If you build it, they will come.
Turns out, the voice Kevin Costner heard in Field of Dreams is not just about mythic baseball players. It’s about birds, too! If you set up bird feeders in your yard, birds will come. It may take some time, but soon you (or at least your bird feeders) will be like Ace Ventura, reveling in the glory that is all things feathered and flighty. It’s true that putting up bird feeders is simple and easy. It’s also true that they bring boundless joy and fascination. Birds are a hoot (pun totally intended), and they offer us entertainment, distraction, and a sense of connection.
But getting into the types of bird feeders can be confusing. Then there’s the fact that there are certain things you should and shouldn’t feed to the birds (like processed bread and popcorn – a big no-no). And, of course, there’s the correct way to maintain the bird feeders. So that’s why I’ve put together this guide. Here, you can read all about the types of bird feeders, what to put in them, how to take care of them, and why we should do this in the first place.
For bird feeder nuts-and-bolts (get it!), here are the highlights:
- There are 6 popular types of bird feeders, each with its advantages: Tray, Hopper, Window, Nectar, Nyjer (Thistle), Suet, and Tube. Some you can make completely by hand!
- The type of bird seed you use will attract (or detract) certain types of birds. The most widely-used and versatile birdseed is black-oil sunflower seed.
- Having bird feeders comes with some challenges – like maintenance, squirrels, and bully birds – but these are easy to overcome with a bit of knowledge and practice.
- When deciding what type of bird feeder to buy, consider cost, maintenance, the types of birds you want to attract, and your physical space.
Types of Bird Feeders
Your choice of bird feeder depends on the type of birds you hope to attract, the makeup of your yard, and the amount of maintenance you can commit to.
The tray bird feeder, sometimes called a platform bird feeder, is perhaps the most versatile bird feeder. It can be put closer to ground level, on a tall post in the yard, on a deck railing, or suspended from a tree branch. Because it is also one of the most accessible feeders (for birds and some other wildlife – more on that in a moment!), it attracts the widest variety of feathered and furry visitors.
Set up a platform feeder, and soon you’ll have cardinals, jays, house sparrows, and grosbeaks nibbling in your yard. If it’s three feet or so above the ground, you may attract ground-feeding birds, such as juncoes, doves, and towhees.
Good platform feeders should have a screen or mesh underneath the bird seed – and other drainage features – to prevent rainwater from building up and causing mildew or fungus. Some tray feeders offer a “roof” above the platform, which protects the bird seed from precipitation.
I love this Cedar Tray Wild Bird Feeder from Home Deport for its simplicity and durability. I find that it attracts all kinds of birds, is easy to maintain, and provides aeration and drainage to keep the seeds from mold and mildew.
Often shaped like a house, hopper feeders also attract a wide variety of birds. After setting up a hopper feeder, you’ll see finches, buntings, jays, chickadees, and titmice before long. These types of bird feeders may be installed on a post in the yard or suspended from a railing or tree branch.
With the hopper/house style construction, there is more protection from the weather and bird droppings. It’s also much more convenient for people because you can store more bird seed in the feeder than in other types.
The EcoTough Classic Feeder is not only adorable, it’s sturdy! I have had it for many years, and it has weathered both harsh winters and dramatic summers. Plus, I love that the seed drains allow ground-eating birds a chance to grub, too. Win, win!
Window feeders use a tray or platform for the bird seed; however, instead of being mounted on a pole or suspended from a tree branch, these feeders use suction cups to affix to glass windows. This kind of feeder will attract chickadees, titmice, sparrows, and finches.
Window feeders provide you an up-close-and-personal view of birds at your feeder. It also allows you to keep an eye on your bird seed, which is important to prevent bacteria and fungi build-up.
When I discovered the DF Weatherproof Window Bird Feeder, I was totally geeking out. One, because I was living in an apartment and could finally attract birds to my home. And two, because the tray is divided into three sections, allowing me to neatly organize different kinds of bird seed! I also love the clear and minimalist design so that I could see birds up close and personal without a funky design getting in my way.
Designed with a tube or bottle, a perch, and several feeding ports, these feeders use nectar – or homemade sugar water – to attract hummingbirds. The ruby-throated hummingbird is always a favorite visitor! Hummingbird feeders can be hooked from awnings or metal posts, or they can be attached to railings, windows, or branches. The best hummingbird feeders have red coloring on the tube or feeding ports.
