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Feeding Birds & Bird Foods

Feeding and watching birds is one of the fastest growing hobbies in the America.  Around 60 million people feed birds in the US.  The only outdoor hobby that is more popular is gardening, and the two are natural partners.  Feeding birds, and watching them at feeders is enjoyed by all ages. For birds the benefit is reliable food sources provided by feeders.  Many birds depend on feeders to get them through the winter.

All birds need food, water, and shelter, but they all have different food needs.  If you are looking for specific types of birds, you are more likely to find them if you look in their normal habitat.  You will also have more success in your backyard or garden if you are feeding the birds what they like.

Natural foods that birds eat include insects, worms, berries, fruit, flower nectar, nuts, seeds, tree sap, buds of trees and shrubs, fish, small animals, other birds, and eggs. They even scavenge dead animals.

You can get a clue what a bird eats by the type of beak or bill the bird has. A thick cone shaped bill is good for cracking seeds. Examples would be cardinals, grosbeaks, finches, sparrows, and towhees. These birds eat seeds all year long, eating insects when seeds are scarce.

For a look at different types of bird beak see Anatomy.

Other factors that determine a birdís diet include flight habits, sight, and hearing.  For example birds like the swallow that feed while flying, rely mostly on insects for food.  The eyesight of eagles, and hawks lets them see prey from great distances. The hearing of an owl helps it detect rodents in darkness.  A heron not only has ability to see fish, but it is able to allow for refraction of the water.  Robins can see, and hear slight movements of earthworms.


Since the availability of food plays a large role in determining what a bird eats, seasonal changes make a difference.  When fruits are ripe the birds feed on fruit.  Insects are more plentiful at certain times of a year.  Birds are great opportunists, and will eat what is available.  Most migrating birds will eat to help build fat for their migration. To entice birds to stay all year you will need to provide food for them all year.  During winter small birds eat all day long because they burn food up rapidly keeping warm, so they need a constant supply.  It is more difficult for many birds to find food in the winter months.  When there is heavy snow on the ground the supply of food for seed eating birds may be hard to find or get to.  Ice and snow can make it difficult for birds that depend on getting insects, and their eggs from beneath bark. This can be a great time to observe birds since they may become tamer if they need to use feeders more.

Water for Birds

One of the best ways to attract a variety of birds to your yard is to have a clean source of water such as a shallow birdbath, or small pond for them to drink and bathe in.  Most birds cannot resist water, and will make frequent trips to a water source. Song birds usually prefer water close to a protective cover like shrubs or trees.  They like the water far enough from vegetation so that they can keep an eye on what is around them, and close enough for them to dive for cover if they detect predators.  They will check out the water from a close by tree, and then dive down for a drink or splash.  Another consideration in summer is having the water at least partially shaded so it does not get to hot.  The birds will splash in the water to clean their feathers.  During cleaning most birds rub oil from the preen gland on their feathers.  Some do what is called anting, where they rub an ant on their feathers to help fight parasites.  This is thought by some to fall under the use of tools, and be a sign of intelligence.
Here is great selection of bird baths and garden fountains.

To accommodate the bathing of different sizes of birds, make sure the edges of the birdbath slope gradually upward towards the edge.  If your water source has varying levels of shallow and deep water it will be used by a wider variety of birds, as smaller birds will need shallower water to bathe, and splash in. Many birdbaths have smooth slippery edges.  It is best to have roughened material so birds can have firm footing.

The sound of running water is hard for birds to resist.  You can use a pump in your bird bath or pond to get water flowing. 
Observing birds around water in the wild will aid you in creating a spot in your backyard or garden that will attract them.  You can buy a bird bath or it is easy to make a small pool.  Use an old barrel, a plastic pool, or line a hole in the ground with plastic sheeting.
Try providing water in winter too since many natural sources will be frozen.

When birds find a good source of water they will likely return repeatedly.  Observing birds around water in the wild will aid you in creating a spot in your backyard or garden that will attract them.  You can buy a bird bath or it is easy to make a small pool.  Use an old barrel, a plastic pool, or line a hole in the ground with plastic sheeting.

The best way to develop a backyard that will attract birds is to observe the birds in the wild. Birds like natural habitats. A garden that looks like the natural habit is more likely to be visited by birds then one with excessive pruning. The reason nest boxes are used by birds is they have the same function as tree cavities in the wild. By watching birds in their natural surroundings you will get a good idea of where to put your nest box or feeder.

Feeding Hummingbirds
Their unique habits and beautiful jewel colors make hummingbirds one of the most popular birds to watch. The two main sources of food for hummingbirds are nectar, and small insects. They will visit all flowers but are especially attracted to red, orange, and bright pink. To attract these little bird jewels plant flowering annuals, perennials, and shrubs.

There are many different Hummingbird feeders sold, or you can make your own.  As they say if you build it they will come.  They love sugar water.  Here is a simple formula.  About 1 part white sugar to 4 parts water. Boil the water, add the sugar until it dissolves, and let it cool.  Once you get Hummingbirds coming to you feeders fill them daily. You should clean them every few days. Rinse them with hot water. A little vinegar added to the water will help fight mold.

