Note: This guide applies to North-Eastern North America, but the general principles apply elsewhere with some variances in the names of birds.
There is a lot of joy to be found watching birds in your backyard, and it’s a great way to get photographs. Birds will get used to you once you have been at this for a while, allowing you to get a little closer. With a half decent camera and lens, and a tripod, you’ll have plenty of opportunities.
When you first start feeding birds, things can be a little slow. It can take some time before birds develop a routine for visiting your feeder. This page will help you to ensure that the food you are providing is correct, and will give you some tips on what birds will eat.
There are a huge array of different feeders that you can use, and you’ll want to find a balance between what looks great decoratively versus what works practically. If you have space in your yard, I highly recommend using more than one feeder for the widest array of birds. Some birds will use certain feeders, but others will not/can not. Let’s take a look.
Bird Feeder Types
Bird Table (1): This could be a traditional looking wooden bird table or just a wire or plastic dish as shown in the picture. Essentially, something that provides a flat surface. Almost all birds can use these, and it would just depend upon the food you provide. You would need a separate feeder for hummingbirds. Goldfinches may visit, but prefer their own feeder. This type of feeder can easily become overwhelmed by less desirable birds like House sparrows and, if it is large enough, Mourning doves, Grackles and Blackbirds.
Hanging Tube Feeder (2): This type of feeder will be visited by most birds, depending upon the food offered and the size of the feeder. If it is smaller in size, it will likely swing around too much for larger birds like Blue Jays.
Hanging Wire Feeder (3): This feeder is best for woodpeckers and nuthatches for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it is ideal for holding peanuts. Secondly, both species of bird are adept at clinging to the feeder.
Humming Bird Feeder: These are typically plastic and are filled with sugar water or similar nectar like liquids. See below for more on this, but PLEASE take care when feeding hummingbirds. Choose a feeder that is red with a yellow feeding area. This is most attractive to hummingbirds.
Finch Feeder: Goldfinches often hang upside down in the wild. There are special tube feeders, like the one pictured, that allow them to hang from a perch with a hole in the tube below. They will be much happier with their own feeder that most other birds cannot use. Goldfinches much prefer nyger seed, so stick to this.
Suet Feeder: A suet feeder is typically a wire cage designed to hold suet, a fatty meat feed with some seeds. This type of feeder is most attractive to woodpeckers and nuthatches, but may get others.
Mixed feed: The type of stuff that you pick up at pet stores, and such. It contains a wide mixture of feed, but honestly, it tends to be of low quality and has a lot of corn in it. A lot of birds will literally pick through this type of food, throwing the corn and grains onto the ground, looking for the better stuff – like sunflower seeds. This feed has its place. Sparrows will eat it, so you can always provide it on one feeder, and better stuff on a different feeder!
Sunflower Seeds: Now we are talking! Most birds love to eat sunflower seeds. I recommend “Black Oiled Sunflower Seed”, which is smaller than normal sunflower seed and is black in colour. You can get bags of it at places like Canadian Tire, or buy it by weight at Bulk Barn. It has more protein than regular sunflower seeds and birds need lots of protein.
Peanuts: Blue Jays, Nuthatches, and Woodpeckers love peanuts. They contain lots of fat and protein to give them energy. These are best placed in a hanging wire feeder (see above). You can also buy peanuts inside the shell at places like Bulk Barn. These can be placed on bird tables. Ensure you buy UNSALTED.
Suet: Placed inside a suet feeder, you will attract many birds with this high fat, high protein food. It is most attractive to woodpeckers and nuthatches, but other hungry birds from Chickadees to Blue Jays (if the feeder is large enough) will eat it. Suet contains meat and fat – do not leave it out for extended periods. It will spoil and could cause harm to wildlife.
Nyger Seed: This is a favourite of Goldfinches and, if you are lucky, Pine Siskins. It is best used in a feeder specifically designed for Goldfinches (see above).
Sugar Water: Believe me, it’s pretty joyous when you get hummingbirds into your yard, but you do need to be cautious. Feed them sugar mixed with water. Aim for 1 part sugar for every 4 to 6 parts water. Do not be tempted to use more, as you could damage the hummingbird’s liver. You will need to empty and thoroughly clean the feeder every 2-3 days, as the sugar will ferment and could cause harm. Use a plastic hummingbird feeder. You could also re-purpose a hamster feeder, which may also attract Orioles. Both birds only visit Ontario during the summer. It is good practice to remove these feeders before the first frost to discourage birds from hanging around when it could get too cold for them.
Oranges: Half an orange placed upon a surface, perhaps nailed down or held in place with a stake, will be particularly attractive to Orioles. These birds are only in Ontario during the summer.
Do NOT use bread: Bread will fill birds up and reduce their hunger, but it contains next to no useful nutrients. Fill them with the seeds and grains mentioned above to help keep them healthy. This applies to wild birds and ducks too. Feeding the ducks is great fun, but bread is not a good food source. Please avoid it.
