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!