Our Winter Bird Highlights, summarizing the results from the 2015-16 season, is now online.×
© Sam Wilson
Feeders are not “one size fits all”–different species are attracted to different designs. Scroll through the options below to find the feeder style that works best for the species you would like to attract.
Like people, birds have different preferences when it comes to food. To learn which foods are likely to attract which species, scroll through the food types below.
The most common type of seed offered at feeders in North America is black-oil sunflower seed. This small sunflower seed is high in energy and has thin shells, making it the preferred food item for a wide variety of birds. Black-oil sunflower is among the favorite feeder foods of cardinals, chickadees, finches, and sparrows. Woodpeckers even consume these seeds on occasion.
Corn is an inexpensive grain that many FeederWatchers provide for birds. Whole corn is a favorite of Wild Turkeys and ducks, while cracked corn will attract doves, quail, and sparrows. To attract these birds, try mixing cracked corn with millet and feeding a scoopful on the ground or a platform feeder.
Various fruits can prove quite attractive to many species of birds. Oranges cut in half will often attract orioles which will sip the juice and eat the flesh of the orange. Grapes and raisins (no preservatives, please) are a favorite of many fruit-eating birds. Mockingbirds, catbirds, bluebirds, robins, and waxwings are all species that are likely to feed upon fruit. Many species will also be attracted to the dried seeds of fruits like pumpkins or apples. Be sure to dispose of any fruit that becomes moldy because some molds create toxins that are harmful to birds.
Hulled sunflower seeds are simply sunflower seeds with the shell removed. Often referred to as "no mess" sunflower, the lack of hulls does indeed reduce the chaff underneath feeders. Any bird that eats sunflower seed will also be attracted to hulled sunflower seeds and many species will actually prefer to feed on this easy, work-free meal. Be sure to keep the seed dry because it tends to spoil more quickly than sunflower in the shell.
Mealworms are the larvae of the mealworm beetle, Tenebrio molitor, and they provide a high protein treat for many birds. Some people feed live mealworms while others prefer offering dried larvae (both forms are commercially available). Birds like chickadees, titmice, wrens, and nuthatches relish this food and mealworms are one of the only food items that reliably attract bluebirds. Offer mealworms on a flat tray or in a specialized mealworm feeder (available at many specialty bird feeding stores).
A small, round grain, millet is commonly found in seed mixes. Millet is a favored food of many smaller, ground foraging birds. A handful of millet sprinkled on the ground will keep your juncos and sparrows happy.
A reddish-colored, round grain, milo is often a major component of inexpensive seed mixes. Unfortunately, it is not a favorite of most birds, and the seed often goes to waste. Western birds tend to consume milo more than eastern birds. In the east, it is best to avoid mixes with large amounts of milo.
Often called "thistle" seed, nyjer is not related to North American thistle plants but comes from the Guizotia abyssinica plant native to Africa. This imported seed has become increasingly popular in recent years, largely due to its ability to attract finches including American Goldfinch, Pine Siskin, and Common Redpoll. Because nyjer seed is so small it requires a special feeder with very small feeding ports. The small openings on the feeding ports will prevent the seed from falling on the ground. To prevent waste, it is best to feed nyjer seed by itself (rather than in a mix). Seeds are heat-treated prior to importation to prevent sprouting.
Oats grown for cereal or livestock feed are also eaten by many species of birds. This grain is rarely found in modern bird seed mixes, but you can try offering oats on a platform feeder or in a hopper. Species most likely to be attracted to oats include doves and quail.
Peanut hearts for bird feeding are small pieces of peanuts without the shells that are best offered in a small hopper or on a platform feeder. Chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, and jays are most likely to take advantage of this food. Peanuts are high in energy and protein for your birds but keep an eye out for any signs of mold. Dispose of moldy peanut hearts immediately.
Peanuts are the seed of the Arachis hypogaea plant and actually grow underground. They are not true nuts but are actually legumes--and many birds love them! You can offer peanuts shelled or in the shell. Larger birds like jays may grab several peanuts at a time and fly off to hide them for later consumption. Smaller birds like chickadees, nuthatches, and titmice will have more success feeding on shelled peanuts. You can offer raw or roasted peanuts, but avoid salted peanuts or peanuts that have been roasted with any coatings or flavorings.
Safflower resembles a white sunflower seed. Grown for its oil and for bird seed, safflower attracts cardinals and other big-billed birds. However, in our experience, most birds prefer sunflower seeds over safflower.
Suet is a good choice for attracting insect-eating birds. Most suet is beef kidney fat, which is inexpensive and available at many meat counters. Suet also can be purchased as processed cake that includes seeds, berries, and other ingredients. Be careful if you offer suet in hot weather; it may become rancid if it has not been specially processed.
