Thursday, September 5, 2019

FAQ: How to set up a bird feeding station in 6 easy steps!

Most people buy a feeder and then try to figure out how to set up the feeding station. It often works better, though, to save buying the bird feeder to last. Wait to buy the bird feeder until after you know what birds you want to attract, where you're going to put the feeding station, and how you are going to mount the feeders.

There are six easy steps to setting up a bird feeding station:
  1. Choose your feeder locations
  2. Choose the birds you want to attract
  3. Choose your foods to attract the kind of birds you want
  4. Choose your bird feeder mounting method
  5. Choose and purchase your feeders
  6. Just add water--the secret bird feeder ingredient!



Photo of bird feeding station
Image by PolyDot from Pixabay

How do you set up a bird feeding station?


Get started today!

If you are considering setting up bird feeders in your backyard, don't put it off because of indecision. It doesn't have to be perfect. Birds are very good at finding food. If you put something out they will find it. If you don't like where it's at, you can easily change it later. Birds can't come to your bird feeder, though, if you don't set one up! So start something. Anything!

If you're like me, though, you want to have a pretty good idea of all the details before you start. You have questions. So, I wrote this post to help you out. I've tried to think of all the frequently asked questions you may have about setting up a bird feeder... and then answer them. In six easy steps.

Step 1. Choose your feeder location


Bird feeders can be placed anywhere in your yard. But some locations will be better than others. Feeders can be attached to trees, fences, windows, poles, or set on the ground or tree stumps. Perhaps you'll create a decorative area in the middle of your lawn with bird feeders as a centerpiece.

Look around your yard. Is there a tree or large bush that could serve as the centerpiece of your bird feeding station? Do you have a fence where you could attach a feeder? Would you like your feeder next to a garage or shed? Or, will you set up a bird feeder out in the middle of the lawn?

I want to propose that you don't set up a bird feeder. Rather, set up several bird feeders with different foods in different locations.

Now your questions...

Q: Where is the best place to put a bird feeder?


When choosing the best place to put up your bird feeders consider two things: 1) the welfare of the birds, and 2) your viewing pleasure. The best place to put up your bird feeders is in a safe location where you can enjoy watching them.

The safety of the birds you feed should come first. What dangers are there to birds that come to your feeders? Consider cats, hawks and windows. Each of these is a subject in itself that deserves its own post. I'll just list some general rules-of-thumb below to give a quick overview of these problems. If these dangers can't be remedied easily by moving your feeder, you may need to stop feeding birds for a while until the danger passes.

If you can't see your bird feeders from inside your home, you are not likely to keep feeding birds for long. Except during extreme weather, most birds can survive without backyard feeders. Therefore, really the reason to feed birds is to attract them to your yard and enjoy their beauty and antics. So, what windows will you be looking out to watch your feeder birds? Set up your best line of sight, and consider the direction of the sun--you don't want to be looking into the morning glare, if you can help it.

Q: How close to the house can I put a bird feeder?


Bird feeders can be placed at any distance from a house. So you can enjoy birds on your porch or deck even if you don't have much of a yard. If you have a large yard you may be better able to watch birds if the feeders are a bit farther from the house. But see the next question on windows.


Q: How far should a bird feeder be from a window?


In general place bird feeders within 3 feet of a window or farther than 10 feet away. This will reduce the chance of deadly window strikes. Birds may be startled into flying into a window by predators or other nervous birds. If they are close to the window to start with they will be going slowly enough not to hurt themselves, and probably aware of that invisible barrier. If they are far enough away they may have time to see the window and reflections and probably veer off.


Q: How do you protect birds from cats?


A 2003 article in USA Today detailed a study that showed that cats kill 1.4 to 3.7 billion birds in the continental US every year. That's an incomprehensible number. Yes, feral cats kill more than domestic cats. But all outdoor cats kill birds. Cats pounce suddenly from a hiding place. Cats hide on the ground behind dense low bushes. Keep feeders 10 feet away from such hiding places.

Q: How do you get rid of a hawk in your yard?


At times in winter you may have a jay-sized Sharp-shinned Hawk or crow-sized Cooper's Hawk show up at your feeder to hunt birds. This can be exciting! Except if it decides to spend the winter hunting your little chickadees. If this happens, and the hawk seems to be long-staying, you may have to stop feeding until the hawk migrates away in March or April.

It is possible that an owl decoy will scare away the hawk, but maybe also the smaller feeder birds too. Or maybe the decoy will have no effect at all--birds aren't dumb and will quickly acclimate to something that doesn't really seem to be a danger.

Set up your bird feeders near some dense taller bushes where the feeder birds can escape hunting hawks.

Q: How do you feed birds without making a mess?


See my article on feeding birds without the mess (here). It may give you some ideas that will help in setting up and planning your bird feeders.

