Getting Started: A Beginner’s Guide to Birdfeeding

Two Eastern Bluebirds and two House Finches at feeder

Mr. Great Plains Bird Man, I think you’re right. Birds are neat and I would like to start getting some avian friends to visit my backyard too. How do I get started? What do I buy?

First off, let me say how grateful I am for you joining us in our hobby. Birding is highly rewarding and lots of fun. You also get to help out our beautiful little friends.

For two, this is the longest article I’ve written so far and I’ve tried to break it up so that you can find exactly the answer you’re looking for. I’ll write articles with more detail on individual topics later on, but I’ve tried to compile a good user’s guide on how to first break into this awesome hobby.

For today’s guide, my objectives are these:

  • To educate you on how to attract birds
  • To guide your thinking on how to tailor your bird feeding setup to your yard
  • To save you money

You’ve probably been online and seen a lot of fancy, expensive-looking feeder setups and that might have discouraged you from jumping in. Further, all the different available seeds and seed blends might have intimidated you, with some being surprisingly expensive. Let me just be the first to tell you that you don’t need any of that expensive stuff and getting started is extremely easy.

You need two things: a bird feeder and sunflower seeds.

That’s it. I’ve previously discussed how tray (aka platform or table) feeders are my favorite type and I’ve also talked about why black oil sunflower seeds are the “essential” seed. I’m going to elaborate a little more on different options in this post because there’s really more than one way to feed birds.

CHOOSING A FEEDER

Let’s assume you’ve taken my advice and decided to go with black oil sunflower seeds. Your first feeder will need to be one that can actually serve sunflower seeds. There are several types of specialty feeders that won’t accommodate sunflower, but the whopping majority will.

There are essentially three categories of bird feeder that can serve sunflower seeds: tubes, hoppers, and trays. There are some variations among these, but I’ll be talking about them at their most basic. All are good choices. I’ll summarize each:

Various finches feed

Tray: the most basic type of feeder. It’s just a flat surface. What’s nice about trays is that they are easy to clean, have no limits on what types of birds can use them, and have no limit on what sort of feed you can place. The disadvantages are that pests like squirrels and grackles can easily access the feed, the food is left exposed to the elements, and capacity is limited. I am using two trays currently. Here is the one pictured and this is the second, smaller tray I use.

Hopper: hoppers have long perches or tray-like feed areas that dispense seeds from a larger storage area. The advantage to hoppers is that they can also serve a large variety, but have a bigger capacity and protection from the elements than trays. They have most of the same disadvantages, save for the capacity. Some bigger birds might have trouble. They are also harder to clean. The hopper pictured is a specialized squirrel-proof hopper. The perch will actually close the feeding area if too much weight is applied. It is similar to this one. Unfortunately, the weather destroyed mine when my pole collapsed.

American Goldfinches at feeder

Tube: Probably the most common type of feeder. Tube feeders offer good protection from the elements, good capacity, and do a good job of keeping grackles and larger birds at bay. The main disadvantage is difficulty to clean and more limitations on the types of birds you’ll see. Some larger types of feed, like peanuts in shell, will be too big for most tubes. The variation pictured is designed specifically for finches, but the idea is the same. You can purchase this one specifically from Droll Yankees here.

There are many variations among those three categories and a few more here and there that don’t necessarily fit those types, but those are the three main groups. What type you get is purely up to you, but the major considerations I would factor in are: types of birds you see around, maintenance, what you think looks good.

If you decide to go with a tube feeder, try and find one that has a removable bottom. This will make them much, much easier to clean out. I’ve been over why cleaning your feeders is so important and I implore you to read why if you have not.

Once you’ve thought about what direction you want to go in, it’s time to consider what you’re going to place inside your feeder.

Here is a basic hopper feeder, a basic tray feeder, and a basic tube feeder.

CHOOSING SEEDS

I’ve already recommended going for black oil sunflower seeds and you can read why here. But the short version: very few birds do not like sunflower seeds and I cannot name a single seed-eating bird that does not like sunflower. The birds who won’t eat sunflower seeds won’t eat other seeds. Seed-eating birds will also prefer sunflower over many other seeds.

But, Mr. Great Plains Bird Man, I want to buy a blend! The birds will surely like it better.

You’re probably right. Lots of birds do like a variety, but you want to watch out for certain things with blends. A lot of times, blends are sold purely on the basis of being blends with no real mind to what goes into said blend. For instance, a lot of “economy” blends are mostly milo, which is junk that only sparrows and doves will eat. Other birds will ignore it, picking it out just to get to the better seeds they’ll actually. Same goes for cracked corn.

My old hopper feeder filled with nothing but sunflower. You’ll see feeds and feeders marketed specifically for the American Goldfinch, but pictured here, he is happily eating just regular old black oil sunflower seeds. You really don’t need to buy anything else!