To make nectar for hummingbirds, add one part sugar to four parts boiling water and stir. A slightly more diluted mixture can be used for orioles (one part sugar to six parts water). Allow the mixture to cool before filling the feeder. Store extra sugar water in the refrigerator for up to one week (after that it may become moldy, which is dangerous for birds). Adding red food coloring is unnecessary and possibly harmful to birds. Red portals on the feeder, or even a red ribbon tied on top, will attract the birds just as well.
IMPORTANT: Feeders should be cleaned everytime they are refilled. See the Safe Feeding section on this page for more information. NEVER use honey or artificial sweeteners. Honey readily grows mold that can be harmful to hummingbirds. Do not put any kind of oil around feeding portals to deter bees; you might contaminate the nectar. If bees or wasps become a problem, try moving the feeder.
Check out our interactive Common Feeder Birds feature!
Birds “chew” their food in the muscular part of their stomach, the gizzard. To aid in the grinding, birds swallow small, hard materials such as sand, small pebbles, ground eggshells, and ground oyster shells. Grit, therefore, attracts many birds as a food supplement or even by itself. Oyster and egg shells have the added benefit of being a good source of calcium, something birds need during egg laying. If you decide to provide eggshells, be sure to sterilize them first. You can boil them for 10 minutes or heat them in an oven (20 minutes at 250 degrees). Let the eggshells cool; then crush them into pieces about the size of sunflower seeds. Offer the eggshell in a dish or low platform feeder.
Because birds need water for drinking and bathing, they are attracted to water just as they are to feeders. You can purchase a bird bath or simply use dishes or shallow pans. Birds seem to prefer baths that are at ground level, but raised baths will attract birds as well. Change the water every day to keep it fresh and clean.
If the bath is on the ground, arrange a few branches or stones in the water so that birds can stand on them and drink without getting wet (this is particularly important in winter).
One of the best ways to make your birdbath more attractive is to provide dripping water. You can buy a dripper or sprayer, or you can recycle an old bucket or plastic container by punching a tiny hole in the bottom, filling it with water, and hanging it above the birdbath so the water drips out.
In freezing climates, a birdbath heater will keep ice from forming. Never add anti-freeze; it is poisonous to all animals including birds.
Download Lab of Ornithology BirdNotes (pdf files)
Birds can become ill from leftover bits of seeds and hulls that have become moldy or from droppings that have accumulated on feeder trays. Therefore, you should clean your seed feeders about once every two weeks, more often during times of heavy use or during warm and damp conditions. Mold can attach to feeders, so to clean them, be sure to take them apart first. Use a dishwasher on a hot setting or hand wash either with soap and boiling water or with a dilute bleach solution. Or soak feeders for one hour in a weak vinegar solution and then scrub with a clean bottle brush. Rinse thoroughly and allow to dry completely before refilling.
Because mold readily grows in sugar water, hummingbird feeders should be cleaned every time you refill the nectar, which should be every two to five days, depending on the outdoor temperatures. Bacteria and fungi grow more rapidly as the temperature rises. If you see any sign of cloudy water or black mold, discard the solution and clean the feeder immediately.
Also remember to rake the ground below your feeder to prevent accumulation of waste. Moldy or spoiled food is unhealthy not only for birds but also for your outside pets. Bird food scattered on the ground also can attract rodents. Consider moving your feeders periodically to limit the accumulation of waste in any one area.
You can expect a visit from a bird-eating hawk, usually a Sharp-shinned Hawk or a Cooper’s Hawk, at your feeder. In many areas reports of these hawks have been on the rise in recent years. At first you will probably welcome the close-up view, but if your hawk stays around and scares your feeder birds away, what can you do? The best solution is to take your feeders down for a few days. The hawk will get hungry and move on. Be sure to provide cover in your yard where feeder birds can hide from bird-eating hawks. Brush piles and evergreen trees and shrubs can provide safe hiding places.
Ornithologists estimate that millions of birds are killed each year by hitting windows. You can prevent many window strikes simply by breaking up the reflections that birds perceive as a pathway through your home. Some bird watchers have attached streamers or suction-cup feeders to their windows, crisscrossed branches within the window frames, or installed awnings or screens. Hawk “silhouettes” fastened to the window often help, not because they look like hawks, but because they break up the problematic reflections. If you try these tricks and birds continue to strike a window, consider attaching netting to the outside of the window to buffer the impact. Deer netting (the kind used to keep deer from eating plants in your yard) works nicely. Window strike mortalities also can be reduced by moving your feeders to within 3 feet of the window. When feeders are close to a window, a bird leaving the feeder cannot gain enough momentum to do harm if it strikes the window.
Cats are the most numerous pet in North America. Unfortunately, they kill hundreds of millions of birds each year. Ground-feeding and ground-nesting birds and fledglings are at greatest risk. Feeder birds are also easy prey.
