Mother Earth Gardener

Backyard Buffet

Photo by Edward S Episcopo

The best way to provide food for wildlife is to preserve and restore the local native plant communities that have supported them for thousands of years. However, you can use feeders to supplement the natural food typically provided through native plants. Maintaining feeders is also a great way to observe wildlife up close.

Benefits and Limits of Feeders

Studies have shown that birds rely on natural food sources first and use feeders only to supplement their diets. Wild birds won’t become unnaturally dependent on feeders or starve when you go on vacation. Instead, they use feeders the same way they use a berry-laden shrub: They eat the available food, and then move on to other food sources.

There are a variety of bird feeders available. Tube feeders are popular and can be filled with a variety of seed types to attract different bird species. Platform feeders can be used for birds that normally forage on the ground and don’t like to use a hanging feeder, such as mourning doves and many native sparrows. Hopper feeders have a roof and sides, typically hold a larger volume of seed, and often come in a variety of whimsical designs. Sock feeders, which are made of fine mesh, hold tiny seeds for certain smaller birds, such as American goldfinches, while larger mesh feeders can hold peanuts for other birds, such as blue jays, tufted titmice, or Steller’s jays.

Keep in mind that while some birds may use feeders, almost all species require insects in their diets. This is even true of hummingbirds, which can’t survive on nectar alone. Only about 25 percent of bird species will even use a feeder. Make sure you provide diverse native plant communities to support the year-round food needs of the birds in your area. (For more information about which native plants you should grow, see “Winter’s for the Birds.”)

Solve It with Suet

Suet is a high-energy food source that’s great for birds in winter. It’s rendered, or melted, animal fat. Suet feeders are wire cages that allow birds to cling to the wires and peck at the suet.

Suet is typically sold in square blocks sized to fit standard suet feeders, and it can be purchased with a variety of additives, such as dried fruit, seeds, and even dehydrated insects. You can make suet yourself by getting raw beef fat from a butcher, melting it, and then cooling it. (Warning: This can be a very smelly process.) Pour the rendered fat into a large glass casserole dish, add dried fruit, seeds, or nuts, and let it cool and resolidify. Cut squares sized to fit into your suet feeder. Store suet in the freezer until you’re ready to use it.

Woodpeckers, nuthatches, creepers, chickadees, titmice, and even hawks will eat suet if they can get it, especially in winter when other food sources are scarce. Other types of wildlife enjoy suet as well. Tree squirrels and chipmunks will take advantage of suet feeders, and the occasional raccoon, opossum, or fox may clean up the scraps that fall to the ground. (If wildlife other than birds are regularly visiting your suet feeder, take it down so they don’t become dependent on it.)

Fruit and Nectar Feeders

Many birds feed on wild berries and fruits, including robins, gray catbirds, mockingbirds, waxwings, warblers, and woodpeckers. Orioles in particular love to eat fruit. You can make fruit feeders simply by placing berries in a tray feeder or any shallow dish and putting it out in your yard. You can also add grapes and oranges to the dish, or hang these on tree branches or a shepherd’s hook.

Photo by Barbara Snyder

There are special feeders designed specifically to attract orioles that have a reservoir for hummingbird nectar. These feeders have perches for orioles to land on, since they can’t hover while feeding like hummingbirds. Oriole feeders often also have places for oranges and bowls to offer fruit jelly. You can purchase special oriole jelly, which is formulated to be less sweet than jellies made for human consumption, or dilute your favorite jelly with water.

You can also provide nectar eaters with special feeders designed to hold hummingbird nectar, which is essentially sugar water. You can purchase nectar mix or make your own by dissolving white sugar in water. (See “Hummingbird Nectar Recipe.”)

Hummingbird Nectar Recipe

To make homemade hummingbird nectar, boil 1 part sugar in 4 parts water. For orioles, boil 1 part sugar in 6 parts water. Let your homemade nectar cool before offering it to birds.

