To me, wildlife gardening is about creating habitat by providing for the complex and diverse needs of many different species of animals. Relying on feeders alone feeders to attract birds isn't the same thing as creating habitat. Of the 50+ bird species we have had in our yard, probably only 10-20% actually use the feeders. Most come here because of the plants, structure, and natural foods. (Again, what may initially attract them are the feeders).
Although bird feeders do attract some desirable bird species, they also attract unwanted birds and other animals. You can spend a lot of time trying to make the feeders squirrel proof, cat proof, sparrow proof, and so on. I know I have. Another option I am considering is to not to use some kinds of feeders in the first place.
I really enjoy and take pride in our natural feeders: the anthills in our yard that the flickers excavate, and the ants that rebuild and eventually relocate; the quaking aspen and the ecology therein; the many woody plants that harbor spiders, insect eggs and other morsels that chickadees, warblers, and wrens glean; our little prairie and mostly lawn-free yard that invite juncos, white crowned sparrows, hermit thrushes and others to scratch, dig, search, and forage for food in the leaf litter; the standing and fallen snags that are home to several wood eating insects; and my unconventional hummingbird native plants. These natural bird feeders are by far my favorites.
I just had a conversation with someone who is a well-known birder and avid wildlife gardener. They asked what kind of feeders I used, and how many I maintain. I thought this was kind of an odd start to the conversation- as I mentioned feeders are not my favorite things. I told them about our one seed feeder and up to three suet feeders (3 in the winter, 1-2 in the summer). They were surprised and very unimpressed, and they told me how their 18 seed feeders, and 7 suet feeders attracted birds. This got me thinking more about bird feeders, and the goal of my garden.
Bird feeders attract pests
My other, traditional feeders which I fill with black sunflower seeds, are seasonally useful. But they often turn into areas that concentrate unwanted birds and animals, like the non-native house sparrows and squirrels, house cats and even house finches.
House finches are another story, and probably deserving of their own blog post. Though house finches are native to the southwestern US, it is unlikely they are native here. These birds were spread around the western US pervasively and now are widely established. They don’t seem to interfere with things too much, or compete with cavity-nesters, like other exotics. I do not encourage them in our yard, but I don’t treat them like squirrels or starlings, either.
Feeders also have a tendency to concentrate birds making them susceptible to predation and disease. It is important to locate your feeders when they will not be targets for house cats, but also in locations that are more natural. They should be close to cover, and to some degree mimic a natural feeding location. By locating feeders this way you will be more successful in attracting birds. Diseases often arise from unusual and unnatural concentrations of birds around feeders- the unfortunate side effect of attracting birds to a spot.
Since we live in the middle of town we do not have bears, or deer. If we did, we would would change how and when we feed. For example we would not use hummingbird feeders because hummingbirds are in Montana when bears are active, and bears love the sugar water. Also, we would only use seed or suet feeders in the winter while bears are hibernating. But, since we do live in the center of town (as opposed to living in a riparian area, on the urban interface, or bordering a natural area), attraction is important for bringing in birds.
Our feeding plan
We feed the most in the winter, and the rationale is that there is the least amount of natural food available to birds at this critical time. Also with habitat loss, it is easy to justify feeding in the winter. We use a combination of suet and black sunflower seed feeders.
In the summer, we usually let most of our feeders run dry. There are plenty of natural foods available to birds, and as a result, they don’t use the seed feeders much, anyway. We do keep the hummingbird feeders going from April- September, though.
The more I have been thinking about this, I think that we will not refill our sunflower seed feeder come fall. Though the chickadees and nuthatches like it, there is other food for them most of the year, including the suet feeders in the winter.
Feed with specific birds in mind
It is important to know what bird species you will be feeding, just as it is important to know what species are trying to entice with birdhouses. The more general you are the more you will probably end up feeding unwanted birds or wasting seed, or feed. The “wild bird” feeds are mostly low cost millet, and depending on where you live, nothing may eat this. Also, some seeds or nuts are too big for birds in your area to eat, or are only available to squirrels.
None of our feeders have perches on them. They are designed (or modified) to target the native birds that will eat the seed, and none of these species need perches. This discourages house sparrows. Although house finches will still use the seed feeders, it does not let them monopolize the feeders as they would if there were perches. The suet feeders we use act similarly- and they are really easy to build.
Building a suet feeder is a great project for children (and adults, too). They are simply a 12-20” section of about 6” diameter log with 1” holes bored into it (see photo above with Downy woodpecker). Birds like nuthatches, chickadees, downy woodpeckers, flickers, and even the brown creeper this year, really like them. I imagine the dead log, with bark, is a natural search image for them while foraging for food. The suet in the cavities probably comes as an unexpected treat.
For now, I still have a few feeders, and I will continue to feed birds in the winter, and some, like hummingbirds, in the summer. Though, in the future, I will probably have fewer feeders.