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Bird feeding 101 – attracting birds and maintaining feeders

  • 4/25/2023 11:42:00 AM
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Bird feeding is among the most popular pastimes in the country, enjoyed by an estimated 57 million people who spend roughly $4 billion annually on seed, baths and feeders, books and binoculars.

Whether attached to decks, hanging in the backyard or off the front porch, Iowans enjoy watching birds come and go from their feeders all year long. Anna Buckardt Thomas, avian ecologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, said beginning bird feeding is easy and including different types of feeders and a bird bath will increase bird use and species diversity.

“Birds eat different foods and in different ways. For example, woodpeckers attach to trees and approach the food vertically, so suet feeders will attract woodpeckers, nuthatches and chickadees,” she said. “Tube feeders with black oil sunflower or thistle seeds will attract finches. Platform feeders will bring in blue jays, cardinals, and sparrows that like to eat standing on the platform.”

For do it yourselfers, she said slice an orange or clementine in half and place it in a suet feeder, on a nail or specially designed feeder to attract grosbeaks and orioles in the spring and summer. Soaking raisins or currants overnight (pat dry before placing in a feeder) will attract cedar waxwings, orioles, and gray catbirds. Bluebirds prefer meal worms.

Nectar feeders attract hummingbirds, and the nectar can be made at home by bringing four cups of water to a boil then stirring in one cup of white cane sugar – and only white cane sugar - till dissolved, then allow to cool. Do not add any coloring. Hummingbirds will be attracted to the feeder itself, not the color of the liquid inside. Also consider planting native flowers are a natural hummingbird feeder.

Buckardt Thomas said she rotates the type of food seasonally, with fruits and nectar preferred during the late spring and summer months, and seeds and suet during the colder months, but used by birds all year long.

Other birds, like warblers, don’t use the seed but will come for water.

Provide a shallow birdbath set close to the ground, in the shade if possible. Birds will drink from it and splash around in it. Replace the water and clean the birdbath with a 10 percent bleach solution once per week.

Maintaining bird baths and feeders is important to prevent mold and diseases from causing health issues among the feathered visitors.

Clean the feeders once per month with the bleach solution and make sure the feeder is dry before filling with seed. Buckardt Thomas also recommends cleaning the ground underneath the feeders periodically to prevent mold. Nectar feeders should be emptied and cleaned with soap and hot water or the bleach solution every three days or so.

“If you see birds not moving like normal, or see something like conjunctivitis, remove the feeders and wash them and keep them down for at least a week to reduce the spread of any diseases,” she said. “That will help to prevent congregating birds in close proximity and spreading disease.”

Hawks and Cats

Feeders can be hunting grounds for bird eating predators including Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks and housecats.

“It’s part of nature but it can be shocking to see a hawk take a bird off the feeder, but if you can, try to enjoy the experience. If it bothers you to have hawks around, you can pull the feeders for a while and they will move on,” Buckardt Thomas said. “Domestic housecats are the number one human related cause of bird deaths in North America, accounting for an estimated 1-3 billion bird deaths each year. The cats are just doing what they are designed to do, but if you plan to attract birds to your yard, make sure the birds are safe, and keep your cats indoors.”

Window Collisions

Birds can’t see glass, but see the reflection of the outdoors or of themselves or other birds, often causing them to collide with the window. To help avoid collisions or to minimize the impact, place anti-collision stickers, tapes, or cordson the window, put the feeder either near the window so if they hit it, they won’t be going too fast, or far away so they can avoid it.

More information on ways to avoid bird-glass collisions is available on the following websites: