Bird Feeding

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Photograph of a red-headed woodpecker at a bird feeder
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Watching birds at feeders can increase your bird-ID skills and brighten your day. You can feed birds year-round or just in winter when natural foods are tougher to find. Birds flock to backyard feeders especially when snow or ice covers their natural foods and temperatures fall to extreme lows.

Learn what seeds, feeders, and landscaping choices will attract which birds to your Missouri backyard.

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Food Preferences

Some birds, such as tufted titmice and chickadees, are finicky eaters, whereas mourning doves and white-throated sparrows will eat about any type of seed. Many people start with black-oil sunflower seeds and add other seeds to draw in more species.

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Sunflower Seed and Millet

Black, oil-type sunflower seed and white millet rate best for attracting birds. You can buy these separately or find them in wild bird seed mixes. If buying seed mixes, note that many mixes contain milo and corn, which many backyard birds do not eat.

Safflower Seeds

Not all birds love safflower seed, but tufted titmice and cardinals are among the species that do.

If starlings are a problem at your feeders, you can try putting out safflower seeds since starlings generally do not eat them.

Peanuts

You can feed peanuts either shelled or in the shell. Shelled peanuts will attract woodpeckers, Carolina wrens, titmice, chickadees, and blue jays. There are specialized feeders designed for shelled peanuts.

Peanuts in the shell can be placed in a feeder or on the ground. Blue jays are especially fond of unshelled peanuts and will often stash them or bury them to eat later. Squirrels are also fond of peanuts, so keep that in mind when choosing where to place peanuts.

Learn more about bird seed from Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

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Suet

Suet for birds is generally sold as a block of hardened beef fat with seeds, nuts, or dried fruits mixed in. The blocks fit into specially designed wire cages that can hang from a limb or post. Suet is a high-energy food that attracts many insect-eating birds. It can provide calories to help keep birds warm in winter or meet the high-energy demands of egg-laying during the breeding season.

Woodpeckers, chickadees, tufted titmice, and nuthatches are especially fond of suet. Other species that may visit suet feeders include Carolina wrens, ruby-crowned kinglets, and bluebirds.

You can buy blocks of suet at the store or make it yourself. Recipes for suet can be found on many birdwatching websites.

Suet often becomes rancid in warm weather and it can sometimes get melty and rub off on birds’ feathers, so offering suet in the summer is not recommended. Peanut butter is a good substitute for suet in the summer. Mix one part peanut butter with five parts corn meal and stuff the mixture into holes drilled in a hanging log or into the crevices of a large pinecone. This all-season mixture — as well as suet — attracts woodpeckers, chickadees, titmice, and, occasionally, warblers.

Mealworms

Mealworms can be a great way to attract insect-eating birds that might not otherwise visit your feeders. These include bluebirds and some warbler species.

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Fruit

Orioles and catbirds, and sometimes red-bellied woodpeckers, will come to feeders for oranges and berries. Especially during migration, fruits can provide extra energy to the birds’ regular diet, but serve them cautiously. Oranges can become fermented in warm weather, so it’s important to check them regularly and make sure they aren’t beginning to spoil. You can buy feeders for orioles that are designed to hold half an orange or orange slices.

Nectar

Hummingbirds feed on nectar in flowers and small insects attracted to native plants. You can draw them to your yard by planting native flowers or by putting up a special feeder filled with sugar water.

Learn more about how to attract hummingbirds.

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Feeding Stations

Bird-feeding stations may be as simple as seeds placed on the ground or as complicated as a feeder accessible only to birds of certain weights to keep squirrels away. A plain wooden platform can be erected as a simple feeding station. Some edging around the outside will help keep the seed from falling to the ground. You may like to add a roof and three walls to keep the rain off, or you may prefer the open platform for easy bird access and for the additional brightness for picture taking. A good way to offer sunflower seeds to birds is with a commercially available, clear-plastic cylinder or silo-type feeder.

Different birds have different feeding habits. Some songbirds, such as the dark-eyed junco, white-crowned sparrow, and Harris’s sparrow, prefer to feed directly on the ground. Cardinals and blue jays will feed either on the ground or on a platform feeder. Goldfinches and chickadees also will visit small, plastic feeders that are fixed to the outside of a window by a suction cup.

Where to put your feeders

Remember to locate your feeding station outside a room where you can relax and enjoy the visitors.

Hang feeders in places where birds can see approaching predators and fly to safety. Hawks and house cats are both known to hunt at backyard feeders.

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American Goldfinch on a Birdfeeder
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American goldfinches eating sunflower seeds

Noppadol Paothong

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Be careful of placing feeders near windows where vegetation or sky is reflected. If you hear or see birds hit your window, treat the outside of the window immediately with opaque stickers so the birds know the window is not a pass-through or escape route. Window strikes are the second-largest contributor to wild bird mortality. They are very common — act quickly if you see evidence of strikes. Treating windows is an easy fix! Learn more about how to prevent window strikes from the American Bird Conservancy.

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Year-Round Feeding

Many people enjoy feeding songbirds year-round. In fact, the most crucial times in the life of many birds are in the early spring when naturally occurring seeds are scarcer and also during inclement weather in winter. In the spring and summer, many young birds follow their parents to the feeder. It is fascinating to watch the parents show their young how to crack open the seeds.

Some birds, such as the Baltimore oriole and the ruby-throated hummingbird, are only found in Missouri in the summer for breeding season and leave in the fall for the winter. Orioles may be attracted to the feeding stations with fruit. Hummingbirds come to special feeders filled with sugar water mimicking nectar.

Bird-Feeding Myths

You may have heard that it's important to continue feeding once you start it. However, no research indicates that during normal weather birds will starve if feeding is stopped for a time. Birds often visit many feeding stations in a neighborhood. You will be amazed at how fast birds discover new feeding stations. Their natural curiosity and mobility ensure their success at making the rounds.

Another myth is that feeding birds will prevent them from migrating. Birds know when to begin migration based on other triggers, like changes in day length.

Keeping Feeders Clean

Wash feeders regularly to prevent the spread of diseases between birds.

Hummingbird feeders should be washed every week or two to keep mold and bacteria from building up. During hot, humid summer weeks, wash feeders every 2–3 days — and replace the sugar water just as frequently. It is especially important to check the small openings through which the hummingbirds drink to make sure there is no black mold.

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Other Tips

Provide Water

To increase the popularity of your feeding station, provide water — especially during drought or when the temperature stays below freezing for several days. Carolina wrens and bluebirds may be enticed to feeding stations during the winter, too, if water is available.

Add a bird bath to your yard. Replace the water every day or two to keep the water fresh and clean. Birds often leave feces or feathers in the water, which can grow bacteria that can spread to other birds. Wash the bird bath every week or two with a weak vinegar-water solution (nine parts water to one part vinegar). To keep water from freezing in winter, you can get a heater to place in the bird bath or find affordable heated bird baths.

Landscape with Native Plants

In addition to selecting the right seed for your bird-feeding stations, you can attract more birds to your yard with native plants that provide cover and additional seeds and insects. Quite often in new housing developments, trees and shrubs for nesting, perching, and escaping predators are in short supply. Birds need places to perch overnight and vantage points from which they can view the feeder and also watch for potential predators. Evergreens offer valuable, year-round cover from the weather in addition to secluded nesting sites.

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