. . . . .

Some of these questions above may seem a bit off-topic. But by some advanced planning you can set up your bird feeders by choosing the best location so that some of these problems don't occur. At the very least you'll be aware of possible problems and remedies. Then you won't be quite as surprised or discouraged if you see some of these things happen. Be prepared to take down your feeders and clean them regularly. And be prepared to stop feeding for a time, if necessary.



Step 2. Choose the birds you want to attract to your feeders


Do you know what specific backyard birds you want to attract to your feeding station? That will determine what kind of feeders and what kind of foods you offer.

How do you determine what birds are in your immediate area and might be attracted to your feeders?

I have been publishing lists with photos and ID of common backyard for each of the lower 48 United States. I'm still working on adding additional states. Right now you can go my Article Index (click here) and see what states are represented.

I also created one post of the most common birds in the United States (with photos). This is all common birds, not just backyard birds. Surprisingly, there are several birds (this article discusses 34 species) found over large parts of the country. My article is here.

I recently reviewed field guides specifically for beginners (article here). I found that the best book on backyard birds in the US is the National Geographic Backyard Birds, 2nd Edition, published October 2019. If you want to buy it, or at least check out the current price, the Amazon link is here. It's a great book on backyard birds.

Q: What birds should I attract to my feeder?


You can design your feeding station to attract nearly any bird found in your area. So the answer to this question is really up to you. Do you want any and all species? Or would you rather have just certain species? Many people do not want large aggressive species like crows, grackles and blackbirds, jays, starlings and house sparrows. They carefully offer food designed to attract smaller birds, and don't offer food that the larger birds like. The same goes for squirrels. Do you want them or not?

Q: What birds come to feeders?


Hungry and thirsty birds come to your feeders! It is easier to attract seed eating birds, though. Seed eaters include sparrows and buntings, finches, chickadees and nuthatches. You may also attract jays, blackbirds, bluebirds, pigeons, quails, woodpeckers, hummingbirds, orioles, tanagers and more with other kinds of food. And water may attract nearly any bird.

Q: How do you get birds to come to your bird feeder?


You get birds to come to your feeders by offering what they want. In late spring and summer it may be harder to attract birds to your feeders. Many birds are off nesting then and feeding insects and grubs to their young, not seeds. In autumn there are often ample seeds and berries for birds to find away from your feeders. But birds will return to your feeders in early winter and stay well into spring.



Step 3. Choose your foods to attract the kind of birds you want


Once you know what kind of birds you want at your feeding station, then you offer foods tailored specifically to the species you want at your feeder. It may take some research to find out what foods each species of bird prefers. That will have to be a subject of a different post.

Do you have a favorite food or meal? Do you have a food you just can't stand? Birds are no different. Some birds love seeds; some want fruit, or nectar, or nuts, or suet, or bugs!

Cheap bird seed mixes are like goulash--they are a mishmash of different kinds of foods. Birds may pick out their favorites, but then toss the rest on the ground. And half the seeds are milo--that only quail and doves eat. That's right, cheap bird seed mix is half waste--you could spend twice as much and come out ahead by attracting more birds and not having to clean up all those wasted seeds under your feeder!

Q: What bird food is best?


Many people only put in cheap bird seed mixes in their feeders. How sad. Be more adventuresome! In your feeders you can put seeds, fruit, nectar, nuts, suet and bugs!

Don't put bread or table scraps in your bird feeder. You'll end up feeding either aggressive birds or things that aren't birds that you probably don't want in your yard or house!

Q: What type of bird food attracts the most birds?


If you could only choose one food, black oil sunflower seeds attract a wide variety of sparrows, finches, chickadees, nuthatches, grosbeaks and buntings. Of course, you can choose more than one type of bird food! If you want to attract the most birds, then read on....

Q: How do you attract different birds?


This is the secret! Feed different foods in different feeders. This way one kind of bird won't take over. Birds will go to the feeder that has the food they desire most. They won't throw out seeds they don't like. You'll have different kinds of birds feeding at several different feeders. I recommend setting up more than one bird feeding station--Place feeders in several areas of your yard, if possible.

Q: How do I attract birds to my window feeder?


Window feeders generally attract only smaller chickadees, nuthatches and finches. The best way to get them started at a window feeder is to set up a temporary feeder nearby, slightly away from the house. Once they get used to the temporary feeder they'll find and start using the window feeder. Then you can remove the temporary feeder from the yard. It might help to have a bush or tree near your window feeder.

Q: What do you fill hummingbird feeders with?


Fill hummingbird feeders only with sucrose. That's white, refined sugar. Not brown sugar. Not raw sugar. Not food coloring. Never honey.

