When the temperatures drop and the snow falls, we often turn our attention to what we can do to help the wildlife which calls our yards home. In most cases, professional wildlife biologists don’t recommend the feeding of wildlife. We instead focus on providing structural elements that provide food, water and cover to provide the necessary wildlife habitat. However, bird feeding, and particularly winter bird feeding, is an exception. It should not replace providing other elements of wildlife habitat in your backyard.
What can you do? Like most things, it comes down to how much time you have and what you want to spend. There are a couple good tips you can follow to get the best results for your investment.
Food type – bird seed mixes can contain “fillers” that is relatively inexpensive and can attract undesirable species of birds. Different bird species have different needs. If you can, offer a single type of bird food in a single feeder. Mixes are ok, but birds will sift through what they don’t want to find what they do want. If you have to pick one to start, offer black-oil sunflower. It is a high-quality food that is attractive to a variety of bird species. Suet is a favorite food of woodpeckers and nuthatches. Commercially available suet cakes also contain seeds and nuts that other birds will consume.
Feeder type – different bird species are adapted to feeding in different ways and locations (e.g., for example). Better designed feeders are sturdy, easy to clean, and easy to fill. Covered platform feeders keep seeds protected from moisture and is attractive for many species of birds (you can fill with black-oil sunflowers). Even though they are covered, the tray should have drainage holes. Tube feeders attract different species of birds such as finches. The small perches and access holes for feeding exclude larger birds such as grackles and blue jays. Open trays close to the ground are good for jays and doves. However, they offer no protection from moisture or squirrels.
Non-targets – squirrels are a common problem at feeders. Metal or plastic baffles or cones can exclude squirrels from many feeders that are mounted on poles or hung from a wire. Some feeders are enclosed in wire cages that prevent squirrels from reaching the seed but still allow access to smaller birds. Starlings are a common problem at suet feeders. However, their feet are relatively week. Suet feeders that only allow access from the bottom prevent starlings access but still allow access for woodpeckers and nuthatches.
Placement – feeders should be placed in areas where you can observe them. Placing them within a few feet of cover can provide “rest” areas for birds to wait their turn. However, low and shrubby ground cover can provide hiding places for domestic cats to ambush birds. Avoid placing feeders in these locations. In extreme cases, you may have to fence off feeding areas to exclude cats.
These are just a few tips to get you started. There are many good resources for feeding songbirds and attracting wildlife to your backyard.
Brian MacGowan, Wildlife Extension Specialist
Purdue Forestry and Natural Resources