metal parts are better than plastic. It’s a myth that birds’ feet will stick to metal in the cold – it’s not possible, since birds have no sweat glands there.
Anti-Pest Features: New tube feeder models are great at foiling squirrels. They use perches that collapse under the weight of anything larger than a large bird (like a jay). Or they use battery-powered perches that fling off (or lightly shock) a non-bird. Other types use a weight mechanism to block the seed ports against heavier visitors, and you can even calibrate the cut-off weight. The Droll Yankees brand is the leader in squirrel-proofing for tube feeders.
Suet is a high-energy fatty treat that can really help keep birds warm (from the inside) in the winter. Woodpeckers especially love it. Y ou can buy raw suet from the butcher or grocery store and hang it in a netted bag (an onion bag) for the cheapest possible option. But rendered suet (that has been boiled to kill bacteria) is best. You can buy rendered suet bricks that fit nicely into hanging feeders. These are often “no-melt” and work great even in very hot weather. Some bricks have seed or different flavorings added. Commercial cakes come in many varieties, and can attract birds who like seeds, nuts, fruits or insects.
Wire mesh “cages” are the most common type of suet feeder, but there are also wood-framed feeders with a mesh screen that the birds peck through to eat the suet.
Tips: Feeders that have a tail prop (an area for birds to prop their tails against) are easier for birds to use.
Cautions: You can buy small birch logs with holes bored out for suet receptacles, but these require frequent refilling if you are attracting a lot of suet-eaters.
Starlings can be thwarted by special feeders that require birds to cling from the bottom. Starlings are incapable of doing this gymnastic stunt, but the desired birds have no problem. To prevent squirrel chewing, the new recycled plastic materials are better than wood, but metal is best. Keeping squirrels off suet is difficult, so the best solution is a baffle above or below the feeder.
A Few Final Tips
One more important point to remember. You have to clean your feeders regularly. Feeders can harbor disease-causing bacteria, mold and viruses. Birds get sick and spread the sickness to other birds in the area. Use a mixture of bleach to water (one part bleach to nine parts water) to clean your feeders.
And lastly, if you don’t have a field guide to birds, purchase one. Keep a list of every bird species that visits your feeders. Get to know the differences between males and females. Teach your kids how to use the guide too — it’s a great way to learn about nature and start them on a life-long hobby.