Unfortunately insects also like sugar water. For a hanging feeder a little petroleum jelly on the wire will keep ants away. Flying insects are a little harder. Try a small amount of the jelly around feeder openings. You can also get bee guards, plastic grates that cover the openings. Other birds such as sparrows, woodpeckers, and chickadees will also visit the feeders, especially if there is a perch for them.

Hand Feeding Birds

It comes as a surprise to many people that wild birds will eat out of your hand.  Birds such as chickadees, nuthatches, Downy woodpeckers, hummingbirds, and others will eat out of your hand .  The trick here is to get them used to seeing you around the feeder.  They will soon start to feed even if you are there.  Once they start to do this, stand still and hold out your hand with some bird seed in it.

  Here are some videos of hand eating birds.

Providing food for birds
The main food bird feeders provide are grains, seeds, nuts, and fats in the form of suet. Fruit and sugar water and even bakery products are also good.

Many songbirds are attracted to seeds. There are many good feeders you can buy, or you can just design your own. The main food bird feeders provide are grains, seeds, nuts, and fats in the form of suet. It is best to provide a mix of sizes. Niger, billet, and sunflower seeds make a good mix. Certain birds like robins will be attracted to pieces of fruit possibly put on a stick. Many birds like bakery products.

In addition to bird feed, it is good to provide grit.  Birds do not have teeth, and depend on hard particles in their gizzards to grind up their food.  You can get grit at bird feed stores, and garden centers.  Some forms of grit are ground oyster shells, sand with particles of quartz, and crushed eggshells.  Grit will also give the birds calcium, which is essential to bird's diets, especially during nesting season when they need more calcium to produce strong eggs.  Spread the grit on the ground, or put it in small containers away from the feeders to avoid bird droppings.

Seeds and Grains
Bird seed can be found in a variety of retail stores.  Many experienced bird watchers will avoid much of commercial mixes because they have inexpensive seeds in them the birds will not eat.

You can attract specific birds by offering only feed you know they will eat.  One way to find out what the bird you want to attract eats is to put containers of different foods out, and watch which food they eat.  Preferences do change though so you may want to test at different times of the year.  To get started go with the most popular feed.

Black oil sunflower was designed specifically to feed wild birds.  It is all black with a thin papery shell.  Most song birds that eat sunflower prefer it.  It is good for the birds because it is rich in oil and fat, which helps birds through cold winter nights.  It is also a good buy because 70 percent of the seed is meat.  It can be put in feeders or just thrown on the ground.

Sunflower hearts can be purchased unshelled to lessen the mess.  They are more expensive than shelled seeds, but they last significantly longer.  They do not last long if exposed to the weather so it is best to only use them in feeders.
This seed will help you attract favorite birds, and discourage unpopular birds.  It has hard shells, and some birds like starlings have more trouble eating it.  Other birds like cardinals, chickadees and nuthatches will love it.  It is also good for birds because it is rich in oil.  Like sunflower seeds this can be offered either in feeders of spread on the ground.
Niger Seed
This small black seed is a favorite of certain birds like goldfinches, and Pine siskin.  Many other birds will prefer other seeds.  Again the best way to know is to test.
This is a small, round, shiny cream colored seed, found often in mixed bird seed.  Birds like sparrows, cardinals, and juncos will eat this.

There are a number of forms corn can be offered in.  Northern cardinals, sparrows, blackbirds, and many others love cracked corn.  Corn cobs, or corn meal mush are also popular.  This makes a great winter food because the high carbohydrates are good for keeping birds warm.
Nuts are a great winter food because they are high in calories, and fat.  Some birds may have trouble with harder shelled nuts.  Peanuts have a lighter shell than most.

Other Bird Foods
Next to black-oil sunflower, suet is a favorite of people who feed birds.  Woodpeckers, nuthatches, bluebirds, chickadees, and many more birds are attracted to suet.  Beef suet is the best.  You can get it from a butcher.  If you are going to melt it, ask the butcher to grind it for you.  Suet cakes can be made with all kinds of tasty treats in them.  Heat the suet to melt it.  Let it cool a little to thicken, and add your ingredients.  You can add raisins, peanut butter, fruits, and cornmeal.  Pour the mixture in to small containers and store in a freezer.  If you donít like the work you can buy commercial suet cakes.  They have the advantage of not spoiling as fast, but many birds prefer the soft homemade cakes.
Baked Goods
Most birds love baked goods.  White bread crumbs, doughnuts, crackers, pancakes, and more.
Fruit and Jelly
A bowl with cut up fruit, and jelly will attract robins, mockingbirds, orioles, and many others.  Try putting half an orange on a stick.
Orioles, warblers, Purple martins, and other birds will come for mealworms.  Wild bird supplies, pet stores, and fish bait shops will have mealworms.
Sugar Water
As mentioned earlier this is great for hummingbirds.  Many other birds also like it.  Grosbeaks, cardinals, finches, woodpeckers, and chickadees are just few of the birds that will come to sugar water feeders.

The Birds Shop has special bird seed and suet cakes.

Click here for Bird Feeders.

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