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Chickadee at Bird Feeder

It's the end of October, and the cold is settling in for more northern states. By now, many of your backyard bird neighbors may have departed southward, and you might be thinking of doing the same. Not every bird leaves for the winter, though. Even though birds who stay while the snow flies don't really need help from humans, feeding birds is a great way to get to know them better. Read on for tips on who to feed and how, and keeping birds safe and healthy while they enjoy your offerings.

The list of feeder birds in North America includes chickadees, cardinals, nuthatches, jays, juncos, titmice, wrens, woodpeckers, grackles, mourning doves, sparrows, finches of all sorts—goldfinches, house finches, grosbeaks, redpolls—well, I could keep going, but I bet you get the idea. You can attract the entire parade with just a few kinds of high-quality food: black oil sunflower seed, suet cakes, and nyjer thistle seed for the little finches. Avoid seed mixes. They include some seeds that picky birds may avoid, so they tend to waste a lot while digging out their favorites. Be sure to buy the freshest seed you can find. Birds can tell the difference, and will avoid old seed in favor of nutritious, and healthier, new seed.

Each species has a different feeding style

So hanging a couple of different kinds of feeders will attract the widest variety of guests. Birds who perch while they forage, like chickadees and many woodpeckers, prefer tube feeders with rods to stand or hang on. Ground feeding birds such as sparrows and doves prefer platform feeders. Squirrel poachers are persistent, but you can deter them by hanging your feeders on tall poles with metal baffles. Try to set up your feeders away from trees, though, otherwise the squirrels will easily leap from more accessible platforms!

Bird feeders concentrate large numbers of birds in a small area. When they use the same feeding stations, birds may more easily transmit diseases that could spread through the whole flock. Prevent birds from sharing parasites and diseases by cleaning your feeders with soap and water at least every two weeks, more often if you can. In northern states, you should take down, clean and put away bird feeders by April 1 to avoid attracting bears to your backyard. Wait until mid-November to put the bird feeder back up, when most bears have gone into hibernation.

To keep your birdseed buffet from becoming a bird buffet for predators, place feeders within range of cover, like shrubs and bushes. Leave enough space—at least five feet of clearance—so birds can see stalking cats in time to make their escape.

I have a feeder hanging in my kitchen window, and few things make me as happy as watching the chickadees and cardinals clean me out of sunflower seeds every day in December. It takes a little while for birds to find new feeders, but once they do, they keep a close eye on them! Set your feeders up soon to guarantee you'll be enjoying your bird-neighbors' company all through the cold winter.


About Erin Gettler
Erin Gettler is a writer, photographer and naturalist living on Long Island, New York. She likes long walks in the woods, but she's too slow for real hiking on account of stopping to look at every little thing. She travels with a sketchbook, and keeps a spare pair of binoculars to share.