Experts recommend using homemade sugar water, instead of commercial mixes, and avoiding the use of red food dye in your mix. Flower nectar is clear, after all, and artificial dyes may harm hummingbirds. Because of the use of sugar water, this type of feeder is susceptible to fermentation, bacteria growth, and spoilage. Be sure to change the sugar water once every two to three days during cooler seasons, and once every day in the hotter months.
One thing I love about hummingbird feeders is their potential to be aesthetically-pleasing in addition to attracting hummingbirds. While tray feeders and window feeders certainly get the job done, they aren’t as, well, pretty as hummingbird feeders are. The Parasol Dew Drop Hummingbird Feeder is a perfect example. Elegance, meet functionality. Backyard, meet hummingbirds!
Sometimes called thistle feeders, this mesh tube hangs from branches or posts and attracts all kinds of birds, especially those that can eat upside down, such as American goldfinches and chickadees. The small spaces from the metal mesh allow for smaller birds, such as titmice, sparrows, and finches, to easily feed.
This feeder keeps the seed aerated and dry, which prevents bacteria and mold buildup. However, as with all bird feeders, it’s best to replace the bird seed every so often.
When looking for my first nyjer feeder, I knew I wanted one with multiple feeding perches, sleek design, and an easy-to-clean build. After doing some research, I found the Duncraft Classic Nyjer Tube was the perfect one. Years later, I think this was my best bird feeder purchase yet!
6. Tube Feeders
Tube feeders allow smaller birds to perch at varying feeding ports. With a few ledges, you can have three or four birds feeding at once! Some tube feeders have a tray at the bottom in addition to the feeding ports, which collects bird seed and offers more opportunities for birds to grub.
Tube feeders may discourage bigger birds, such as starlings, grackles, and other “pest’ birds because they require agility and smaller beaks. For the tube feeder especially, it’s best to empty the old seed and replace it with a new seed.
This Tube Feeder from Perky Pet is ideal because its clear plastic tube allows me to easily see when I need to refill the bird feeder, has multiple feeding ports to encourage a group dinner and can be hung in various fixtures throughout my backyard.
7. Suet Feeders
Suet feeders are metal cages that hold cakes of animal fat, nuts, berries, seeds, and insects. These feeders attract woodpeckers, nuthatches, jays, and starlings. Some suet feeders are metal cages, with the suet cakes inside, allowing birds to cling to the cage while feeding.
This Duncraft Eco-Strong Upside Down Suet feeder was not my first suet feeder. I originally had a more traditional, upright one. It was functional, it got the job done. But when I realized that suet feeders attract woodpeckers — and woodpeckers eat upside down — and watching woodpeckers eat upside is endlessly fun — I decided to go with that one. And boy, am I delighted!
Some of the best bird feeders are ones you make yourself! Plus, this is a great craft for little ones.
From pine cone bird feeders to bird feeders made out of milk jugs or soda bottles, you don’t need expensive supplies or massive amounts of time (or skill, for that matter) to create a place birds flock to. As long as you keep your bird feeder dry and sturdy enough to withstand high winds, you can make a bird feeder in no time!
Check out The Family Handyman’s list of 14 easy DIY bird feeders for more inspiration – and to help your backyard birds get their grub on.
Type of Bird Seed in Feeders
Deciding what to put into your bird feeder can also be tricky. After all, you want to do good for the birds and their ecosystem – and sometimes, common habits can do more harm than good.
In general, you should avoid store-bought mixes that contain fillers, such as oat or red millet. Birds avoid these like kids avoid broccoli – you end up with a bunch of leftover waste. And never feed your bird processed human snacks like popcorn, bread, or crackers. These provide very little nutritional value and may affect their eating patterns.