All creatures great and small! Everyone has to eat. But I get it. You don’t really want a bunch of grackles taking over your feeder and scaring away smaller birds.
Squirrels: Consider placing a baffle on the pole of your bird feeders. This is a curved disc that prevents them from climbing. Believe it or not, I have also coated my feeder pole in Vaseline. You need to apply it every couple of days, but squirrels are then unable to grip and slide down the pole. An amusing sight that is also not cruel or harmful.
Grackles, Crows, and Blackbirds: During the summer, Grackles and Blackbirds have a tendency to pour onto your feeder. This isn’t so bad. Most of the smaller birds that we tend to favour are less in need of non-naturally available foods at this time of year. However, if you really want to dissuade these birds, they tend to avoid Safflower seed. It looks a bit like sunflower seed but is white. The more desirable birds will usually continue to eat this while dissuading some of the birds you may not want. Safflower is a little more expensive and a little harder to find. Try Rona.
If you found this information useful and would like to learn more, I highly recommend the North American Birdfeeder Guide by Robert Burton and Stephen W. Kress. The information I have shared was partially gleaned from this book and is also stuff I have learnt on my own from when I ran a live webcam service, filming several birdfeeders in an Ontario backyard. This book takes things to a whole new level and will provide a ton of information on the birds you might see, all the way to helping you to design a garden with native species of plant that will attract birds. I wouldn’t recommend this book if I didn’t think it was genuinely a great resource.
I hope you found this information useful! All the best!
I recently took a family trip to Ripley’s Aquarium in downtown Toronto, and hoped to get some neat photos of the creatures there. Now be prepared; An aquarium is an extremely challenging environment to take photos, but I will share some tips and tricks so that you can make the most of your shooting time.
A quick note before I start. I’m not an activist, but I am keen that we take care of our environment, respect the creatures we share it with, and generally keep it clean. I don’t want to get too bogged down in this, but I also don’t want to feel like a hypocrite. There are many concerns about the impact that aquariums have on sea creatures in particular. Only around 5% of creatures are bred in aquariums. The rest are captured. Of those captured, around 80% die before reaching their destination. If you care to read more about this, please do. Moving on…
- Get there as soon as they open: Number One Rule! There will be fewer people frustrating you and getting in the way.
- Do NOT use Flash: The built-in flash on your camera nearly always sucks, but especially when you are shooting through glass. You’ll get reflections.
- Avoid curved glass: Shoot up against flat glass to reduce distortion.
- Pick your subject: Lighter coloured, reflective creatures are easier. Shoot creatures near to the glass. The more water between you, the more blur you will get.
The following tips apply to SLR cameras (not mobile phones) and more advanced users:
- Use a tripod: In these low-light conditions, a tripod will offer stability. Bonus points if you have a remote shutter release.
- Shoot in RAW: You will have way more freedom to fix images later
- Use manual focusing: Set your focus by taking a test shot and zooming in 100% on the LCD. Repeat until correct. Then set your camera to manual focus. Auto-focus is under extreme conditions and will frequently fail. It will try to focus on the glass, on reflections, on debris in the water… Even worse, some cameras will shine a light that normally helps it to focus. This will lead to worse reflections and may disturb some creatures that like the dark, such as octopodes.
And some technical tips and settings:
- Lens: Everything is about the low-light. You want the fastest lens you own in this situation. If you have more than one lens, look at the F number(s). If the lens can zoom, it will have a range of F numbers. For example, one of mine is quite slow at 4.5-5.6 and another is 3.5-5.6. I am going to choose the lens with 3.5 on it. Balance this against the practicalities of the lens (no point bringing in a 10-foot long telephoto lens).
- Aperture (F-stop): The lower the number, the more light enters the camera. So you want this as low as you can go. Just also bear in mind that the lower the number, the less depth of field you will have (the amount of the image that is in focus) and that this effect is also exaggerated the more that you zoom.
- ISO/Shutter: You want the ISO (how sensitive the camera is) as low as you can set it. The higher it is, the more noise there will be, especially in the dark. BUT, the lower the ISO, the lower (slower) the shutter has to be. You don’t want the shutter to be much lower than “60” (60th of a second). At this point, the shutter will be open too long and pictures will be blurred. These settings are all about balance and will vary from camera to camera. A high-end camera might be good as low as ISO200-300. Older, lower-end cameras might have to be in the thousands. You’ll have to fix noise afterwards.
Last of all:
- Include People: Don’t be afraid of including people in your shot. As silhouettes, they can help give a sense of scale.
- Consider cheating: I personally do not like adding, moving or changing the actual content of my photos. I prefer to only alter levels. However, many people, many successful people, edit their photos quite extensively. You can get a great result by taking multiple images and “compositing” them. In other words, copy and pasting fish from several photos into one overall image.
Hope this helps!