Jul 19, 2017 | Featured in: Watching Backyard Birds, August 2013

Establishing a Feeding Station

American goldfinches swamp thistle sock feeders at a reader's backyard feeding station.
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Whether you're just getting started in backyard bird feeding or looking to revisit your existing feeding program, this quick overview will help point you toward establishing a backyard cafe that's sure to be the talk of the neighborhood (among the birds, anyway).

Location, Location, Location

First, you must decide where to set up your feeding station. You may not have too many options here, depending on the size of your property. Of course, the whole point of having feeders is to bring the birds closer in for you to enjoy, so be sure that your feeders are easily viewed from inside your home. To avoid accidental window collisions, keep the feeders at least 20 feet away from the house. There should also be some good protective cover within 10 to 15 feet of the station, in case of predators. If you do not have any natural cover, build some brush piles.

Variety

The key to a successful feeding program is variety. Mix things up. Different types of birds prefer different types of feeders. The feeders' positions are also important. Sparrows, doves, and towhees prefer to feed near the ground, while chickadees, titmice, and woodpeckers will readily come to a feeder positioned several feet above the ground. Birds also vary in their food preferences. To attract the greatest variety of species, your feeding station should consist of several types of feeders positioned at various levels, chock-full of the appropriate foods.

Feeder Types

Hopper feeder. This is probably the most popular feeder style, and is definitely one that you want to include in your station. Hopper feeders are well suited for most types of food (sunflower, safflower, seed mixes, mealworms, etc.) and they attract a variety of species. Chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, woodpeckers, wrens, grosbeaks, cardinals, sparrows, finches, and occasionally larger birds like doves, jays, and grackles, all come to hopper feeders. This type of feeder can be hung from a sturdy tree branch or mounted on a pole or post.

Tube feeder. Another common feeder type is the tube feeder. These feeders are, of course, shaped like tubes and have multiple feeding ports, allowing several birds to feed at the same time. The short perches are ideal for smaller birds, including chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, some woodpeckers, and finches. Tube feeders are ideal for sunflower or safflower seed—less so for mixed seed or millet. You can hang a tube feeder from a tree or nail, or mount it on a pole.

Thistle feeder. This is simply a specialized tube feeder designed for thistle (Nyjer) seed. The seed ports are just large enough for the tiny thistle seed to come through. Thistle socks are also great—these are mesh feeders that attract goldfinches, chickadees, and other small, thistle-loving birds.

Platform feeder. This one is for the ground-loving birds. A platform feeder is simply a flat surface where doves, towhees, cardinals, juncos, and sparrows can feed close to the ground. You may choose to purchase a platform feeder from a manufacturer or simply build one yourself. You may also skip the feeder entirely and offer scattered mixed seed directly on the ground.

Suet feeder. This fatty backyard favorite attracts woodpeckers, jays, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, creepers, wrens, kinglets, bluebirds, warblers, and more. On a very cold day, you may even catch an American kestrel or red-shouldered hawk eating suet. Your feeding station is not complete without it. You can choose to offer pure beef suet or store-manufactured suet cakes.

Specialty feeders. In addition to these basic feeder types, consider adding peanut feeders, nectar feeders, fruit feeders, and more to attract an even wider variety of birds. Try some of these suggestions and then try your own ideas to see what types of birds you can attract to your own backyard.

What Foods for What Birds?

This chart provides the general food preferences for the most common feeder birds of North America. Attract warblers, tanagers, hummingbirds, and more »

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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