Nov 29, 2017 | Featured in: Watching Backyard Birds, December 2015

Bird Feeding on a Budget

Northern cardinals visit a well-stocked hopper feeder.
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Dear Birdsquatch:

I'm on a fixed income now that I'm retired, so I'm watching every penny. I really want to get into bird feeding, but it seems like kind of an expensive hobby. Can you give me any advice on how to attract a lot of birds without breaking the bank?

—ANNE, CHEAT LAKE, WEST VIRGINIA

Dear Anne,

The short answer is YES, you can feed the birds and attract a pleasing variety of species without having to shell out bags of cash for feeders and seed. Here's the longer answer: Get yourself a feeder or two—I suggest a hopper feeder and a tube feeder that is designed to feed sunflower seed or sunflower hearts. Invest in quality feeders. Don't buy the el cheapo brand at BigBoxMart. Those will simply fall apart after a season or two and you'll have to buy replacements. Quality feeders will last you a decade or more, provided they aren't attacked by squirrels, bears, or abducted by aliens (hey, it happens).

I suggest feeding sunflower hearts in the tube feeder and black-oil sunflower seed in the hopper feeder. These foods are almost universally accepted by feeder-visiting birds and they are widely available and reasonably priced. If you can, buy in bulk—bags of seed in 10, 25, or 50 pound amounts. This keeps your per-refill cost down. Scatter some mixed seed on the ground around the edges of your yard.

Now, here's the best advice for the budget bird feeder operator. Go native in your yard. No, I don't mean you should build a bark hovel and dig a fire pit and dance around in a leopard-print smock (although if you do, please let me know and I'll stop by and join you). I mean begin augmenting your landscape with native grasses, plants, shrubs, vines, and trees. This is the absolute best way to bring in birds. Birds and all wildlife species have evolved to enjoy a symbiotic relationship with native plant species. So naturally, a native tree like a dogwood, or a nice tangle of fox grape will attract birds that recognize those species as sources of food and shelter. A yard with a giant expanse of perfect and chemically enhanced grass will be attractive to almost no birds. The same size property landscaped with native plant species, plus a nice bird bath, some sheltering bits of cover like viney tangles or a hedgerow, and a couple of well-stocked bird feeders will catch the eye of a huge number of passing birds.

Here are a few more money-saving tips to make your yard more birdy:

  • Stop mowing so much. Let some of your yard grow up into seedy, weedy areas. Birds including sparrows and finches adore these food sources.
  • Let the garden go to seed. You can clear it up in spring after the birds have feasted on the bugs and seeds all winter long.
  • Don't pay a lawn service to haul away your leaves, branches, and other natural materials. Build a brush pile and compost the leaves. These places offer birds shelter and food in the form of bugs, grubs, and worms.
  • Dig a hole in your yard soon, before the ground freezes, and buy a living, root-balled, native evergreen tree. Plant it and decorate it (outside) for the holidays. The birds will love it for years to come, and you won't have to fork over $75 for a tree that will be brown and brittle by New Year's Day.

I hope these suggestions will help you Anne. I, too, am someone who minds my money carefully, but then again, I can't carry much, since I don't have any pockets on me and I never wear clothes.

Happy bird feeding!



About Birdsquatch

Birdsquatch is WBB's tall, hairy, and slightly stinky columnist. He is a bigfoot who has watched birds all his life. His home range is unknown.

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  • I have experienced this when a house wren punctured 5 blue bird eggs last spring in our blue bird box. Then I hung out a wren box by the trees and he got busy filling it and left the bluebirds alone and they successfully raised another brood!
    by Susan, Sun, 07 Apr 2019
  • I also have several turkeys that live in the woods behind me. They visit early morning and near sundown. Living in the country with a mountain and brook behind my house, I have animals visiting 24hrs a day. My turkeys are awesome. They know me and wait for their breakfast. They hop up on my patio wall to look in my windows. I also noticed the 2 birds that are the lookouts. They come over to eat as the others march across my lawn to my neighbor who also feeds the animals. We also have coyotes that, I am sure, have eaten turkey dinner. The squirrels run around and chase them to protect their seeds and cracked corn. I feed my 3 raccoons peanut butter jelly sandwiches, which they share with a possum and 3 skunks, at the same time, by the way. No food goes into my garbage. Meat scraps go to crows and hawks. Everything else, even soup, gets eaten before the sun is completely set. That keeps bears away if no dishes are there to entice. I break up bread in tiny pieces now and turkeys 'gobble' it up. So happy to find another person that enjoys wildlife. Nothing is more satisfying than walking out side and spotting Daisy the skunk, calling her name and watching her tripping all over herself, running to meet you. Thank you for your valuable information.
    by Stella Kachur, Wed, 27 Mar 2019
  • This is exactly my experience. The local feed store had some on sale so I thought I'd try some. Actually I was shocked at how it is avoided, and I've been feeding birds for more than 40 years. I suppose I've never had it out as the ONLY food source, but when I put it out along with the blackoil, peanuts, cracked corn and suet cakes, absolutely nothing would touch it. Even when I dumped some on the ground the rabbits wouldn't eat it, nor would the squirrels. Eventually some turkeys and deer ate some--when they could find nothing else underneath the other feeders. But even they left plenty on the ground which they NEVER do with cracked corn, sunflower, etc.Every person should try some if they're inclined and decide for themselves since every situation may be a bit different, but for me/my species, safflower is a big no.
    by Colin Croft, Sun, 03 Mar 2019
  • I have questions about the Zick Dough? It says not to use in cold weather. It is still in the 40s here. Too soon? How long should I expect a supply to last? And, use a tray feeder? Thanks.
    by martindf, Sun, 25 Nov 2018
  • Glad I found this. I'm a snowbird and was worried about all the birds that come to feed at my birdfeeder. I have Cardinals, sparrows, doves, Blue Jays, chickadees. I hope they'll find food elsewhere while I'm gone.
    by Donna, Sat, 03 Nov 2018