How to Attract Wild Birds: Birdfeeders 101

May 17, 2010 § 2 Comments

I love wild birds. This time of year, I wake up to an ethereal song of house wrens, I frequently hear the beautiful tune of a Baltimore oriole, and God knows I delight in the bright flash of a male Eastern bluebird’s wing. I honestly feel like life is enriched considerably by being attuned to the world of birds, especially if you are into hunting and fishing in the springtime and already spend your time outdoors as it is. But this post is about attracting birds to your own backyard, assuming that you live somewhere in Eastern US, preferably in Wisconsin. Personally, I love watching birds come to my feeders and boxes (=birdhouses) as much as I enjoy learning to identify their songs. I love the bright-red cardinals, the lemony-yellow goldfinches, the tiny hummingbirds (only a ruby-throated hummingbird is normally found in our parts), and bright-orange and black orioles (or buff and black, if you see an orchard oriole instead). That’s why I want to share with you a few bird-feeding tips that I’ve accumulated to that end.

Seed: Seed-eaters are your largest, most reliable backyard-feeder demographic. Seeds will be enjoyed by just about everyone in the finch and sparrow family that can be found here – which includes a wide range of birds, including goldfinches, song sparrows, chipping sparrows, rose-breasted grosbeaks, cardinals, and house finches – as well as downy, hairy, and red-bellied woodpeckers. Unfortunately, seed will also attract more pest-like brown-headed cowbirds, common grackles, red-wing blackbirds, and house (or “English”) sparrows, as well as squirrels. To keep them out, you can place your feeder on a pole and equip your pole with a squirrel guard. Various kinds are available on the market. If you are into shooting pests, note that cowbirds, grackles, and blackbirds are protected and are illegal to kill, but house sparrows are not, and can be effectively taken down with a BB-gun, though I find them kind of hard to corner. Starlings too are unprotected.

The kind of seed to buy: Buy bags of black oil sunflower seed. While there’s a large number of bird mixes available on the market, a lot of them include empty “filler” red millet, and, overall, you don’t really have to have an assortment to feed wild birds – sunflower seeds are at the top of the list for every seed-eater, packing the most energy, and that’s all you really need. The only other seed I recommend buying is niger, or thisle seed, loved by goldfinches. These need to be offered in special tube feeders that feature tiny holes for the birds’ tiny beaks. Those work really well to attract these cheerful little visitors, but don’t buy a really long one, unless you have a ton of goldfinches around, which I don’t, and don’t fill them up all the way since you don’t want your seed to go bad before it’s all gone.

The kind of feeder to buy or build for seed: Personally, the bird I most want to attract is Northern cardinal – a large, stunning bright-red bird with a rich, loud song. Those birds have one particular preference however – they have that long tail and need adequate space to perch comfortably on a feeder (you also frequently see them feeding on the ground for the same reason). That’s why I recommend getting a feeder that is either:

1) a platform feeder of some sort or another


2)a so-called “hopper” feeder, which looks sort of like a house, as long as it has extra-wide perching areas (more than 2″ wide). Note that not all the feeders you will see when you click on that link have wide-enough perches.

If you opt to build your own, note that the bottom of your feeder must have holes for drainage, and a roof is good too.

Nectar, i.e. “sugar water”: Hummingbirds and Northern (also known as “Baltimore”) orioles, for the brief period that they (the orioles, not the hummers) visit backyard feeders in May before the insects become plentiful in the woods, where they nest and spend the rest of their summer, will come eagerly to sugar water. Note that you do not need to buy any commercial dyed nectar concentrate or mix – your own nectar is simple to make at home. And it’s not like me saying “bread, puff pastry, and yogurt are elementary to make at home” (which they are, but many people don’t believe me for the fear of failure – a sure death to any kind of splendid aspiration in life) – nectar is really nothing but a mixture of sugar and water.

How to make oriole/hummingbird nectar:

Both orioles and hummers will come to the same nectar, although they will each require a different feeder to feed adequately (more about it in a moment).

Simple Oriole and Hummingbird Nectar

  • 4 parts water
  • 1 part sugar

Stir sugar into warm water until dissolved. Pour into feeder.

That’s all you’ll ever need. Keep your money in that pocket of yours. Make your own nectar.

