Back yard feeders are FOR THE BIRDS (or are they?)


For answers to frequently asked questions about birds and bird-feeding, check out

Back yard feeders are FOR THE BIRDS (or are they?)

Editor’s note: Information for this story was provided by Douglas S. Beck, Auburn’s recreation superintendent and a member of the Stanton Bird Club, and by McClatchy Newspapers.

Many people believe that by feeding birds, they are somehow helping their feathered favorites survive in a hostile and dangerous world. Surely, there have been times when feeding stations have helped a stray or vagrant survive; but the overall evidence, or lack thereof, suggests that feeding birds has no meaningful impact on their populations.

Birds are opportunists that will take any available food source. They still cruise their surroundings for wild foods, even if they are regular visitors to your feeder station.

So if you’re going to feed birds, know that it’s purely for their own enjoyment. (And that’s certainly OK.)

People living in most sections of Lewiston-Auburn can expect to attract some dozen or so birds with a basic feeder setup and food selection. And since we are a relatively wet state, there really isn’t need for a bird bath.

So, what can you expect to stop in its travels to check out your feeder?

Winter and/or year-round visitors: blue jay, black capped chickadee, white breasted nuthatch, house finch, purple finch, American goldfinch, mourning dove, tree sparrow (winter only), house sparrow, cardinal, hairy woodpecker, downey woodpecker, starling, dark eyed junco (winter only), and sometimes turkeys and crows and pine siskens.

Summer possibilities: ruby throated hummingbird, northern oriole, indigo bunting, rose breasted grosbeak.

To attract these birds, you’ll need three basic feeders: a large tray feeder, a tube feeder and a suet feeder.

Here is some info on each of these as well as other feeders:

n Seed feeders: These come in numerous shapes and sizes. Dish-type, or tray, feeders are easy to clean and refill, and many come with a baffle that serves two purposes – the umbrella-like shield hanging above the feeder keeps out rain and can be raised or lowered to restrict the size of birds.

If you find that blue jays are hogging the food, lower the baffle so that only finches and sparrows can fit in. If you’re feeling free-hearted, raise it and toss out the welcome mat to birds of all size – and to squirrels.

Beck makes his own tray feeder because he likes a large feeding area. But stores offer a wide variety of the similar product, which is basically a covered platform – like a house with a roof but no sides, he notes. This feeder, according to Beck, will entertain blue jays, mourning doves, cardinals and smaller birds when the larger ones aren’t present.

“On this tray, feeder folks need only put black oil sunflower seed,” he suggests, “and coming to this feeder will be the blue jay, black capped chickadee, cardinal, mourning dove, house finch, purple finch, tree sparrow, nuthatch, goldfinch, house sparrow and all other seed eaters.”

n Tube seed feeders, which have have openings with perches, also are a popular choice.They are fairly easy to keep clean and refill, but there can be quite a bit of spillage unless trays are attached to the bottom. Some people don’t mind the seed droppings, because ground-feeding birds will take care of them. But if your feeder hangs above landscaped areas, you may not want birdseed sprouting in your petunias.

Tube feeders can be changed to accommodate seed types. All you have to do is adjust the size of the feeding hole to accommodate tiny thistle seed or open it up for larger seeds.

Tube feeders are used in conjunction with the tray feeder to provide feeding options for smaller birds that will likely be pushed off by larger ones. So when the jays are on the tray feeder gobbling up sunflower seeds, the sparrows and finches can be on the tube feeder.

Beck fills his tube feeder with a feed high in black oil sunflower and white millet seeds. “A little cracked corn doesn’t hurt either, but be wary of seed mixes with other seeds/grains like safflower, which are not going to add to your client list,” he advises. Expect visits from the chickadee, house finch, purple finch, goldfinch, tree sparrow and house sparrow, with some larger birds attempting to feed here, too, especially if a larger bird is taking up space in the tray feeder.

n Suet feeders: Suet is a mixture of seeds, nuts or fruits encased in a rich fat. It is served in metal cagelike holders. Some styles include a tail prop for larger birds such as woodpeckers to brace themselves against.

“Suet feeders are the third of the magic three feeders that anyone desiring a well rounded avian clientele should include at their station,” Beck says. “It can be as easy to offer as hanging out a chunk of suet (animal fat), or you can purchase a suet cage and the cakes to go in them.”

“I use the feeder cage just to make offering the stuff easier and to prevent unwanted loss (from mammals pilfering the goods). Into the suet feeder, I put large chunks of plain/raw suet. Deer hunters can further use all their kill by placing out their deer’s suet in the same way,” he says.

Enjoying the suet will be the hairy woodpecker, downey woodpecker, white breasted nuthatch and, at times, jays.

n Thistle feeders: These feeders are designed for birds that like thistle seed, which looks something like tiny poppy seeds. Amazingly, the birds crack open each tiny seed and extract an even tinier nut, leaving behind a thick coating of hulls.

Thistle feeders can take the shape of a sock (fine netting), wire mesh and tube feeders. All work well, so the choice is yours.

