Feed the Birds
11 Jan 2006
Virginia Cooperative Extension, Charlottesville/Albemarle County Office
460 Stagecoach Road, Charlottesville, Virginia 22902
phone: 434.872.4580 fax: 434.872.4578
Landscaping for Birds
Feeding birds can be as simple as putting out a pile of seed on a level surface. However there are ways to landscape to attract birds by providing food plants as well. The attractiveness of a feeding area is greatly enhanced by a landscape rich in trees and shrubs, both deciduous and evergreen. Bird feeders placed in areas with large lawns and few trees and shrubs attract few birds. For a different group of birds and a greater variety consider managing open areas as meadows rather than as lawns and providing sources of water and food. A rich growth of grasses and flowering plants provides cover for nesting in the spring and summer and natural sources of seeds during the winter.
Many of the plants naturally found in our landscapes provide valuable food for our native birds year round. Trees such as oaks, maples, beeches, cedar, and hemlock are important sources of mast and other forms of seeds. Small trees such as dogwood, serviceberry, and crab apple provide fruit, and shrubs and vines such as honeysuckle, wild grape, viburnums, hollies, pyracantha, and Virginia creeper provide food and often double as cover in the form of thickets. Many plants normally considered weeds such as pokeberry and mullein provide copious amounts of seed. Planting ornamentals such as sunflower, cosmos, zinnias, etc. will provide a variety of food sources as well.
Feeding Wild Birds
Still in the winter it is good and fun to put up feeders. For some, the decision to feed wild birds is not a casual one. A dedicated bird feeder can buy hundreds of pounds of feed each winter and usually owns at least one bird book and binoculars to identify and study the birds. Feeders need to be monitored, food often needs to be replenished, and over the months and years it amounts to a substantial investment of time and money. Such a commitment carries with it the expectation of attracting an interesting variety of birds. A little study to see what birds eat and plant and feed accordingly can go a long way toward meeting this expectation.
Selecting Bird Feed
There are many kinds of feeds available to attract birds. The particular type of mix you put out influences the number and variety of birds that will use feeding places. In the same way the plants you provide will also attract certain species of birds. Sunflower seeds attract most seed-eating birds. The most attractive sunflower seed is the black, oil-type. You can buy mixes or if you have the inclination you can purchase various types of seeds separately, possibly in bulk from seed or animal feed dealers, and make your own. This way the amounts of the best foods can be varied to attract the birds you want to see.
Presentation of Bird Foods
Having attractive bird feeds on hand is of course most important, but placement of those feeds is important too. Plants have this figured out but we humans sometimes need some help. Just as birds vary in size, shape, color, song, and preferred foods, so do birds differ in feeding behavior. Some feed almost exclusively in trees, others nearly always on the ground, and others are opportunists, feeding wherever they can find acceptable food. Using a variety of feeders will cater to a greater variety of birds.
Most common birds will visit platform feeders. They are simple to build, or you can buy hopper-style feeders that can be suspended by a wire or placed on a pole. Juncos, white-throated sparrows, and towhees prefer to feed on the ground. These species will feed on seed kicked off platform feeders by other birds or on feed placed on the ground for them.
Hanging, tube-type feeders attract goldfinches, chickadees, and a variety of other species. Tube feeders permit goldfinches to avoid competition with blue jays and grackles which can take over platform feeders. Tube feeders will also attract pine siskins and red polls when they are in the area.
In general, ground feeders prefer white millet, whereas birds attracted to tube feeders prefer oil-type sunflower. Therefore, white millet and mixes rich in millet should not be used in tubes or other elevated feeders with small perching surfaces. Suet attached to tree trunks in wire baskets is attractive to woodpeckers and, unfortunately, squirrels so be sure to keep them out of reach as best you can. In addition to food, birds readily use water placed near feeders.
When to Feed
Most people concentrate their feeding efforts during the winter months. Satisfaction comes not only from attracting good numbers of birds, but also because winter feeding helps birds survive the rigors of cold, icy, and snowy weather. Actually, feeding birds year-round is enjoyable. Because naturally produced seeds are uncommon in the spring and summer, flocks of gold finches and house finches visit tube feeders filled with oil-type sunflower seeds in the growing season. Cardinals, chickadees, and mourning doves will visit daily. Young birds, often with clumps of down still attached, will come with their parents.
Many people believe once a feeding program is started that it must be maintained without interruption. However, birds in any locality visit several feeding sites daily and will waste little time at an empty feeder. Although abundant food at feeders during the winter helps birds, occasional periods of emptiness are unlikely to result in starvation.
For more information about these and other landscape gardening topics contact your local Virginia Cooperative Extension office. The local Virginia Cooperative Extension office numbers are Albemarle 872-4580, Fluvanna 591-1950, Greene 985-5236, Louisa 540-967-3422, and Nelson 263-4035.