Male Eastern Bluebird and Male Northern Cardinal

Here is a bluebird, a cardinal, and three finches enjoying one of the seed blends I put out. This blend is called Fruit and Nutty Buddies from a brand called Song of America. You can’t get it online. I’ll link a similar one below. I’ve also added mealworms to the mix so bluebird will be happy. Even with the other ingredients added, the birds are sill going after the sunflower seed more than anything else.

When buying a blend, look for one that actually has some benefit over just buying pure black oil sunflower. Look for blends that have peanuts, sunflower chips or hearts, dried fruit, safflower seed, mealworms, or any other nut. These blends are more expensive, but you actually are getting more out of it than just sunflower. Will buying a blend work to attract more birds? Sure, especially if you’re offering stuff that’s easier to eat like peanuts without shells or sunflower hearts. Birds will always prefer to put in the minimal amount of effort to eat.

But it does bear repeating: sunflower seeds are the overall favorite seed and all you really need, especially if you’re just starting out. Once you start getting some visitors, then start experimenting with different varieties to see what might change.

Here is a link to five pounds of black oil sunflower on Amazon. And here is a blend similar to the one I use, plus here is a link to mealworms if you wanted to give that a shot.

FEEDER PLACEMENT

Birds have basic needs and meeting as many of those needs as possible is key to attracting them. These are: food, water, and shelter. Obviously, bird feeders provide food. You can provide water with a bird bath or if there’s a water source nearby like a lake or pond. Shelter is provided by trees, bushes, or other foliage. A feeder just randomly out in the open probably won’t as well as one close to a tree where a bird can go to hide from a predator or just take a break in the shade. You can hang your feeders directly from branches to maximize this, though beware that it’s more accessible to squirrels this way.

The option besides hanging from a tree is to use a shepherd’s hook or other similar pole. The advantage to a shepherd’s hook is that you can hang your feeder wherever your heart desires, plus there are plenty of squirrel-proofing options you can go with such as baffles. You can get pretty cheap hooks at places like Lowe’s. You’ll see a bunch that are made just for bird feeders, but go to the plant section and check there. You might get something just as nice but cheaper.

Speaking of things just as nice but cheaper, it’s also possible to make your own bird feeder. It’s especially easy to make a tray, even without wood working. You can even just add some hooks to a board and hang that. Boom, tray feeder. Add some lips to that tray and you can increase your capacity. Since it’s wood, you can also add hooks to the bottom and hang more feeders.

Do you have a big yard? A small yard? Do you have a garden? Do you have a lot of trees? Do you live in an apartment? These are all important considerations in figuring out how you’ll set up your feeders.

Two chickadees

Black-capped Chickadees grabbing their order to go from my small tray feeder I have hanging on a branch. The chickadees like this setup because it’s easy to grab their favorite snack and carry it over to nearby cover to either hide it for later or crack open the seed.

Lots of finches and a bluebird

An example of a pole-mounted feeder in action. Thanks to the pole, I’m able to mount several types of feeders close together so I can see lots of birds all at once. In this picture, there are two types of finches and a bluebird!

For an apartment, you might consider getting a window feeder. These are essentially clear plastic feeders with suction cups. You get a great view of the birds, plus they’re easy to reach and refill. Getting the birds to actually visit can be challenging, as many times apartments are situated a little further away from nature, but it’s certainly doable and has been done.

You can get a window feeder at a house as well, nothing is stopping you, but you’ll probably find other options better.

If you have a flower garden, you might consider placing your feeders close by. Birds appreciate nature and seem to like the bright colors of flowers. Many birds see flowers and think of seeds, which might explain it. Either way, flower gardens attract both good and bad insects. Many birds eat insects and it can be beneficial to have the birds nearby to help control pests. Blue Jays in particular love to eat wasps.

I already mentioned before how you should place feeders near trees. Birds like having a place to hide and also appreciate being able to eat in the shade. Another good observation for placing near trees is that some birds like chickadees like to grab their food to go. They grab a seed and take it to a nearby tree to either eat there in cover or cache the food for later. Giving them a nearby place to do this is helpful.

A larger yard means you might be able to spread out your feeders a bit more. A more spread set up can help alleviate pests by offering a spot they can pillage while your more desirable birds can go to another feeder without interference. A smaller yard might limit you some more.

And, of course, the most important tailoring you can do is to take note of what birds you already see in the area. If you see hummingbirds visiting your flowers, maybe skip the seeds and try a hummingbird feeder!

CONCLUSION

A major takeaway here should be: don’t overthink it.

At the end of the day, the birds don’t care all that much how they get their food. Whether you put out a hopper, a tube, a tray, or something else, it’s basically the same to the birds. Get what you think looks nice and experiment. Most importantly, have fun!

Do you have questions? How about suggestions you’d like to share? Let me know!

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