Type of feeder to use for nectar:

Orioles and hummingbirds are shaped differently. Orioles are large birds who need to perch to feed. Hummers are little birds who will feed on the wing, while hovering next to the feeder. While hummers have no problem eating that way, I still prefer using a hummingbird feeder that provides perches. It just makes me feel like it gives the birds a rest. But the most important difference is, obviously, the size. Hummingbird feeders have smaller ports (openings for drinking) into which the birds insert their long beaks and lap up the nectar with their tongues (no, they don’t use their beaks as straws). Oriole nectar feeders should always have a place to perch and have larger drinking ports. Also, hummingbirds are attracted to things that are red (although they will come to any type of feeder), while orioles are attracted to things that are orange, and while it is not necessary for the nectar to be dyed, respectively, red and orange, having some red or orange on each of the respective feeders will make it easier for the birds to find it. Note that while I am OK with a plastic oriole feeder, because orioles only feed for a few weeks in May while the temperatures are relatively low, my hummingbird feeder is made of glass – the syrup has to sit there all summer at higher temperatures, and the plastic bottle is not gonna help the freshness. Plus, plastic is from the devil. My favorite hummingbird feeder is this one.

How to keep pests away from sugar water:

Hang your sugar-water feeder from a fishing line. This will make it harder for ants to get to your nectar, because, I once read, fishing line is way too slippery for them to tread. What I do is tie one end of a small piece of line to the feeder’s handle, and the other end is either tied to a hook or shaped into a loop which is consequently placed on a hook. I leave about 4″ of line between the feeder and the hook. I haven’t had an ant in my hummer feeder ever since I began doing this.

Grape or Elderberry Jelly:

Orioles in particular, as well as several other kinds of birds, will enjoy some grape or elderberry (dark-colored, in other words) jelly. I never offered any other kind, but it’s possible that they will like that too. In fact, I don’t give nectar to my orioles anymore – just jelly and oranges. However you serve it, be sure to not have more than a tablespoon of jelly out at a time – and don’t even dream of buying those feeders that get to you offer a whole jar – it will go bad fast, and you don’t want a lot out so your birds don’t get stuck in it (this is more of an issue for small birds). I use this feeder to offer jelly to orioles – it’s orange, has adequate perching space, and allows you to only put out a small amount of jelly at a time. You can also use it to offer sugar water and oranges at the same time, but I use it for jelly only. Which brings me to my next point:


Orioles (as well as house finches) will readily come to oranges. A cut orange half, impaled on a nail or a tip of your bird feeder pole or placed in a special feeder such as the one above is all that is needed.


Suet is something that protein-eating birds that stick around all winter will particularly appreciate when everything is frozen and insect larvae and such are hard to get at. Bird suet is basically just fat (although the word “suet,” outside of this context, technically means rendered cow fat). Suet is especially enjoyed by woodpeckers, nuthatches, and chickadees, though house sparrows will also have some. Either commercial suet cakes (served in special “suet” cages) or natural frozen fat (such as deer fat trimmed off a deer carcass, which you don’t want to eat yourself) can be served. My favorite way to offer suet is to tie a deer ribcage, leftover after we butcher our deer, up in a tree, and have the birds pick it clean by summer – it’s both natural and free. The dogs will try to pull it down though, so be sure to place it really high up. Note that suet is something I only offer in winter, since bugs are everywhere in summertime anyway, although melt-resistant suet cakes are available for year-round use. Myself, however, I am ill at ease with any fat that doesn’t naturally melt in hot weather.


Birds love cover, so it’s good to place your feeders close to bushes and trees. I live in the country, so there are plenty of trees everywhere, and my feeders are actually in the middle of my yard. But of course you also want to place them where you can see them.

Fruit trees and bushes:

Many fruit-eating birds (robins, among other kinds) will really enjoy eating fruit off your fruit trees and bushes. I like to share a little with the birds, so I don’t try to keep them away from it. Mountain ash (or “ryabina,” for all the Russians among you) berries are good too, and are particularly beloved by cedar waxwings, which pass through my yard in large flocks in the fall, since we have a couple of those growing on our property.


While it will surely attract birds, I don’t generally have one, because it’s too much work to maintain, keep clean, and so on. Plus, water will attract mosquitoes, who will want to lay their eggs in there, so to me that’s a big deterrent. But if you do choose to have one, robins and bluebirds and other birds will delight in taking a bath and a drink. Whatever model you choose, be sure that it’s not deeper than 2 inches. Anything deeper is too deep for birds to use comfortably. Heated birdbaths will work in the winter too (or you can even buy a separate feeder that you plug in and place into your bird bath), but, like I said, I don’t bother having them around, personally. It doesn’t need to be anything complicated though – a simple clay dish that would normally be placed underneath a large flower pot placed on a stump will suffice.

If you found this helpful, tune in for a “Birdhouses 101” post next Sunday (or whenever I come around to it)!

§ 2 Responses to How to Attract Wild Birds: Birdfeeders 101

  • hummerlover says:

    One of the problems with store bought or home-made nectar is that is is lacking the trace minerals and vitamins that are found in plant nectars. The hummingbirds need these nutrients as well as the pure sugar energy to fuel their speedy metabolisms. The best thing to do is plant flowers that will attract the birds!

  • Sofya says:

    That’s good too! Or you can have hanging baskets on your deck too.

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