If You Feed Them, They Will Come

Any feeder will attract birds, but you can boost variety and numbers by choosing the right one.

Feeding birds is simple—just put some seed in a feeder (or even scatter it on the sidewalk) and you’ll get at least a few feathered visitors. But there’s a bit of a trick to the kind of bird feeding that attracts large numbers of birds, including unusual ones. To start, ask yourself these questions:

Who do you invite to the party?
First, have some idea of which birds you’d like to attract. The most common desirable birds that collect at feeders are finches, chickadees, and woodpeckers. Bird bullies that tend to overrun feeders include grackles, starlings, pigeons, and crows. Discourage these large birds by using feeders with short perches.

Check with local bird experts and your local wildlife extension service on species specific to your region. It would be silly, for example, to put out fruit to attract Baltimore Orioles in Oregon—their range is east of the Rockies. Or check out the National Bird Feeding Society site, which has excellent, simple charts on which birds to target and which feeder and food to use.

What should you feed your guests?
There’s a staggering array of delicacies available these days to offer to your visitors. From seed-shaped tree ornaments to “gourmet” mixes to specialty peanut-meal butters, it’s hard to know what to serve your local birds.

Sunflower seed is the preferred seed of many small birds. If you’re looking for one type of seed, go with black-oil sunflower seed. There’s probably no one seed that attracts more birds.

Millet (also called proso) is popular with most small-beaked ground-feeding birds, such as quail, doves, juncos, sparrows, towhees, cowbirds, and red-winged blackbirds. In the Southwest, ground-feeding birds especially enjoy it. However, in the rest of the country, much of it ends up discarded on the ground.

Cracked corn attracts ground-feeding birds, such as sparrows. However, it tends to absorb water, and it attracts deer and other birdseed-snitching wildlife.

Safflower seed can be hard to find in stores, but it has the huge advantage of not attracting starlings and squirrels (unless it’s mixed with other seeds).

Thistle (also called nyger or niger) is the preferred food for finches.

Nectar attracts hummingbirds. Use a mix or make your own from this Audubon Society recipe: 1 part white sugar, 4 parts water. Boil briefly to dissolve sugar. No need to add red food coloring.

Fruit attracts berry-eating birds, such as robins, waxwings, bluebirds, and mockingbirds. Purchase special bird fruit mixtures or soak raisins and currants in water overnight and place on a platform feeder. Halved oranges attract orioles and tanagers.

Suet, which is usually a type of beef fat, is a favorite of insect-eating birds, such as woodpeckers, chickadees, bluebirds, mockingbirds, warblers, kinglets, titmice, nuthatches, bluejays, robins, and wrens.

Mealworms (sold dried) attract bluebirds, flickers, and woodpeckers.

Peanuts are enjoyed by jays, nuthatches, and woodpeckers. They’re a squirrel magnet, though, so use only with a squirrel-proof feeder.

Milo, wheat, and oats are often found in lower-priced birdseed. Most birds will eat them last, if at all. Avoid them.

Where do your feathered friends want to eat?
You’ll have better luck attracting birds if you put feeders where birds are most comfortable eating.

Keep bird feeders at least 3 feet from windows. This prevents birds from colliding with windows and also prevents movement within the house from frightening away birds.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology recommends placing feeders close to trees and shrubs to offer cover to birds as they wait for their turn to feed. However, branches can serve as jumping-off points for squirrels and cats, so they shouldn’t be closer than 10 feet.

Feed at different levels. Some birds, such as song sparrows, juncos, and towhees, are ground feeders. Finches and cardinals prefer to feed at shrub level. Chickadees, woodpeckers, and titmice like dining at tree level. Place some foods at each level. If you have just one feeder, place it about 5 feet high.

Once you’ve put food out, some birds will discover it within several days.

Choosing the right bird feeder: our buyer's guide to getting what you need

Ground feeder
Fill with: Any type of bird food except liquid
Attracts: Song and other sparrows*+, juncos*+, doves*+
Price: $10 to $30
Comments: Many have a screen tray to allow moisture to drain. Some have roofs to keep out snow. Impossible to squirrel-proof.

Peanut feeder
Fill with: Peanuts
Attracts: Titmice*+, woodpeckers*, bluejays*
Price: $10 to $30
Comments: Wire-mesh cage with large holes for shelled peanuts. Essential to use with a squirrel baffle since squirrels love peanuts.

Hopper (house) feeder
Fill with: Any type of bird food except liquid
Attracts: Nearly all types of birds, except hummingbirds*+, Baltimore orioles*, Eastern bluebirds*, robins+* and Carolina wrens*. Outstanding for cardinals.*
Price: $15 to $75
Comments: Mount from a pole or suspend from a tree.

Platform (tray) feeder
Fill with: Any type of bird food except liquid
Attracts: Nearly all types of birds, except hummingbirds*+, Baltimore orioles*, Eastern bluebirds*, robins*+, and Carolina wrens*. Special favorite of mourning doves*+ and juncos*+.
Price: $10 to $80
Comments: Attracts a wide variety
of birds. Easy to build yourself. Support with a pole or legs, or hang from a tree.

Thistle feeder
Fill with: Thistle seed
Attracts: Finches*+, redpolls+, pine siskin*+, indigo bunting*
Price: $10 to $40
Comments: Ideal for hanging from hooks and hangers.

Nectar feeder
Fill with: Nectar mix or sugar water
Attracts: Hummingbirds*+
Price: $5 to $45
Comments: Change nectar every three to five days to prevent deadly fermentation. Don’t use honey—it can be fatal. Doesn’t need to be red. Consider a feeder with an ant trap.

Tube feeder
Fill with: Black-oil sunflower seed is ideal. Any seed that fits through the mesh will work.
Attracts: Indigo bunting*, chickadees*+, finches*+, nuthatches*+, redpolls+, sparrows*+, titmice*+, woodpeckers*+, pine siskin*+
Price: $20 to $60
Comments: Mount on a pole or hook or suspend from a tree. Ones with short perches attract finches better.

Suet feeder
Fill with: Suet, which is usually beef or pork fat
Attracts: Chickadees*, nuthatches*+, titmice*+, woodpeckers*+, Carolina wrens*
Price: $5 to $20
Comments: Great high-calorie food for winter; traditional type goes rancid in summer but new dried types are available for warm-weather use.

*Eastern U.S. range
+Western U.S. range

Source for most of this chart: The National Bird Feeding Society