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Pavilion Feeder

So you’ve heard about feeding backyard birds and want to try it out? Perhaps you’ve seen an enticing arrangement of feeders at a neighbor’s house or perhaps you have visions of attracting many fine, feathered friends to your own yard. Either way, feeding wild birds can be a real treat if approached thoughtfully—it can even become an addicting and enjoyable hobby. Here are some tips for getting started with your first adventure in feeding birds. For additional information check out Stokes Birdfeeder Book: The Complete Guide to Attracting, Identifying, and Understanding Your Feeder Birdsby Donald and Lillian Stokes.

No matter where you live, there are a surprising variety of hungry birds looking for extra snacks to help them through cold winter nights or through the exhausting tribulations of raising broods of noisy chicks.

Birds are willing and eager visitors to nearly any feeder that offers high quality food. This is especially true in neighborhoods where human alterations to the landscape have eliminated or reduced native food sources and birds end up hunting for every morsel they can find.

While there are noble and generous aspects to offering seeds to wild birds, it’s also worth taking a moment to ask if it is the right choice for you. Does your neighborhood have patches of wild plants that offer native food options for birds? Can you already watch birds go about their activities from your house or would you like to draw them closer for easier viewing? Are you prepared to clean and maintain feeders on a regular basis? Do you have options for planting and landscaping your yard with native food plants as an alternative (or addition) to offering bird feeders? Are you able to deal with a hoard of bird's feeding in the Spring reduced to a paucity in the summer, as they migrate to other areas? Can you deal with a potential mess of bird droppings on the patio furniture, or the invasion of a new species of grass as certain seeds germinate under the feeder? Or how about the neighbor's cat stalking your feeder, are you comfortable with asking them to put a collars on the cat that makes enough noise to warn the birds of an impending attack?

Preliminary Considerations

Most people begin bird feeding because they want to bring birds into the yard where it’s easier to view their activities. For this purpose, there are an overwhelming variety of options that allow you to hang, post, or nail any of countless different types of feeders to virtually any surface you choose.

Before you visit a bird feeding store, therefore, it’s helpful to think carefully about which windows or vantage points you’re most likely to watch birds from and how you’d like to see feeders positioned in your yard. These are aesthetic choices that may be modified as you learn more about feeder options, but it doesn’t hurt to figure out your preferences as a starting point.

Some things to keep in mind are that feeders can be a little messy from discarded seeds and shells falling to the ground. For cleaning and general maintenance purposes, feeders should be easily reached, and it’s usually not a good idea to place them in the middle of an elegantly landscaped flowerbed. Feeders also need to be near a tree or shrub so that feeding birds can readily dart away from predators, but not so close that cats can hide and pounce on unsuspecting birds.

Consider next whether you’d like to see a feeder hanging gently from a branch, swaying from a hook on a wall or tree trunk, or standing on its own post in the middle of the yard. Remember that it has to be easily reached.

Once you have some ideal locations in mind you might consider the types of birds that you’d like to attract. Hanging or elevated feeders appeal to tree-dwelling birds, such as nuthatches, chickadees, and titmice; while towhees, quail, and some sparrows are uncomfortable at anything but ground level or low feeders. For some yards, a perfect solution might be one of the new waist-high feeders that draw in both groups of birds.

Most feeders, and types of food, are designed for all-around use but a couple choices are more specialized. These include hummingbird nectar feeders, suet cakes that attract woodpeckers and insect-eating birds in addition to many other birds, and thistle feeders that specifically attract beautiful goldfinches and pine siskins. It’s often easiest to start with one of the general purpose feeders described below, then branch out into other types of feeding as your interest and enthusiasm grows.

Getting Started

Thinking through some of these preliminary considerations will make your first visit to a bird feeder store much more enjoyable because the number of options in a typical store is nothing short of daunting. Even after working in a bird feeder store several years myself, I’m still overwhelmed by the range of options.

To keep it simple, realize there are three main categories of feeders: hoppers, tubes, and trays. Despite the dazzling variety, the core choices are really that simple.

And “keep it simple” is really a great mantra for first-time buyers. Don’t be waylaid by fancy, gimmicky products but look instead for simple, sturdy design and easily understood parts. On wood products look for cedar components and pieces held together with screws. On plastic products look for rugged materials that look like they’ll last for many years in the sun and rain. And unless you want to contribute to a landfill within the year, expect to pay twenty-five dollars and up for a feeder that will last seven to ten years. Anything cheaper than that are what the industry politely calls “promotional products” and are designed to break down quickly in order to get you back in the store.

Hearty Hoppers

Green Absolute II

Hoppers are one of the classic feeder designs, like something you’d see in an old Boy Scout handbook as a merit badge building project. Looking like little rustic houses that hold food, they have a traditional appeal that crosses generations. Most are constructed of wood with glass or plastic sides so that seed levels can be monitored. Newer models have screen bottoms that prevent seeds from becoming waterlogged and spoiling. Well made hoppers come apart easily for ease of cleaning.


Typically, hoppers are hung from branches, but they can also be suspended from a free standing “shepherd’s hook” stuck in the ground wherever you’d like. Occasionally, hoppers are modified to be mounted on top of a pole but these can be difficult to take down for cleaning.

