One ‘size’ doesn’t fit all: Match feeders to birds’ feeding habits

I know, I know, birds depend mostly on their natural habitat for food. But that doesn’t mean people can’t put out feeders when the weather turns cold.

Ornithologists tell us birds only get about 20 percent of their food needs from backyard feeders, but these feeders can be very important during periods of extreme cold or when ice covers food sources.

If you do enjoy seeing birds in the wintertime like I do, don’t be surprised to find that a single bird-feeder won’t attract every bird around. Birds with different feeding habits will be attracted to markedly different feeders. A platform feeder is nothing more than a flat board at the end of a pole. The more elaborate ones have a roof over the platform, and ground-feeding birds like cardinals, sparrows and juncos prefer a feeder of this type. The downside of using a feeder like this is that the seed placed there can be rendered useless due to the elements or to bird droppings.

Hopper feeders, like the ones I have, fill from the top and seeds flow down to the bottom, where birds can get to them. Mine hang from a pole and feature perches. These type of feeders attract a variety of birds, including unwanted ones like starlings and blackbirds. These invaders can clean out a recently stocked feeder in short order.

To prevent these robbers from pilfering every seed, I bought a feeder where I can adjust the tension on the perch. If a heavier blackbird alights on the perch, the spring causes the perch to move downward and a door closes on the seed reservoir, preventing these unwelcome pests from feeding. This way the smaller birds like chickadees and finches can eat to their heart’s content without being chased away by the blackbirds. This, of course, is far less a problem in winter when these black marauders are wintering south, but other birds like blue jays are just as greedy.

Suet feeders offer suet or animal fat in a wire box or basket, and these can be hung or placed on a platform. Their strong point is that they attract a variety of birds, including woodpeckers, chickadees, wrens, titmice and nuthatches.

I’ve found the menu I offer to birds is critical to the type of birds I want to attract. For example, black oil sunflower seed is an excellent seed to offer because these seeds will attract both large birds like jays and cardinals as well as the smaller ones like chickadees and titmice. Keep in mind that inexpensive seed contains a lot of millet, milo, hulled oats and rice, and birds do not like them. If you’re going to feed birds, spring for the more expensive mixes because they will attract the most birds.

If you decide to feed birds this winter, keep in mind that the feeder shouldn’t be placed more than 20 feet from cover so that the birds will feel protected. Needless to say, I don’t spend all my time watching birds at my feeder, but it is comforting to see them happily enjoying themselves while I feed the woodstove.

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