Feeding birds in your backyard can be an entertaining and educational experience. It can also help birds get through cold winters and long nights when food is sparse and our avian friends expend more energy to generate heat. Growing up near Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area, I had the benefit of observing northern bird ecosystems while washing the dishes. Our window feeder attracted a wide variety of birds during the day, and it wasn’t uncommon to see several dozen varieties over one season.

While bird feeding can be a mutually beneficial arrangement, new information suggests that we need to take care when providing food for our feathered friends or else we risk spreading disease and increasing bird fatalities. Adhering to a few best practices when setting out your winter bird feeder will improve your overall birding experience and bring better results for you and the birds.

Locating Your Bird Feeder

When considering where to put your bird feeder, study your yard and what types of birds are in the neighborhood. Many birds prefer to have some trees and shrubs close by for cover from predators, but other factors will also help determine whether or not bird will visit your feeder for a snack.

1. Choose a sheltered location free from disturbances. Locate your feeder close to trees and at least thirty feet away from windows (or closer than three feet).
2. If possible, plant some vegetation close to your bird feeder location. Shrubs with berries will be especially popular and help attract more birds to your yard. Birds that are feeding very close to your house are also less likely to be injured from window collisions if nearby shrubs provide cover and perching space. Seeds scattered under the eaves of your roof will also stay drier (or the feeder can have its own roof).
3. Place some leaf or other stickers on the windows to make the glass visible to birds.
4. If you don’t have a tree near your bird feeder location, place feeders on a pole or hang at least two yards above the ground to keep birds safer from ground predators. Metal poles or flashing will make the pole more difficult for predators or squirrels to climb. You can also use the inverted plastic ‘bowls’ (at least 18 inches in diameter) on the pole and/or over the bird feeder to prevent squirrel and cat access. Just be sure to keep your feeder at least 10 feet from trees, railings or other structures that squirrels can use as a platform to launch a flying leap.
5. Add a nearby birdbath, pond or fountain to make your place a veritable avian Shangri La. The sound of running or dripping water is a great bird attractant, but be sure to provide fresh water daily and clean out the bath with the bleach solution every two weeks. Heaters are now available for year-round birth baths in northern climates.

Choosing a Bird Feeder

Bird feeder

There are a few different feeding behaviors exhibited by groups of birds and providing specialized bird feeders for each of them will widen the appeal of your offerings. Silo feeders suspended off the ground and filled with black oil sunflower seeds are one of the best options for attracting a variety of birds that would normally feed among the trees and shrubs. These include chickadees, grosbeaks and finches.

Special niger seed silos are also available with small slots that allow finches and siskins to feed. In contrast, scattering seed on elevated platforms is a good option for ground feeders like juncos and sparrows. A tray made of hardware cloth and window screening with space underneath will allow these seeds to drain and dry. As a rule, avoid spreading seed directly on the ground since this is more likely to attract pests and make the seed…