If I Had to Pick Just One: The Tray Feeder

Various finches feed

I had an interesting question mulling around in the back of my mind the other day: if I had to pick just one feeder, what would it be?

Short version of this article: a tray feeder.

I currently have two tray feeders, one caged tube feeder, one suet feeder, and one tube thistle feeder. I’ve previously had a hopper feeder, an anti-squirrel dispenser feeder, and a standard tube feeder. Suffice to say, I’ve tried out a whole bunch of different kinds and I’ve picked my favorite.

A tray feeder is the simplest type of feeder there is. Essentially, it’s just a flat surface with a short lip or wall. Tray feeders can be mounted on poles, hung, or come with stands. They’re stupid easy to use, easy to clean, and there’s no limit to the type of bird that can visit. They’re also easy to build yourself, if you’re looking for a project.

Before I get deep into why it’s my favorite, let me get into the cons, because there are plenty of negative aspects to tray feeders that may cause you to want another type. I’ll break down each of the cons on the list, then move on to the pros.

Eastern Bluebird Eating a Worm


  • Vulnerable to the elements
  • Relatively low seed capacity
  • Easily accessible to starlings, grackles, crows, squirrels and other less desirable creatures

By vulnerable to the elements, I mean that tray feeders are the most easily exposed to snow, wind, rain, and whatever else. One particular element to look out for is poop. No other feeder really presents the same opportunity for birds to defecate in their food. And, look, birds poop. It’s just a fact of life. When birds poop, birds have the potential to spread salmonella and other diseases. Having a tray feeder means you’ll need to make sure it’s kept clean possibly more than other types.

When you change out the feed, try to at least wipe down the tray with a damp cloth. Then, every week to two weeks max, clean your trays with nine parts water to one part bleach. More info on how to clean your feeders here.

Relative to other feeders, trays don’t hold as much seed. Honestly, this isn’t that huge a con because it lets you cycle through different types of feed and ensures you don’t waste as much on clean-up days. Still, if you like having a gigantic feeder with several pounds of seed, trays aren’t for you.

Finally, the biggest drawback to a tray is that pests can be a big issue. Since the seeds are out in the open, you’re more likely to attract unwelcome guests like starlings or squirrels. There are plenty of ways to keep them at bay, but most solutions also dissuade desirable birds.

Now, let’s talk about the pros. Again, I’ll break those down more below.

A pair of House Finches along with a male Eastern Bluebird


  • The preferred feeder type for the majority of backyard birds
  • Easily accessible by everyone, attracting the widest variety
  • Easy to clean
  • Easy to set up
  • Fool proof design
  • More easily allows experimentation with custom seed blends
  • Allows for easy photography opportunities

I’ve mentioned before how I have several different types of feeders, including several specialty feeders. If the same seed is present in all feeders, the birds will always prefer to grab their food out of the tray feeder. I have a few theories on why this might be, but I think the number one reason is because of how easily accessible the trays are. There’s no special perch to land on, no small ports to poke food out of, and there’s tons of easily visible food just out in the open. Birds like to be efficient with spending energy and using an open tray means expending the least amount of effort.

The only type of birds I’ve seen that generally won’t eat at trays are woodpeckers. The Downy Woodpecker couple that visits actually seems to have a thing for my finch feeder, which is cool with me. But my cage feeder designed to keep out squirrels, starlings, and grackles, will also keep out Blue Jays. It’s also more difficult for bluebirds and cardinals to get in. But the tray? Obviously no issues. Depending on the size of the tray, you can also get a large amount of birds at once.

Cleanup is a cinch too! It’s usually just as easy as washing a dinner plate. Nothing to disassemble.

 Setup is easy too. It can’t be any more idiot proof. Just either set it outside, hang it, or whatever and put seeds on it. Boom. You’re feeding birds.

One of things I’ve discovered in my time bird feeding is that there currently is not a perfect seed blend to my specifications. In my trays, I like to have bird seed that starlings dislike. That means shelled sunflower seeds, safflower seeds, and shelled peanuts. Every single “Gucci” blend out there has sunflower chips or other varieties that starlings will eat right up. But after some experimentation, I’ve found that I can put out seed that they hate and they’ll stay away.

European Starlings hogging food

There are numerous ways to solve the squirrel problem and I won’t get into them too deep here. That’s a whole different post. A few brief ideas: install squirrel resistant baffles on your poles, use safflower exclusively, or add cayenne powder to your feed.

Finally, trays are excellent for photography. You can get an excellent view of the bird or birds without a tube or cage getting in the way of your shot. Some feeders are even set up where the bird naturally faces a wall, so you’re only getting back feathers in your shots. But you don’t have problem with a tray. You have a full 360 degrees to shoot from.

Of course, having a variety of feeder types is best, but if I had to pick just one, I’d go with a tray without hesitation.

I’ll be doing spotlights on different types of feeders in the future. Meanwhile, what have your experiences with tray feeders been? Are they the same as mine? Do you have a different or better idea?

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