Be sure to only use white sugar. While not particularly healthy for humans, white sugar dissolved in water in the right concentration is a close simulation of the flower nectar fed on by wildlife. Don’t use brown sugar, honey, or artificial sweeteners. Honey spoils quickly when mixed with water, and artificial sweeteners lack the calories birds need to survive. 

Make sure to empty and clean nectar feeders every two or three days, especially in warm weather, or the nectar can spoil and make the birds sick. You can refrigerate a batch of nectar for up to one week. After that, discard it and make a fresh batch. Hummingbirds are attracted to the color red, and many hummingbird feeders are red for this reason. Adding red food dye to your nectar isn’t
necessary and could potentially harm the birds. Instead, use a red-colored feeder. Planting red, tubular flowers is the most natural way of providing food for hummingbirds.

Best Birdseed

Different seed types will attract different species of birds to your feeder. Use seed types that are appropriate for your feeders. Black oil sunflower seeds will be eaten with relish by almost any bird species that visits feeders. Safflower is less appealing to squirrels and nonnative birds, such as house sparrows. In addition to these, other seed or nut options include:

  • Striped sunflower
  • Sunflower hearts (hulled sunflower)
  • Nyjer
  • Red millet
  • White millet
  • Cracked corn
  • Peanuts (whole, shelled, or pieces)

Best Feeder Recipes

These easy recipes will create beautiful feeders for your backyard, beloved by any bird flying through. If tree nut allergies are an issue for you, use soy butter or tahini as an alternative to the peanut butter.

Wildlife Energy Muffins

Ingredients

  • 1 cup chunky peanut butter
  • 1 cup pure rendered suet or vegetable shortening
  • 2-1⁄2 cups coarse yellow cornmeal
  • Birdseeds, raisins, or other dried fruit
  • Roasted peanuts, shelled
  • Pipe cleaners

Directions

  1. Mix peanut butter, suet, and cornmeal together.
  2. Stir in seeds, fruit, and peanuts.
  3. Put the mixture into a muffin tin. Sprinkle seeds on top.
  4. Place a pipe cleaner in each muffin to act as a hanger, and place the tin in the freezer to harden.
  5. Once hardened, hang muffins from a tree.

Pine Cone Feeders

Photo by Amy Leinbach

Ingredients

  • Ribbon
  • Pine cones
  • 1 cup chunky peanut butter
  • 1 cup pure rendered suet
  • 2-1⁄2 cups coarse yellow cornmeal
  • 1 cup birdseed, plus more to coat pine cones
  • 1⁄2 cup raisins

Directions

  1. Tie a length of ribbon to the base of each pine cone.
  2. Mix peanut butter, suet, cornmeal, 1 cup birdseed, and raisins in a small bowl.
  3. Stuff the mixture into each pine cone.
  4. Roll pine cones in additional birdseed.
  5. Hang from trees using the attached ribbon.

Bagels for the Birds

Ingredients

  • 6 plain bagels
  • 2-1/4 cups chunky peanut butter
  • Birdseed
  • Ribbon

Directions

  1. Split bagels in half and let them harden overnight.
  2. Spread peanut butter on both sides of each bagel slice.
  3. Sprinkle with birdseed. Tie lengths of ribbon through each bagel hole and hang bagels throughout your backyard.

Grapefruit Feeders

Photo by Amy Leinbach

Ingredients

  • 1 grapefruit or orange
  • Ribbon
  • 2 pounds suet
  • Birdseed

Directions

  1. Cut grapefruit in half and hollow out.
  2. Poke 3 holes in the edge of the grapefruit half that you’re going to stuff.
  3. Tie ribbon through the holes, leaving 1 foot or more for hanging.
  4. Stuff suet into the hollow grapefruit half, and sprinkle birdseed on suet.
  5. Place in freezer to harden. Once hardened, hang in your yard.

David Mizejewski is a naturalist with the National Wildlife Federation. He specializes in helping people restore wildlife habitat in their cities, towns, neighborhoods, backyards, and gardens. This is excerpted from his book Attracting Birds, Butterflies, and Other Backyard Wildlife.

  • Published on Nov 26, 2019
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