Monday, March 30, 2009

Mixed feelings for bird feeders

I have mixed feelings about bird feeders. I do use bird feeders, and they are what initially attract some species to our yard. However, I have tried to build our wildlife garden to provide more than just sunflower seeds and suet to birds, and I look for ways to reduce their (and my) dependence on feeders.

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.


  1. Another wonderful post. It's interesting that I too have made few feeders my goal. But this is just because they are so expensive and time consuming to maintain.

    I don't know if you do any requests, but do you have any information on brush piles? Thanks to an ice storm, I have a lot of fallen branches.

  2. A thought-provoking post. I'm like you--I keep two or three in winter and take them down in summer. I try to keep water around all year, though, since it is harder for the birds to come by.

    18 feeders. Boggles the mind.

  3. Janina,
    Thanks for your comments. Good point about the cost- that is an importatnt consideration, and the resource intensiveness of bird foods is another thing to consider.
    I do take requests, and I'll think about the brushpiles- we do always keep some around and the birds really do like them. Look for a post in the near future.
    Thanks again,

  4. Hi Susan,
    Good to hear from you. As always, I am enjoying your posts at the Bicycle Garden.
    I agree about water, and we do have 2 bird baths out all year. Yes, 18 feeders is kind of creepy. That is really not what I am going for.
    I am curious about others experiences with weaning birds (and the gardeners) off feeders. It seems almost blasphemous to suggest wildlife gardeners and birders should not use bird feeders.
    I trust your snow is gone there now? It looked like to forcast called for the 70's the last time I visited your site.
    Thanks again,

  5. Feeders have a place in any garden that you want to attract birds, but they are not without work. They must be properly maintained and cleaned, so as not to cause harm to the birds.
    If feeders are not for you, then you can still attract the various birds by planting th right type of flowers in your garden.

    Hummingbirds are my favorite species of bird to attract. Here are some tips on how to attract them. Hope you and your readers will find the information helpful.

    You should plant a garden with a long season of overlapping bloom, including plants such as the petunia, annual red salvia, autumn sage and shrimp plants, or the firebush.

    You should plant flowers and plants which are native to your area of the country. You can find out information concerning the specific plants that grown in your area and attract hummingbirds by talking with someone from a plant nursery that is located where you live.

    Your flower garden should have areas of sun, partial sun, and shade. If the area of your yard where you want to create the hummingbird habitat is sunny most of the day, then you need to plant trees and shrubs. If the area is entirely in the shade, you will want to open up the area to let large patches of sunlight in. Having areas that allow both sun and shade is necessary to grow a wide variety of plants.

    You want your flower garden to consist of many levels of vegetation. The area should have some tall trees, some medium-height trees, some flowers, some grassy areas, as well as some shrubs. These different levels will provide the hummingbirds a variety of choices of where to feed or where to perch to rest or roost.

    You want to plant lots of flowers including those that are known to attract hummingbirds as well as others. You should select a variety of flowers that will bloom at different times, because there will always be something flowering. The flowers will serve two very important purposes: they will provide a source of nectar for the hummingbirds, and they will also attract insects on which the birds will feed.

    It is also important for your flower garden to have a source of water available for the hummingbirds. One way to do this is by having a birdbath available. The birdbath should have a very shallow water depth to allow the birds to stand in the water if they choose to do so. Adding some small flat rocks to the birdbath will create different water depths within the birdbath.

    Having a wide variety of plants will provide the female hummingbird a wide variety of nesting materials from which to choose.

    Your hummingbird garden should also contain some perches so the hummingbirds can survey the territory. You might want to create some perches that give the birds a good view over the flowers.

    Pesticides should never be used in a hummingbird garden! The hummingbird can ingest the pesticide while feeding on insects and spiders.

  6. Another hot topic, David. I actually doubt that feeders are such a good idea in most of California gardens. There was even some speculation for a while that West Nile might be transmitted by the close proximity at the feeder. I was quite baffled when I saw an Audobon Society application for bird friendly garden certification and it required a set number of feeders.
    I try instead to have plants that have nectar and plants that have seeds available year round. I don't drive myself crazy tidying everything. And I offer water in bird baths of different heights and a hanging bath. I've also hung some nesting material and leave some spiderwebs, which the hummers like. Sure, if we had snow it would be a great excuse to start feeding and enjoy the show, but I remain unconvinced that it's such a good idea.

  7. Great post, however I confess I have 19 feeders in my yard five suet feeders and 14 seed feeders, from hanging to platform... I do get the sparrows and the wrens, but I like them, I also get Goldfinches, downey woodpeckers, tanagers, sterlings, cowbirds, yellow headed blackbirds and red winged blackbirds, last year I got a white crowned sparrow. I love birds the more the merrier.. However I do plant many flowers, trees and vines in my yard to attract birds as well... Along with a five by five two feet deep pond and cattails.. We have a Ash tree, Lindon tree, spruce tree, pear trees, and aspen trees in our small yard, a small sour cherry tree, virginia creeper, and hops vines, along with clematis vines and bee balm, pink daisies, irises, daylilies, and yes bird houses, my boys made blue bird houses but we never did get any.. Maybe its because we placed them on the shed instead of on a pole? about five feet at suggested... anyways love the post, love the site...

  8. Hi KJGregor!
    Thanks so much for commenting and I'm so glad you enjoy my blog!
    Placing the house at 5' on a shed should not be a problem. The main thing for blue birds is open access to a field, meadow or prairie.
    Thanks again,