“Thistle feeders are good additions, if you want the added expense. There is no question that goldfinches and pine siskens prefer this tiny seed if given the option, but they both will also come to feeders with black oil sunflower seed, which is much less expensive per pound,” Beck says, noting thistle feeders will entertain goldfinches and pine siskens exclusively.

n Hummingbird feeders: Maine has only one hummer, the ruby throated hummingbird, which readily accepts and returns to well-cared-for humming bird feeders. Our hummer migrates and will not arrive at feeders until mid to late May and will be gone by early September at the latest.

Hummingbird feeders come in bottle and decorative shapes, as well as dish shapes, which are easier to clean and fill. According to Beck, hummer feeders should be cleaned as soon as the “nectar” gets cloudy and then refilled.

n Ground feeders: These are low tables where seed, fruits, nuts and cracked corn are spread. Believe it or not, many birds prefer a ground view when dining.

Ground feeders are OK but unnecessary, according to Beck. “The seed in the tube feeder is not all going to be eaten by the tube-feeding birds. In their effort to get to the seed they want, they will disperse other seeds onto the ground below the feeder. Here, ground-feeding birds like the dark eyed junco will happily take advantage of this fresh supply. Others like the mourning doves, tree sparrows and cardinals will also take advantage of this ground supply.”

“Around here, if you want the most bird bang for your buck, you should feed exclusively black oil sunflower, which is the preferred food of most of those listed above, except for the meat eaters like the woodpeckers,” Beck says.

Adding the mixed seeds will bring in the sparrows and juncos and adding the suet will entice the woodpeckers. If they are in the area, wild turkeys will come to any food on the ground, regardless of type, and crows have a habit of taking advantage.

So, what will they eat?

Most birdseeds are sold in a mix, although you can purchase sunflower and thistle seeds, cracked corn, shelled and unshelled peanuts and white millet in individual bags.

Birds will eat the cheaper brands just as well as the more expensive ones, but you’re likely to attract more birds and a bigger variety if you upgrade the menu. The costlier seed mixes are also less messy, because they usually contain less filler. When you see birds picking through the seed and flinging it everywhere, they are sorting through the unappetizing filler to find the tasty bits.

“This ‘picking through’ action is what the birds at the tube feeders are doing, but again, by selecting a mix that sticks to just black oil sunflower, white millet and cracked corn, then one bird’s chaff becomes another’s wheat,” Beck says

Tip: All birdseed that remains in the hull can sprout. To minimize sprouting problems, buy shelled seeds.

Suet comes in two forms: basic suet and no-melt dough. Hummingbird “nectar” is best when homemade. Beck uses a mixture of two parts water to one part sugar, boils that for two minutes or so, and then lets it cool before filling the feeder. According to him, this has a higher sugar content that more closely resembles the natural nectar hummers find in the wild. Commercial mixes go low on the sugar content to increase bird visits to the feeder – it takes them more visits to get the same level of energy from the food.

People sometimes add red dye to the mix because hummers are attracted to bright red colors. “Dying the mix red has no negative impact on the birds that anyone has yet demonstrated,” Beck says. “If you like to use it, go ahead. But once local hummers have established that as a feeding station, the need for the red decreases, and you can phase it out if you are concerned.”

Artificial sweetener is not food for hummers and should not be used, Beck cautions. “They need every calorie they can get. And honey has been shown to be hazardous to hummers.”

Note: Water is readily available for birds in Maine, however, if you can or want to offer water, especially with a little fountain or movement, you will increase the volume of your clientele because birds are attracted to the sound of the water as well as the water itself.

Dining can be dangerous

The arrangement of your feeders and their proximity to “cover” is an important consideration. Remember, most of the birds that will use your feeders are a potential food source, particularly for cats and birds of prey. “Plan to place your feeder station within 10 feet of trees or shrubs that can provide sanctuary to your customers. Remember, however, that these shrubs can also provide shelter to cats,” Beck says.

“If the cover is thick/evergreen, then place your feeders further away 10 feet or so. If the cover is deciduous shrubs, the feeders can be closer as in the winter there will be no leaves to hide cats, but plenty of sticks and twigs to protect from a marauding sharp shinned or Cooper’s hawk,” he notes.

“The feeders can be fairly close to each other, but remember that when the larger birds come in, the smaller ones shy away – a real pecking order at work. I have observed that if the tray feeder is at least 6 feet away from the tube feeders, the little birds are more likely to be comfortable on the tubes while the big birds are at the banquet facilities.”

” If too close, then when the big birds are at the table, the little ones will be in the brush waiting. Multiple tube feeders can be placed in close proximity to one another without negative affect,” he says. “If you place your feeders too far apart, you make observation difficult but you won’t affect the overall desirability of the feeders to their respective clients.

If possible, Beck advises, place your feeding station in an area of your yard that is protected from strong winter winds, which can blow away much of the food.

Did you know?

Some will say that feeding birds in the summer is not good for them, but there is no proof to support this, according to Beck. And, there is at least one good reason to feed birds in the summer: You may see some seasonal treats. The rose breasted grosbeak is one summer visitor that likes feeders. The indigo bunting may also find its way to your feeder; and best of all, says Beck, the American goldfinch is in its prime colors in early August and a delight to see.

By placing out halved oranges in the spring (late May to early June) or by setting up an actual oriole feeder, you will likely attract northern “Baltimore” orioles, described by Beck as “stunning in their summer dress.”