Hoppers are fun, easy to fill (usually the roof lifts for filling), and they allow several birds to line up and feed at once. Disadvantages to consider are that birds will be tossing quite a bit of seed and shell to the ground under a hopper, and that hoppers may not be the easiest feeder to clean.

Towering Tubes

Opus Triple Tube

While the idea of a plastic tube hanging in your yard is not particularly appealing (especially if you’re envisioning a rustic wood feeder), tubes are a great option for many people. They have a modern, clean look and new top of the line models are amazingly durable. They are easy to clean, easy to fill, and it’s straightforward to tell when it’s time to refill them. Even better, most models have optional trays that catch many of the discarded seeds and shells that would otherwise litter your yard. If tube feeders have any drawback, it’s that they accommodate only as many birds as there are feeding holes.

Tubes are usually hung from a nail, branch, or some kind of hook, but some can be converted to a pole mount and placed anywhere in the yard. Tubes (as well as hoppers) are best placed at least head high, making them ideal feeders for attracting tree-dwelling birds.

The highest quality tube feeders are made of a sturdy polycarbonate plastic that holds up extremely well in the weather. They should also come with metal feeding posts and metal rims around each feeding hole or else marauding squirrels will chew the plastic to get at the seeds in no time at all.

The Pleasure of Platforms

Pavilion Feeder

Tray, or platform, feeders are enjoying something of a resurgence. At heart, they are the original feeder, a simple flat surface for holding seeds that anyone can construct and appreciate. There’s no pretense of imitating a house or modernistic, high-tech commercialism here, just a simple, elevated tray that holds seeds so that birds can enjoy their meal in peace. For a while tray feeders were simply flat boards with four legs that raised them a few inches off the ground, but newer models have incorporated screen bottoms and are raised up to waist height.

This particular height has several advantages: it’s extremely handy for cleaning, refilling, and access; plus it pulls in both ground-dwelling and tree-dwelling birds. Birds don’t make a mess around tray feeders because they simply stand in the middle of the seeds and drop shells onto the tray, and tray feeders allow quite a few birds to feed at once (so long as one bossy bird doesn’t take over the feeder for a spell).

Tray feeders are also remarkably easy to clean. Merely dump out the seed and spray the screen with a hose. Disadvantages, however, are that it’s difficult to tell if good seeds are being dumped out and it’s hard to tell when the feeder needs to be refreshed with new seed.

Pulling It Together

Despite the few differences noted above, feeders all basically work equally well. They more or less attract the same birds, cost about the same, and are all relatively easy to care for. More than anything else it boils down to an aesthetic choice and a choice of which feeder feels right for you. If you’re comfortable with the feeder’s look and ease of use then it’s probably the right one for you.

While you’re at the bird feeder store take a moment to reconsider how you’ll position the feeder and whether you need to purchase any support hooks, poles, or special mounts. Again, it might be best to keep it simple if this is your first purchase because some arrangements start getting expensive.

For all of the above feeders, black oil sunflower will be the best seed choice (it’s also the hand’s down favorite for the greatest variety of birds). Try to avoid mixed seeds because birds have the habit of picking out their favorite seeds and tossing the others aside, resulting in messy waste under your feeder. Later, it might be fun to try other seed types in different feeders (preferably using one seed type per feeder), with millet or thistle seed being excellent choices.

Back on Home Turf

Assuming you make it back home with a feeder and all the other necessary components it’s time to set things up as you envisioned. This should be the exciting reward for your careful planning. Hopefully it looks as good as you had in mind, but don’t worry too much about this at first because there’s plenty of time to tinker with locations and feeder options as you explore further. Maybe your first choice doesn’t appeal to birds for some reason (too close to a scary looking structure for instance), or you decide at some point that you’d rather watch birds from a different window.

Depending on your location, you may also have to give the birds some time to find your new offering. Feeders may be visited within hours or remain unvisited for weeks; give it time, but feel free to move the feeder to a new location if it isn’t being used.

Most importantly, have fun with your new hobby. Enjoy the many birds that will be visiting you. Try different feeding options if you want some variety. Keep a record of birds that come to your feeder and see if you can start to recognize individual birds that keep coming back. I think both you and the birds will be pleased with the results of your hard work.

Further Considerations

For a lifetime of enjoying your feeders, there are several considerations to keep in mind. It can’t be stressed enough how important it is to maintain clean feeders. The crowding of birds around a feeder allows for the spread of disease through feces and a buildup of pathogens. Fortunately, cleaning feeders once a month or so is straightforward. Simply make a dilute solution of household bleach (one part bleach to ten parts water), disassemble the feeder if necessary, wash and scrub the parts with a stiff brush or strong hose, then dunk the feeder briefly into the bleach solution. Clean feeders are much more enjoyable to watch and it makes for healthy birds. The same can be said of the ground under a feeder, where discarded seeds and shells may accumulate. Old seeds are unsightly and often create a rodent problem so it’s best to sweep up the area as needed. Another problematic rodent, especially in the East, are the squirrels that can be either a great joy to watch or tremendous nuisance depending on your point of view. Squirrels, however, are so persistent and intelligent that dealing with them if they become a nuisance takes some ingenuity. Don’t despair, you won’t be the only one facing this issue and it’s likely that your local bird feeder store can make specific suggestions to help alleviate the problem.

By David Lukas

Best of Breed Bird Feeder Reviews: Triple Tube Feeder  Vista Dome Feeder

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