If you own a cat, we strongly recommend that you keep it indoors to reduce this needless loss. Your cat will benefit too; statistics show that indoor cats live longer, healthier lives than cats allowed to roam outdoors. The American Bird Conservancy has created the Cats Indoors! Campaign to increase awareness of the problem. For more information, contact: American Bird Conservancy, Cats Indoors!, Third Floor, 1731 Connecticut Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20009. Phone: (202) 234–7182.
It can be fun to watch a persistent squirrel finagle its way to your bird food, but if squirrels overrun your feeders, they can discourage birds from visiting. One way to keep squirrels from consuming volumes of bird seed is to distract them by feeding peanuts or dried ears of corn in a location some distance from your feeders. You also can try “squirrel-proof” bird feeders, but squirrels often find a way into these feeders, too.
Squirrel baffles, or barriers placed between squirrels and feeders, are usually the best way to keep squirrels away from your seed. On pole-mounted feeders, baffles can be placed beneath the feeder to keep squirrels and other mammals from climbing the pole. However, squirrels can jump to feeders placed less than ten feet from a tree or building. If squirrels are jumping from above, a tilting baffle at least 18 inches in diameter placed above the feeder might work. If your feeder is hung from a horizontal line, try placing lengths of plastic tubing around the line; the tubing should spin when a squirrel tries to walk on it. In addition to commercially made baffles, bird watchers have used old vinyl LP records, plastic salad bowls, two-liter soda bottles, and stovepipes as barriers between squirrels and feeders.
Squirrels (and other mammals) may be deterred from consuming birdseed treated with capsaicin, the chemical that makes peppers “hot.” Many commercial products are coated with capsaicin, but we are unaware of any research examining the effect of high doses of capsaicin on birds. Although capsaicin may not negatively affect wild birds, we discourage adding any products to bird foods that have not been thoroughly tested.
If you live in an area with bears, FeederWatch recommends against any feeding except when bears are hibernating. Even if it were possible to install feeders that the bears could not get to or destroy (which is unlikely), it is very dangerous for bears to associate homes with food. If you are not sure of the hibernation dates in your area, consult your local wildlife authorities.
If raccoons, deer, or moose become a nuisance, the best tactic is to make your feeders inaccessible with fencing or baffles. Another option is to string a cable between two trees and suspend your feeders above the reach of the hungry critters. If these approaches are impractical, you will probably have to remove your feeders temporarily until the animals move on in search of food elsewhere. If your mammalian visitors appear only at night, try taking your feeders inside at dusk.
Place your feeders in a quiet area where they are easy to see and convenient to refill. Place feeders close to natural cover, such as trees or shrubs, which offer refuge to birds as they wait their turn to feed. Evergreens are ideal, as they provide thick foliage that hides birds from predators and buffer winter winds.
Be careful not to place feeders too close to cover with strong branches that can provide good jump-off points for squirrels and cats. A distance of about 10 feet seems to be a good compromise. You can provide resting and escape cover for ground-dwelling birds, such as Song Sparrows, by placing loosely stacked brush piles near your feeders.
See Window Crashes section of Safe Feeding Environment above for more information about feeder placement.
Nothing provides an easier or more dependable food supply than “birdscaping” your yard with native vegetation. Because habitat loss is the leading cause of population declines in many bird species, planting native vegetation in your community is one of the best ways you can help improve the environment.
If you decide to landscape your yard for birds, grow plants that bloom and provide fruit in different seasons, providing food throughout the year. Remember that a variety of native plants attracts the greatest diversity of bird species. Some plants to consider include black-eyed susan and sunflowers for their flowers and seeds; tubular-shaped, nectar-producing flowers to attract hummingbirds; plants such as cinnamon fern and thistle to provide soft nesting material; small trees and fruiting plants such as crabapples, dogwoods, serviceberries, sumacs, and viburnums; conifers such as pines and spruces to provide cover, sap, seeds, and nesting sites; and deciduous trees such as oaks, cherries, and hickories to provide nuts, insect-hunting sites, and good nesting locations.
There are many more ways to provide winter food for birds by gardening for birds on your property! Our sister citizen-science project, YardMap, can offer personalized suggestions for plants native to your region based on your ZIP code, or you can use their Which Birds, Which Plants? tool to learn about the plant foods your favorite birds prefer. YardMap can also help you plan your bird sanctuary at home with habitat gardening tips, advice on making your yard safer, and a mapping tool that lets you track your feeders, birdbaths, plants, and other habitat elements, which are stored in addition to your FeederWatch data. Try it today! You can log in to YardMap.org with your FeederWatch username and password.
Download “Creating a Garden for Birds” a Lab of Ornithology BirdNote (pdf file)