Bird Feeding Frequently Asked Questions
Is the location of the feeder important?
Yes, for two reasons:
1. Birds are vulnerable to predators such as cats and hawks, and as a result, they seek feeders that offer the protection of nearby trees or shrubs.
2. Squirrels, seem to have an uncanny ability to thwart all attempts to exclude them from feeders. When you are placing a feeder, keep in mind that squirrels can jump six feet up in the air and launch themselves, from a tree or building, to a feeder ten feet away. Feeders placed 12 to 15 feet from trees and shrubs should provide shelter for the birds but discourage squirrels from leaping onto the feeder.
Learn more about different types of feeders.
What kind of seeds do the birds prefer?
Different birds prefer different types of seed, but black oil sunflower seeds appear to be the favorite of the most bird species. It is the preferred seed for the black-capped chickadee, tufted titmouse, white and red-breasted nuthatches, northern cardinal, evening and rose-breasted grosbeaks, and house finch and is probably the second choice for blue jays. Niger(thistle) seed, placed in feeders designed to hold this small seed, attracts American goldfinches, house finches, pine siskins, and redpolls.
Although mixed seed is cheaper, waste occurs when birds kick the small seed out of the feeder and onto the ground in search of sunflower seeds. Seed on the ground can attract less desirable European starlings, rock doves (pigeons), and house sparrows. Learn More about bird seed
Do I need to clean the feeder?
High concentrations of birds in close proximity to one another can contribute to the spread of disease at bird feeders. All feeders should be cleaned and disinfected on a regular basis (once a month) to prevent the spread of disease. The feeder should be disinfected with a solution of one part bleach to nine parts water. All surfaces should be rinsed well and thoroughly dried before refilling.
Salmonella poisoning can affect birds when seed, bread, or other bakery goods are thrown on the ground and become saturated with moisture. Because of this concern, we do not recommend that seed or bakery goods be placed on the ground. Areas under feeders should be raked over periodically to remove hulls and uneaten seed. Bacterial infections such as salmonella are common in house sparrows, resulting in weak, listless birds that appear puffed up and sit under feeders for long periods of time.
An epidemic of avian conjunctivitis has affected house finches and American goldfinches in recent years. The disease is usually spread from one bird to another by contaminated droppings and direct contact between birds as they jostle each other at crowded feeders. Sick birds appear listless with oozing or crusty eyes.
When sick birds do appear at feeders, it is best to take down the feeders for a period of 2 weeks so that no other birds become contaminated. Disinfect feeders with a weak bleach solution of one part bleach to nine parts water, and remove hulls and uneaten seeds from ground-feeding areas.
Sugar-water feeders used to feed hummingbirds and orioles should be cleaned more frequently because sugar solutions can spoil rapidly and become moldy in warm weather. Clean these feeders with warm, soapy water at least twice a week and refill with fresh solution.
What’s the best way to store seed?
Store the seed in a cool, dry place in an area out of the reach of rodents. Aluminum trash cans with tight-fitting lids are ideal rodent-proof containers for seed.
Will the birds still migrate if we feed them?
For the most part, the birds that use our feeders do not migrate. Even though insects make up most of their summer diet, they feed mainly on seeds, berries, and fruit in the winter. Because such foods are available in the wild throughout the year, there is no reason for these birds to migrate. Birds that eat only insects (insectivores) and nectar-eating birds (nectivores) must fly to warmer climates in the fall when their food sources here are no longer available.
If I start a winter feeding program and then go on vacation will the birds die?
No, studies have shown that most birds depend on our handouts for only about 25 percent of their food. Our feeder offerings only supplement their natural foods. When a food supply disappears in one location, they will move on and look for other sources.
Should I stop feeding birds during the summer?
In most cases, it’s fine to feed birds throughout the year. In communities in central and western Massachusetts inhabited by black bears, we recommend that bird feeders and suet feeders should be removed from yards between April 1 and November 1, the months when black bears are active. For communities where it is safe to feed year-round, we recommend using half the amount you would in the winter. In summer, many of our common feeder birds—chickadees, titmice, and nuthatches—consume mostly insects and their desire for seed is diminished. Those who continue to feed in the summer may witness adult birds feeding fledglings at the feeder. The one exception is suet. Since it quickly becomes rancid in warm weather, you should not use in the summer unless it contains preservatives allowing its use during hot weather.
