Building a backyard bird habitat can be as simple or as difficult as you'd like it to be. But there are a few basic things that can turn a simple backyard setup into a true haven for your avian friends.
1. A birdfeeder. Sounds simple enough, right? The problem is that when you walk into your neighborhood farm or hardware store that sells bird accessories, you may quickly become overwhelmed with the sheer variety of feeder options available. There are ball feeders, hopper feeders, tube feeders, platform feeders, window feeders, suet feeders, thistle feeders, nectar feeders, fruit feeders, and squirrel feeders. (Wait, did I just make reference to actually feeding these oversized tree rats? Yes, I did, but more on that later).
The most important thing you're going to want to consider when buying a feeder is the type of yard you have and the type of neighborhood you live in. If you live in a neighborhood with squirrels or raccoons, you will want to choose a sturdy feeder that probably has some type of squirrel guard to keep them from cleaning out your whole feeder in a matter of hours.
You'll also want to be careful not to let your enthusiasm for your new hobby to become overwhelming. Start small with only the number of feeders you know you can maintain. For most beginners a single feeder or maybe two is a good start. Remember that feeders will need regular filling and cleaning, so be sure to think about how much time you're willing to invest before putting up 20 different feeders that get neglected because you didn't have as much time as you thought you had. It is important to remember that the more feeders you have the more birds you can support and the more of them you'll see in your backyard. One or two feeders will support some birds but three or four can support many more, so it's really a tradeoff between how many birds you want to attract and how many feeders you have the time and resources to commit.
Ball feeders and window feeders tend to work for smaller birds while thistle feeders tend to attract specific species (think American Goldfinch here). Single and triple tube feeders tend to attract a wider variety of birds and also tend to hold more quantities of seed, which means you have to fill them less frequently. Platform feeders come in a variety of styles from ground to hanging varieties. I have made some to attach to deck railings and if you're handy, they're not difficult to make.
2. Birdseed. Here again you have multiple options to choose from and you can keep it as simple or make it as complicated as you like. Personally, I like to offer a variety of feed types in order to attract the widest variety of birds possible.
Wild birdseed - this is usually a mixture of red millet, white millet, sunflower seeds, and sometimes cracked corn. This tends to be the cheapest type of feed available and there is a lot of variability between brands. Some birds prefer this mix as they tend to like smaller seeds, but you'll need to experiment with different brands to see which one your birds prefer.
Black Oil Sunflower seed - this is the go-to, all-around seed that most birds will eat. While they may sometimes prefer a different kind, most of them will eat sunflower seed, so if you're only going to buy a single kind, this one is your best bet. It is a little more expensive than wild birdseed, but it's cheaper if you buy in bulk, and you can shop around at different places in your town to find the cheapest.
Striped Sunflower seed - this is a large, striped seed that birds with larger bills tend to prefer, but other birds will eat it as well. Squirrels also tend to love this type of seed as well as they get a bigger seed for their effort, and since it's one of the more expensive seeds you can buy, this may or may not be something you want to offer. I will usually mix striped and black oil in a feeder that is large enough to accommodate both types.
Safflower seed - this is a smaller seed with a white shell that a lot of birds tend to enjoy. It also tends to be a little more expensive. If you've only been feeding one or two types of seed, be patient as the birds may not take to it right away. But in my experience, it tends to become one of their favorite types of seed once they get used to it.
Suet - this is a mixture of rendered fat mixed with seeds that comes in a number of varieties. It's a favorite of many species of birds and woodpeckers in particular. There is high energy suet, which is the cheapest and also one of the more favored varieties, but squirrels and raccoons tend to like it as well. To remedy that problem, you can buy hot pepper suet which the birds don't mind at all, but the mammals don't like the heat, so they tend to avoid it. Other than buying pepper suet, there isn't much you can do to keep squirrels and raccoons off your suet. Your only option would be to pole-mount the suet, put a squirrel baffle on the pole underneath it, and place a little more than jumping distance from the nearest climbing surface. In addition to the high energy and hot pepper varieties you can get a number of what I like to call designer suet. I refer to them in this way because they come in fancy flavors such as peanut butter, raisin, fruit and nut, apple, insect, mealworm, and others. Personally, I tend to avoid them because they are more expensive, and squirrels can take care of a $1.10 high energy cake or a $2.30 apple cake in the same amount of time.
Mealworms - Don't get grossed out here because these are an excellent addition to a good feeding station as they provide a high level of nutrition, particularly during nesting season. You can get them in live or dried varieties. Obviously, the dried varieties tend to be easier to deal with as you can store them with your regular birdseed (keeping live mealworms is more complicated), but birds can sometimes be picky with these, especially if they've been fed live mealworms previously. But if you want to give it a try, just put out a few and be patient. Once the birds realize how good they are, they'll become regular visitors. Another thing to think about is that not all birds eat seeds, so you may be able to attract different species that you wouldn't otherwise see at your feeders.
3. A water source. You get thirsty when you eat, right? Well, so do our feathered friends. Birds need a regular source of fresh water just as much as they need food. This doesn't have to be complicated but they do need a reliable source of clean water, that is ideally changed every day to avoid algae growth. This is where you should try to keep it simple. You can buy hanging bird baths that have small, shallow bowls that can be easily dumped and washed. You can use bigger, heavier, concrete bird baths, but these tend to be a problem in the winter as they will likely crack. You can buy bird bath heaters for larger baths but, personally, that's getting more complicated than I want to deal with.
A note on squirrels. I made mention above about feeding the squirrels, so I probably need to explain what I meant by that. Over the years I have lost many battles with our long-tailed friends and have learned one big lesson: learn to live with them. Sure, you can buy baffles, squirrel proof feeders (some of them are pretty good), and cayenne pepper powder to mix in with your seed (which is highly dependent on how much water can get to your seed), but this can run into a lot of time, effort, and money. I have found that it's helpful to have some squirrel proof feeders and some feeders that you're willing to let the squirrels use. There are wire mesh feeders that squirrels tend to like to use as they can hang on them while they eat, but the design of the feeders means the squirrels can't dig out the seed as easily as they can in a tube feeder. The result? They can't eat nearly as much as they would otherwise.
I also find that it's nice to have a corncob feeder or a platform feeder with corn in it and the squirrels will often gravitate towards that. They can actually be cute to look at when they're sitting on a little seat munching on a cob of corn. And if you give them some things they like, and some feeders that they'll use more readily, they will often stay away from your other feeders. With a little work, you might be able to come to a happy compromise with them so you're less stressed out about them.
Click here to watch some videos of the birds that have come to my feeders.
Madbird Biologist - Mark A. Dunaway
I am a wildlife biologist and nature recording expert who is passionate about our planet and the species we share it with. I am an advocate for conservation and enjoy educating others about the plants and animals around us. Tag along with me as I document what I'm up do or talk about things I think others may be interested in. Thanks for joining me on this journey into the natural world.