Bird Feeding Frequently Asked Questions

Goldfinch on Feeder copyright Anindya Sen
American Goldfinch © Anindya Sen

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, with nyjer (thistle) seed enjoyed by finches. Although mixed seed is cheaper, waste occurs when birds kick the smaller seed onto the ground in search of sunflower seeds.

Never feed processed human food such as bread or crackers. It fills birds up without providing any nutrition, and can result in them not getting the nutrition that they need.

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 (every 2 weeks) with a solution of one part bleach to nine parts water. All surfaces should be rinsed well and thoroughly dried before refilling.

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 and remove hulls and uneaten seeds from ground-feeding areas.

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? 

The instinct to migrate is largely hard wired, so the availability of an artificial food source has no impact on migration.

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 communities in central and western Massachusetts inhabited by black bears, we recommend that bird feeders and suet feeders should be removed from yards between March and November, the months when black bears are active. Some bears can remain active in winter if food is available, so if you see signs of bear activity you should remove your feeders.

For communities where it is safe to feed year-round, it is more important than ever to keep feeder areas clean in warm weather. This includes the ground under the feeder where accumulated seed can spoil and harbor disease.

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.

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.
* Many squirrel-proof feeders are available and are largely effective..

Should I offer birds water via a birdbath?

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. Water tends to be scarcest in the winter so a source of unfrozen water is much appreciated by winter birds. If your bird bath is deeper than 2”, try adding small rocks or gravel to form perches for smaller birds. Baths should be cleaned frequently with a solution of one part bleach to nine parts water can be used to clean and disinfect the bath. In the winter, baths can be kept open either by frequent refilling or with an electric heater designed for that use. Never use glycerin in the birdbath to keep water from freezing; it is toxic if ingested and can destroy the insulating properties of feathers!

Updated February 2022