|Type of Seed||For Use In||Good for Attracting||Keep in Mind|
|Black oil Sunflower||Trays, hoppers, tubes, or window feeders||The widest variety of birds! Common birds are cardinals, jays, woodpeckers, titmice, nuthatches, and juncos.||Squirrels love sunflower seeds. If you don’t want to encourage these critters, use baffles around your feeder, or place feeders where squirrels cannot reach them.|
|Hulled (Shelled) Sunflower||Trays, hoppers, tubes, or window feeders||Many types of birds, especially ones that have difficulty cracking open shells. Common ones to look for are wrens, grosbeaks, blackbirds, towhees, and nuthatches.||Because these sunflower seeds come with the shell removed, they can be pricier than the ones with the shell attached.|
|Striped Sunflower||Trays, hoopers, tubes, or window feeders||A wide variety of birds.||Because of the thicker outer shell, it can be difficult for House sparrows and blackbirds to open, which many backyard birders prefer.|
|Peanuts (Shelled, Unsalted)||Trays, window feeders, or directly on deck railings.||Jays, crows, chickadees, titmice, magpies, bushtits, ravens, and woodpeckers.||Just like sunflower seeds, peanuts attract squirrels, so take measures to prevent squirrels if you don’t want them. Be sure to keep peanuts completely dry, as moistened peanuts carry a high likelihood of harmful toxins.|
|Nyjer (or thistle)||Nyjer (thistle) feeders||Goldfinches, Purple finches, House finches, chickadees, doves, and pine siskins.||This birdseed can spoil quickly, so it requires a high level of attention.|
|Sugar water||Hummingbird (nectar) feeders||Hummingbirds and orioles||In high temperatures, the sugar water can spoil quickly. Be sure to clean the feeder and change out the water every day or every other day.|
Common bird feeder challenges and solutions
Having a bird feeder is fun and easy. There isn’t much more to it than putting food in a container, putting said container in your yard, and – boom – BIRDS!
But some people have a “set-it-and-forget-it” attitude, which actually works against the birds. Instead, a little maintenance and attention can go a long way to creating an environment where birds come back again and again.
Challenge #1: Squirrels
If you’re finding squirrels raiding your peanut supply, consider installing squirrel-proof accessories like baffles around your bird feeder. This protective barrier makes it difficult for squirrels to access the food, which eventually deters them from your yard altogether.
You can also install bird feeders in places that are hard to reach for squirrels. Birds & Blooms recommends keeping the 5-7-9 number in mind to squirrel-proof your feeders. Put feeders 5 feet off the ground, 7 feet away from a jumping-off point, and 9 feet below a launching surface. Chances are the squirrels won’t make it to your feeder.
Challenge #2: Routine Maintenance
Keeping bird seed fresh and dry is essential for keeping it healthy. When moisture is trapped around the bird seed or the feeder becomes dirty, the bird seed spoils, which increases the likelihood of malnutrition and the spread of disease.
Stick to a regular schedule for maintaining your bird feeder. Some feeders, like hummingbird feeders in the height of the summer, require daily cleaning. Others may require attention every few days or so. I like to make it part of my morning routine, so figure out what works best for you!
Make sure to only put out enough seeds that can be consumed within a day or two. Having more leaves the opportunity for the seed to rot, which can cause illness, disease, or malnutrition in your backyard friends.
Challenge #3: Bully Birds
Birds can be gregarious, fun, beautiful – even awe-inspiring. But they are wild animals, after all. And wild animals can be bullies, displaying threatening behavior to their peers and becoming territorial. Just watch your hummingbird feeder after a while. Although they are small birds, they are mighty in the fight to prevent others from using their feeder.
To deter bully birds like hummingbirds, jays, and mockingbirds, set up several different bird feeders around your yard. It’s like splitting up the siblings at family dinner. When there’s a little bit of space, everything’s better.
Challenge #4: Window Strikes
With birds coming to your yard more frequently, they might mistake the reflection of trees in your windows and crash into them. Window collisions can cause severe injury or death. In fact, it’s estimated that up to one billion birds die each year due to window strikes.
The good news is: you can prevent window strikes! Set your bird feeders at least three feet away from your windows. You can also install decals or low-reflective screens on your windows that are near your bird feeders.
Weigh the Cost and Maintenance
When deciding which bird feeders to buy, consider the cost and maintenance required. If the money and cost investment will be replaced tenfold with the sight of nuthatches and buntings perching in your yard, then, by all means, go all out!
If you live a busy lifestyle and have little time for constantly checking up on your feeder, perhaps a tray feeder, hopper, or window feeder will work best. You can put out the right amount of bird seed so that there isn’t any leftover to spoil, and you can easily keep an eye on these for signs of fungus.
Where possible, shop at local retailers and small businesses. These places are likely to have the product and regional knowledge and a desire to support your budding bird-watching hobby.
