Enjoy Your Bird Feeder

Posted: February 4, 2016

Action, color, drama, song; it’s all there at your backyard bird feeder. Feeding birds is a great way to brighten a dreary winter day. It’s also a never-ending source of entertainment and enjoyment. You’ll get to know the regulars and, if you’re lucky, you’ll be rewarded with surprise visits from birds not usually found in your area.

In winter approximately 35 species of birds may be seen at feeders in Pennsylvania. According to Margaret C. Brittingham, Professor of Wildlife Resources, the type of habitat around your home influences the number of birds visiting your feeder. The greatest diversity appears at feeders in wooded rural areas, whereas the smallest comes to feeders in urban areas. In one suburban yard in southeastern Pennsylvania, feeders attracted 25 bird species during the winter. This diversity no doubt was bolstered by an abundance of trees and shrubs and a heated birdbath, in addition to numerous feeders.

Ten species of birds are most commonly observed at bird feeders in Pennsylvania. To learn to identify the species at your feeder, get a field guide to the birds. You can find good field guides at bookstores and libraries.

There are many kinds of seeds and feeders, and the choice may seem overwhelming at times. Different species of birds prefer different types of seeds and feeders, and no one type is preferred by all birds. Where you set up your feeders and how much cover and water you have also affects feeder use. The type of seed you provide influences how many birds come to your feeder. Over 20 types of seeds are sold as birdseed. The best all-round is probably the small black-oil sunflower seed. It costs a little more but is preferred by many smaller species, including chickadees, nuthatches, and titmice. It has a high oil content that is nutritionally important for birds, and a thin seed coat.

The striped sunflower seed, slightly larger, is very popular with blue jays and cardinals, but it is difficult for many smaller species to crack open. Sunflower seeds usually are provided in a hanging feeder. A disadvantage of sunflower seeds is that birds crack them open to eat the hearts and then drop the hulls on the ground, creating a mess under the feeder. You may instead opt to buy hulled sunflower seeds, which come without the seed coat. These are more expensive but leave no mess.

If you want to attract a variety of species, try providing a variety of foods. Besides sunflower seeds, other popular seed types include white proso millet, niger, and peanuts. White proso millet is cheap and attracts many species, but it may also attract less desirable ones, such as house sparrows and brown- headed cowbirds. Niger or thistle seed is popular because of its attractiveness to goldfinches, house finches, and purple finches. Niger seed is very small and usually offered in a special feeder with small holes for dispensing the seeds.

For more information on this topic get a copy of “Winter Bird Feeding: The Basics”. This can be ordered from the College of Agricultural Sciences Publications Distribution Center, Phone: 877-345-0691, E-mail:

(Contributed by Leon J. Ressler, District 17 Director as part of his Now Is The Time Column for February 6, 2016.)