20% sugar solution is 4 parts water plus 1 part sugar. Bring water near to a boil, not all the way, stir in the sugar. Let cool. Put a 3-day supply in your hummingbird feeder. Keep the unused portion in the refrigerator for up to a week. Clean the feeder every time you refill, at least once every 3 days.

Q: Can I put a hummingbird feeder next to a regular bird feeder?


Yes, but you may wish to separate them for the bird's safety. Not the hummingbird's safety--the other feeder birds need protection from the hummingbirds! Hummingbirds defend their feeders very aggressively!



Step 4. Choose your bird feeder mounting method


Once you've given some thought to where you want to set up your feeders (Step 1) you'll have a better idea of how you want to mount them. When you purchase bird feeders pay attention to mounting hardware and options.

Q: What is the best way to hang a bird feeder?


There are several common ways that bird feeders are mounted. I present them below. I also offer some ideas for DIYers.

Shepherds hooks: Most bird feeders have loops or S-shaped hooks that allow you to hang the feeder from a hook or arm. Tube feeders and smaller hopper feeders are typically installed this way. A shepherds hook is pounded into the ground and lighter weight feeders hang from it. You can then set these anywhere in your lawn. You may want to remove feeders during windy or stormy weather.

Poles: Made especially for bird feeders, some have augers to screw into the ground. Some have moveable baffles to keep squirrels from climbing the pole and eating all your bird food.

Post mount: A wooden platform feeder can be screwed to the top of a fence post.

C-clamps: These may be used to attach platform or hopper feeders to posts, fence tops, or deck railings.

Deck mount brackets: Are you wanting to attach a feeder to your deck railing? Deck mount brackets allow you to attach a small pole to your deck railing. You hang your feeder from an arm on this pole. The arm can swing out, off the deck, so that seed hulls fall below in the yard, and not on your deck.

Eye screws: For do-it-yourselfers, screw an eye screw into a small block of wood. Use cable ties to attach the block of wood to a pipe or small tree branch.

Carabiner clips: D-shaped spring clips can be very convenient to attach feeders to horizontal tree limbs or branches with rope or chain.

Shelf brackets: These can be screwed to a wooden fence or the back of a shed to hang your bird feeder.

Suction cups: Window-mount bird feeders often use suction cups. From experience I can tell you that these pop off every couple of days. This can make a mess--especially with window- mount hummingbird feeders. Spillage will attract ants, so always quickly clean spills.

Q: How high should a bird feeder be off the ground?


Sparrows and other ground feeders like quail and doves don't mind feeders placed right on the ground or on low platforms. However, such feeders easily allow other pests to eat your bird food, including rats, squirrels, skunks, raccoons and others. For this reason, a good height is 5 feet.

Squirrels can jump up to 5 feet, and horizonatally 10 feet from a higher launching point. So you may consider this when placing your feeder and you have pesky squirrels in your feeder.

In bear country most rural bird lovers stop feeding birds after the bears wake in spring from their hibernation. However, some enterprising people attach feeders to ropes and keep them at least 7 feet high out of the bear's reach.



Step 5. Choose and purchase your feeders

Okay, you've decided what birds you want to attract, found out their favorite foods, chosen a location to set up the bird feeding station and know how your going to mount the feeders. Now you are ready to choose your feeders! Following steps 1-4 first, makes step 5, choosing your bird feeder, much easier.

Q: What is the best bird feeder?


What should you look for in a bird feeder?  When choosing a bird feeder you should first consider the type of bird feeder and then the size. You should consider the quality of construction. And you may want to consider whether you need your feeders to have protection from squirrels. There is no one best bird feeder.

Platform bird feeder: This is the simplest type of bird feeder. It is a simple tray with seeds and any other type of bird food scattered on it. It may be totally open or with a roof to help protect from rain. It can be at ground level or raised. Since this is open to the elements and easy to access, food can get wet and go bad. Mammalian pests and undesirable aggressive birds can get to the food easily.

Tube bird feeder: This type of feeder holds seeds in a protected vertical tube. There are perches and feeding ports. Many are constructed of plastic. Some are metal mesh. These are hung up higher and usually contain only smaller seeds. The plastic tube feeders of this type are especially good at protecting the food from the elements so it doesn't go bad as quickly.

Hopper bird feeder: This feeder combines the protection of the food you get with a tube feeder with the openness of the platform feeder. The food is stored in a hopper under a roof. There is an opening below down onto a narrow tray. As food is removed from the opening, a bit more gravity-feeds down to replace it. Seeds and nuts of various sizes can be placed in the hopper.

Specialty bird feeders: There are many other types of specialty bird feeders. Common specialty feeders include nectar feeders, suet feeders and thistle feeders. There are many more.

Q: Do different bird feeders attract different birds?