Decide Which Birds you Want to Attract
Some feeders are better at attracting specific birds. Nectar feeders, for instance, will attract hummingbirds and orioles. Nyjer feeders will attract a variety of finches.
Ground or low-level tray feeders will attract ground-feeding birds. If you’re in the desert southwest, you may have Gambel’s quail or roadrunners show up; if you’re in the southeast, you might see pine siskin, juncos, and bluebirds. Use Project FeederWatch’s Common Feeder Birds database for more information on what kinds of feeders you can use to specific birds attract in your area.
Consider your Space
Your region and physical yard space can dictate which type of bird feeder is best. For yards with trees and shrubs, you can use hanging hopper or tube feeders. If you have a large yard, you can install a variety of bird feeders on posts, stakes, or deck railings.
Even if you live in an apartment or have a small yard area, you can still set up bird feeders. Hummingbird feeders are great for hanging from awnings or deck roofs, on deck railings, or posts in the ground. And don’t forget about window feeders – they are perfect for smaller spaces!
Benefits of Bird Feeders
Whether you have children, have no children, live alone, or with roommates, you can reap the benefits of backyard birds simply by installing bird feeders.
Help Sustain Ecosystem
Birds rely on food to maintain energy, reproduce, and raise their young. When human activity removes natural feeding sources, you can directly contribute to a bird’s life cycle by maintaining clean and healthy bird feeders.
Healthy birds pollinate plants, promoting native species’ growth and development. Birds are also natural forms of pest control.
Organizations like the National Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology need people like you and me to become citizen scientists. By participating, you can provide data from the birds in your yard for helping researchers understand bird species’ population, migration, conservation status, and behavior.
When you have bird feeders in your yard, you have e a built-in hobby. You can keep track of the different kinds of birds that visit, become a nature photographer, and use your observations for teaching and learning (like telling people at your next dinner party the difference between a blue jay and an Eastern bluebird!). By entering this bird-loving world, you can also connect with other birders in your community.
Answer: Bees are attracted to the sugar water (nectar) in hummingbird feeders, and they can pose a problem for hummingbirds. Fortunately, you can detract bees from your hummingbird feeder. Find a hummingbird feeder that has red, instead of yellow on it. Hummingbirds are attracted to red, while bees are attracted to yellow. You can also install bee guards around feeding ports or put your hummingbird feeder in the shade. If you don’t mind the bees – but want them away from your hummers – plant a pollinator garden that will specifically attract bees.
Answer: Songbirds – which are popular visitors to bird feeders – have a low risk of catching avian flu. The 2022 outbreak of avian influenza affects poultry, shorebirds, raptors, and waterfowl. The National Wildlife Disease Program recommends taking down your feeders only if you have domestic poultry. You should still wash your bird feeders regularly to prevent other diseases and malnutrition.
Answer: Tube, platform and hopper feeders attract cardinals (if you are in a region where cardinals are common). Use sunflower, safflower seeds, or unsalted peanuts in the bird feeders.
Having a bird feeder – or a few! – can bring joy to you and wild birds in your area. With the variety in the style of bird feeders available, you can have a garden oasis, attracting a wide variety of feathered friends.
Boeckmann, C. (2022, May 4). Bird Feeders: What’s the Best Type of Feeder? Almanac.Com. Retrieved July 9, 2022, from https://www.almanac.com/bird-feeders-whats-best-type-feeder
Mayntz, M. (2022, May 29). How to Choose the Best Bird Seed. The Spruce. Retrieved July 9, 2022, from https://www.thespruce.com/how-to-choose-the-best-birdseed-386541
Powell, H. (2022a, February 9). Feeding Birds: a Quick Guide to Seed Types. All About Birds. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/news/types-of-bird-seed-a-quick-guide/#peanuts
Powell, H. (2022b, June 1). How to Choose the Right Kind of Bird Feeder. All About Birds. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/news/how-to-choose-the-right-kind-of-bird-feeder/#suet
Project FeederWatch. (n.d.). Feeder Watch. Retrieved July 9, 2022, from https://feederwatch.org/learn/common-feeder-birds/
Staake, J. (2022, April 29). The Best Squirrel Proof Bird Feeders and 12 Tips That Work. Birds and Blooms. Retrieved July 9, 2022, from https://www.birdsandblooms.com/birding/attracting-birds/feeding-birds/squirrel-proof-bird-feeders/
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