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Bird Feeders: 4 Types of Bird Feeders for Your Backyard | The Old Farmer's Almanac

Bird Feeders: What's the Best Type of Feeder?

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Best Bird Feeders for Cardinals and Other Birds

Catherine Boeckmann
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As colder weather arrives, birds’ food supplies will begin to decrease. Consider adding bird feeders to your yard. Here are four basic types of bird feeders—which attract different types of birds!

Bird Feeder Basics

When it comes to basic bird feeders, any simple construction with a flat surface (possibly lipped at the edges) will serve as a bird feeder. Add a simple roof to protect it from the weather. Above all, it must be easy to keep clean.

There are many different types bird feeders out there. Just recognize that getting a bird feeder also means:

  • Bird food. It can be expensive to keep bird feeders filled, so recognize that you’ll need to keep those feeders filled with seed or suet. (If you’re giving/getting a gift, adding bird food is a great idea!) We have a chart on what different types of birds like to eat: Wild Food Bird Preferences.
  • Predator prevention. A bird feeder needs a hook, a pole, and a baffle to keep predators away. See more information below.
  • Squirrels! If you have a lot of squirrels in the area, be ready to feed them, too. To cut down on our “furry bird” consumption, choose metal feeders or designs with thick, sturdy materials that squirrels will be less able to damage. Also, look for feeders designed with doors or hatches that will close when triggered by a squirrel’s weight but not by a lighter birds’ weight.

Four Types of Bird Feeders

If you do wish to cater to a specific kind of feathered friend in your area, consider the following four basic types of feeders:

Platform Feeder

A platform feeder or a bird feeder with a built-in tray will attract the widest variety of seed-eating birds, especially ground-feeding birds like juncos, towhees, and mourning doves. Place it one to three feet above the ground. Note that tray feeders offer limited protection against rain and snow. The best tray feeders have a screened, rather than solid, bottom to promote complete drainage; at the very least, tray feeders should have several drainage holes. Even with drainage, the bottom should be removable for fairly frequent cleaning. Don’t add too much seed at a time—perhaps one or two day’s worth—and shake out the bottom every time you add new seeds.

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House Feeder

Hung from a tree or mounted on a pole, “house”-style feeders with seed hoppers and perches on the side will usually entice grosbeaks, cardinals, and jays. Houses can be harder to clean. While they carry a few days of seed, you also need to be sure it doesn’t get wet and the house is tightly sealed—otherwise, bacteria and fungus can develop, both of which are dangerous to birds. House feeders can be mounted on a pole or suspended. They are squirrel magnets, so a baffle is important if you don’t want to feed the furry birds.

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Tube Feeders

Long, cylindrical tube feeders suspended in the air will bring in an array of small birds, including finches, titmice, sparrows, nuthatches, grosbeaks, siskins, and chickadees.

The tube does a nice job of keeping seed dry, but the seed that collects at the bottom of the tube can be a place for mold and bacteria to grow. When adding new seed to tube feeders, always empty the old seed out first. The tube feeder is usually more squirrel resistant than the platform or house feeder, though nothing is entirely squirrel proof!

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Suet Feeders

Suet feeders attract a variety of woodpeckers, nuthatches, chickadees, titmice, jays, and starlings. Suet cages that open only at the bottom force birds to hang upside down while feeding. This design usually excludes the annoying starlings, which have trouble perching that way.

Suet feeders may be constructed of wire mesh or plastic-coated wire mesh, or be a simply mesh onion bag. They can be nailed or tied to a tree trunk, suspended, or affixed to the side of a hopper feeder.

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Placement of Bird Feeders

1. Avoid Window Strikes. Bird feeders help birds, but they also increase the likelihood of deadly window impacts. Window strikes at people’s homes kill at least 150 million birds each year in the United States. 

It’s important to place any birdfeeder within at least three feet of the nearest window so that birds don’t hurt themselves upon liftoff; or place them more than 30 feet away so that feeding birds have plenty of space to clear the house.

2. Protect from Squirrels and Bully Birds. Squirrels can jump distances of 10 feet or greater, so place feeders 8 to 10 feet away from a tree, roof, fence, or any structure that could be a launching pad for squirrels. Ideally, mount or hang feeders on a smooth metal pole at least six feet high, and prune back any branches or bushes within a 12-foot radius.

Critters including raccoons can climb wooden poles or PVC pipes. Use a smooth metal pipe instead. A 3/4-inch conduit pipe is ideal, but any heavy metal pipe that is rust-free will work. Place an 8-foot pipe 2 feet into the ground, so that you have a 6-foot height for your bird feeder. Grease or wax the pole from the ground to about 6 inches from the top with a non-drying automotive grease or carnuba wax.

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You can also place a wire cage around a bird feeder. Squirrels will not fit through small wire openings, but that will not restrict smaller birds from feeding. This is also useful for preventing larger bully birds, such as starlings, grackles, blue jays, and pigeons, from accessing the feeder. Some feeders come equipped with cages, or you can easily add mesh such as chicken wire around an existing feeder. 

3. Protect from the Ground. Get a domed baffle, which is a disk-like object that wraps around the pole about 6 inches below the feeder to prevent access from the ground. The baffles should be at least 15 to 18 inches wide or long to prevent squirrels from reaching around them. Many squirrel baffles are designed to twirl or tilt if a squirrel climbs onto them, keeping the animal off balance and unable to access the feeder.

See an example of a pole kit, hook, and baffle.

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More Notes on Squirrels

For health reasons: Keep the area around the feeder clean and remove debris and spilled seed from the ground. This also ensures that ground-feeding birds do not eat old, contaminated, or rotting seed.

Squirrels are less attracted to nyjer and safflower seed, both of which have a slightly bitter taste. By using these seeds exclusively, you close the squirrel snack bar without eliminating feeding the birds.

See more tips for dealing with troublesome garden squirrels on our Squirrels Pest Page.

When Can You Feed the Birds?

It largely depends on where you live. A feeder attracts feathered friends your way so that you can watch them, but it can also attract a variety of larger animals, like raccoons, skunks, and bears. For this reason, it’s recommended that you not put out bird feeders during the spring and fall in areas where bears are present, as they may see your bird feeders as an easy source of food. Monitor closely during the summer, too, and take down your feeders at the first sign of bears in your area. Consider feeding birds most regularly during the winter months, when other food sources are scarce and bears are hibernating. 

Birds get their food from a variety of sources and migrate on their own schedule, so your feeding doesn’t have much impact overall. Think of it as an “extra” treat or supplement.

However, well-placed bird feeders are especially helpful when a bird’s natural plant food has waned in wintertime, especially when their natural habitat is lacking. In the case of a bad winter storm, your feed could actually make a difference. See how to make your own suet recipe for the birds!

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