Should I be concerned that there is a hawk sitting in a tree watching my bird feeder?
A number of Massachusetts' hawk species prey on birds at feeders (most notably sharp-shinned and cooper's hawks). Predation is a natural occurrence in the lives of wild birds and mammals. Mortality is normally very high in most bird populations and predation is a mechanism important in maintaining populations that the environment can support. When people feed birds, they create an artificial environment, drawing large numbers of birds to one location, usually right outside a window. People who are upset by the presence of a hawk near a feeder should stop putting out seed for a few weeks to encourage it to look elsewhere for food.
House sparrows, European starlings, and pigeons have taken over my feeders—what can I do?
These species originated in Europe and are not native Massachusetts birds. Since their introduction into the United States, their numbers have increased substantially and are now considered pest birds by many. It's difficult to invite only certain birds to a feeder, but here are some suggestions that may discourage house sparrows, starlings, and pigeons. House sparrows seem to be averse to fishing line hanging in front of the feeding ports while just about every other species ignores it. There is a commercial product called a “Magic Halo” that works on this principle, but it’s pretty easy to create your own with coat hangers or duct tape. Do not throw food on the ground, especially breads and cereals. These birds have an uncanny ability to locate such foods, and, once they satisfy their appetites, they will stay around hoping for another meal. And use feeders that discourage larger birds such as pigeons (weighted perches or ones with domed tops).
How can keep squirrels off my feeders?
Like the birds we are trying to attract, squirrels are seed eaters and assume that the food is there for them. When you are placing bird feeders in your yard, keep in mind that squirrels can jump six feet straight up in the air and can launch themselves from a tree or building to a feeder ten feet away. Even if the squirrel does not get a foothold, the seed or feeder can be knocked to the ground. The following suggestions may thwart the squirrel:
* Hanging feeders should be suspended from a horizontal wire that is extended between two points. Be sure that there is nothing above the feeder that the squirrels can use as a launching pad. Before attaching the wire, thread each end through five-foot sections of smooth plastic or metal pipe, 4 or 5 inches in diameter. The pipe will rotate when the squirrel attempts to cross to the feeder, causing the squirrel to fall to the ground, unharmed.
* Squirrel baffles, which are usually a metal or plastic dome- or saucer- shaped disk, should be placed above and below a pole feeder. A successful baffle is one that the squirrel cannot cling to, climb over or around, or gnaw through. Mount baffles loosely so they readily tip if a squirrel lands on them.
* Squirrel-proof feeders: Most commercial feeders, touted as "squirrel proof," are at best, squirrel resistant. The most successful is an all-metal feeder with adjustable springs that regulate a counterweighted door. When birds light on the feeding perch, the door remains open; but, under the weight of a squirrel, the door drops down to conceal the food. The cost of this type of feeder is about sixty dollars.
Should I offer birds water via a birdbath?
Water is very important for birds, both for drinking and for bathing. In the summer, a water source will be heavily used by birds for drinking and bathing, and parent birds will bring their young to the water for their first baths. During the spring and fall migrations, a backyard water source is highly attractive to birds. Sightings of rare and unusual warblers often occur at backyard birdbaths. Water tends to be scarcest in the winter when freezing temperatures keep water locked in the ground. A source of unfrozen water is much appreciated by winter birds. When choosing a birdbath, keep in mind that many are made too deep. Small birds are afraid to enter deep water (i.e., anything over 2 inches). To rectify this, add aquarium gravel to the bath, perhaps sloping it from on side to the other, so that there is a shallow end. The gravel will provide birds with better footing once in the bath. Baths should be cleaned frequently during periods of high use and scrubbed periodically to keep down algal growth. A solution of one part bleach to nine parts water can be used to clean and disinfect the bath. Make sure to rinse the bath thoroughly before refilling. In the winter, baths can be kept open either by frequent refilling or with a commercial electric heater. There are many thermostatically controlled bath heaters on the market now that are effective and inexpensive to operate. Care should be taken that the cord for the heater is well protected and marked and out of the way of snow-shovelers and snow-blowers. It may be safer to locate the birdbath close to the house during the winter so that only a short amount of cord is necessary. Never use glycerin in the birdbath to keep water from freezing; it is toxic if ingested and can destroy the insulating properties of feathers!