Yes, indeed. The platform feeder attracts the most birds by virtue of its simple open design. Ground feeding birds (sparrows, doves, others) and tree feeding birds (finches and others) alike can use it. But as already noted, foods can spoil more quickly and it has no protection from squirrels, rats, and larger aggressive birds.

Tube feeders attract finches and other birds that feed  on seeds in trees. Larger aggressive birds are unable to perch on the feeder (which often swings freely). Squirrels have a harder time eating from this type of feeder. Thus, this feeder generally empties slower than the other types.

Hopper feeders attract all species. Smaller hoppers have less room for larger birds. But it does make it easier for one large bird or squirrel to take over the feeder. Larger hoppers with wide trays allow some ground feeding birds. The hopper design protects the food from the elements better than a platform feeder.

Q: How do you feed birds without attracting squirrels?


There really is no such thing as "squirrel-proof" feeder. However there are a few mechanical devices that deter them to various degrees.

Baffles can make it harder for squirrels to climb the pole to the feeder.

Wire cages that surround the feeder allow smaller birds to reach the feeder but keep out larger birds and squirrels.

Weight-sensitive perches close the feeder ports when heavy squirrels go up to feed. Birds are "light as a feather" and the feeder ports stay open for them.

Long wires from which feeders hang swing and spin when heavier squirrels or birds get on a smaller feeder.

Cayenne pepper is a bit too spicy for squirrels but don't affect birds. Sprinkle it in with your bird foods or buy bird foods that contain cayenne pepper as a main ingredient.



Evening Grosbeak drinking from simple water dish.
Photo by Greg Gillson

Step 6: Just add water--the secret bird feeder ingredient!


Even if birds aren't interested in your feeders at the moment, they still need and want water. There are many ways to provide this vital element in your bird feeder setup.

Q: Should you leave water out for birds?


Yes, indeed! Leave water out for birds. Birds need water to drink and to bathe and keep their plumage clean. Not only that, but water really attracts birds. Not just feeder birds, but all birds are attracted to water. Bird baths are one of the most important items you can add to your bird feeding station. Bird baths are a very convenient way to provide water to birds. Because water is so life-sustaining, birds use nearly any type of bird bath.

You may think that birds need water in summer, when natural sources are often limited. You are right. But birds also need water in winter. During freezing periods birds may need drinking water desperately to avoid becoming dehydrated. If you live where temperatures regularly plummet below freezing you might consider a heated bird bath.

Q: Where should you place a birdbath?

There are some considerations as to the placement of birdbaths within your backyard. Firstly, a bird bath can be the centerpiece of your bird feeding station. Or, a bird bath can be set away from other bird feeders as a decorative yard attraction set among flowers or other landscaping.

Bathing birds can sometimes get distracted in their wet activities. Thus, having a nearby bush to fly into can offer them some protection from predators. On the other hand, cats may hide and pounce from a hedge with foliage that reaches all the way to the ground. Thus, keep bird baths at least 10 feet from any bushes that could serve as a hiding place for cats.

Placing a bird bath in the shade of a tree or building will help keep drinking water cooler and more refreshing for the birds. It may also keep algae from forming as fast as a bird bath in the open.

Birds naturally bathe in puddles on the ground. Thus they are accustomed to finding and using water low toward the ground. Having a bird bath on a pedestal off the ground nearly 3 feet may reduce the use somewhat. But birds may be safer from predators in a taller bird bath.  There is no reason not to provide a second water on the ground in a ceramic saucer or shallow bowl away from the main bird bath.

Q: What kind of bird baths do birds like?


Bird baths can be as simple as a shallow saucer on a tree stump or the ground. They can also be expensive and ornate. The birds don't really care about the price. Birds may actually like more simple concrete or plastic bird baths. A rough surface may provide traction so birds do not slip.

The water depth in a bird bath should be no more than 2 inches deep. Even this is too deep for most small feeder birds. In fact, if I may give my opinion, most commercial bird baths are too deep. Consider "stepping stones" of flat rocks barely covered by water. A branch that angles down into the water will allow a bird to walk down into the water for a drink or deeper for a bath. These items need to be cleaned frequently.

Birds like moving, dripping or splashing water, especially if it makes gurgling noises. Thus, bird bath fountains can really attract birds. Again, smaller is probably better for the birds, even if larger fountains look more decorative.

You can buy sprayers, bubblers, misters and small fountains that plug in. But you can also find solar bird bath fountains.

If price is a problem, or even while camping, you can build a very effective DIY dripper. Poke a small hole in a plastic gallon jug of water. Fill it with water and keep the lid on. Suspend it from a low tree branch over a pie tin or saucer placed on the ground. It will drip for an hour or more to the delight of the birds.



Please let me know in the comments what other questions you have about setting up a bird feeding station and I'll try to add an answer.



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