If you have been feeding birds for a while and get only a few kinds of birds at your feeder, there are two possibilities: you only have a few kinds of birds in your area or you are not offering what they need. Under the best circumstances, many if not most of the bird species living or migrating through your neighborhood will visit your feeders. Some of them regularly, others rarely. The best way to get a wide variety of birds to visit your feeder is to make sure you are giving them the foods they prefer in a way that is enticing to them.
"Birdseed" can mean a number of things. "Wild Bird Food" is usually blends of several types of seed, some of these blends are better than others due to the actual components of the mixture. Sunflower seed is the best all-around food to offer songbirds, in or out of the hull. The hull helps to preserve the kernel, but if you want to clean up less debris feed sunflower "chips" or kernels. Safflower seed is attractive to a number of songbirds and less attractive (supposedly) to squirrels and undesirable birds like cowbirds and house sparrows. Cracked corn and peanuts are broadly attractive to birds, but if they spoil they may present toxicity problems. If you offer corn or peanuts, be sure to keep the feed dry and clean up regularly. Milo and white millet are enjoyed by ground-feeding birds, but only offer small amounts at a time on a daily or two-day cycle to keep excess seed from building up and spoiling.
Know what you are purchasing. Cheap blends usually contain high percentages of filler seeds like red millet, flax, oats and others which are not attractive to most birds. This wastes your money and makes a mess that you have to cleanup. Spend a little more and get the good stuff, or start with straight sunflower seed and add other components to it.
Thistle seed is a specialty that is fed by itself in its own type of feeder. Thistle feeders are usually tube feeders with tiny ports, or mesh 'socks'. Finches, particularly American goldfinches, are the target species, although other finches will eat thistle.
Suet is a wonderful supplement, especially for cold weather. Cakes of rendered beef suet with seeds, dried fruit, and/or nuts offer high calorie/high energy food often fed via cage type feeders. They are used by many of the regular feeder visitors, and are particularly attractive to the omnivores, giving them another culinary attraction to pique their interest. Feeding suet in summer can be difficult because the fat melts, so look for "no-melt" cakes that are blended with a thickener like corn meal.
Some birds are carnivorous, and seeds are not appealing. Offer them mealworms. Mealworms can be purchased either live or freeze dried, and are typically given in a fly-in or tray type feeder. Lots of birds love eating mealworms, so choose your feeder type and location wisely. Feed just a few at a time...theyíre pretty expensive and will be eaten quickly once the birds catch on. If you aren't squeamish about it you can try raising your own to keep the cost down.
You can also feed birds right from your kitchen pantry. Chunks of fruit, reconstituted raisins and even a dollop of jelly will attract birds in spring, during the migration and while natural fruit sources are still scarce. They can be fed in a saucer or shallow bowl. Peanut butter is a fun ingredient for making homemade bird treats. The elementary school craft of rubbing it on a pine cone then rolling it in birdseed really works! It offers another high protein, high energy option that may attract a wider range of birds. Treat the peanut butter as you would treat peanuts: donít let it stay out long enough to spoil (mainly a warm weather problem). Sun dry or roast your scrap pumpkin and squash seeds, and give them to the birds.
Hummingbirds drink nectar, the equivalent is either a commercial "nectar" or homemade sugar water. The commercial stuff is fine for the sake of convenience. Opt for the kind without red dye, it is not necessary and may or may not affect the birdsí health. Far more cost-effective is sugar water. Mix 1/4 cup of sugar per cup of water. Heat the water to boiling, turn it off and add the sugar. Stir until the sugar is completely dissolved. Let it come to room temperature before filling the feeder. Store extra in the refrigerator until needed, up to a week. Avoid spoilage and feed daily in small quantities. Hummingbirds are very territorial, so several feeders may be necessary to accommodate larger populations. Feed hummingbirds earlier in spring and later in fall than you expect them. Their migrations can be surprisingly early or late depending on lots of variables, and having feeders ready can help them establish territory in your yard.
Feeder location impacts usage. Birds need to feel safe from predators and you will want to minimize opportunities for squirrels and other non-birds to chow down on the bird treats. If you have plenty of shrubs and trees in your yard, that helps tremendously. A location where you can observe the birds comfortably indoors is ideal. Feeders should be kept away from overhanging trees where squirrels could access them from above.
If you want more birds at your feeders, focus on the food. A $100 feeder will only work marginally well if it is filled with poor quality food. You will be much more successful by using high quality bird food, regardless of the type of feeder, and choosing the kinds of food that best suit your local bird populations.
Images by Melody Rose