Experts and bird watchers offer advice to attract feathered friends to your back yard. See a video about bird feeders along with photos of birds in this story.
People are drawn to backyard bird watching because it’s entertaining and they like seeing their favorites, according to experts at stores that specialize in bird feeders and seeds.
“It’s nature’s TV,” said Connie Marshall, owner of Wild About Birds in Ocean View. “All the activity – it puts a smile on your face. It’s a colorful show.”
Like TV characters you’ve grown to love or hate, there are favorites and villains in the backyard bird show.
“People make it very personal,” Marshall said. “They’ll say, ‘My bluebirds came back yesterday’ or ‘My hummingbird visited last weekend.’ I know I have ‘my bluebirds’ here at the store. You don’t have to be a bird nerd to do that. If you have a beautiful cardinal that comes to your feeder – that’s striking to see no matter who you are.”
As for the villains, they’re usually the large, plain birds that eat lots of seeds and chase away the smaller, more colorful birds, but there’s one intruder feared above all the rest.
“The most common question I get is how to keep the squirrels away,” Marshall said. “They’re gluttons. They come in and take everything. They can even damage feeders. Their presence keeps birds away.”
Many methods can be tried to protect bird feeders, but Marshall said squirrels are amazingly inventive.
A popular solution is a feeder with a cage with small openings, so small birds can get to the food but squirrels can’t.
Bird watcher Kay Revels of Dover recommended a blast from the past – a Slinky, preferably the smaller size. She said she saw the idea on the internet and it really works if you attach it to the pole holding the feeder.
“Squirrels get on it and quickly jump off,” Revels said. “You do need to fasten it at the top so it doesn’t slide all the way down. The birds don’t mind it one bit.”
At Wild Birds Unlimited in Hockessin, co-owner Charles Shattuck said customers have reported success keeping squirrels away by using birdseed blended with hot pepper.
“Hot pepper doesn’t bother birds,” Shattuck said. “Squirrels won’t touch it. They’re mammals like us and it affects them like it affects us.”
While many bird watchers are frustrated by squirrels, others consider them an acrobatic addition to the show.
At Southern States in Milford, senior merchandiser Connie Hudson suggested a way to keep everyone happy.
“Put some ears of dried corn out for the squirrels in another location, away from your bird feeders,” Hudson said. “Squirrels are fun to watch.”
She said bird feeders labeled “squirrel-proof” don’t always work.
“Squirrels are very smart,” Hudson said. “You could try different feeders with cages around them to see what works to keep squirrels out, but the birds can still reach the food.”
Hudson said she’s drawn to nature’s performance in her yard, whether it’s birds or squirrels.
“It’s interesting to watch them and what they do,” she said. “It’s just fun.”
Her cats are also big fans.
“This is like their TV station,” she said. “They watch so intently. I get a kick out of seeing them watching the birds.”
The same cages used against squirrels can be used to keep out larger birds.
Shattuck also suggested changing the times you put out food.
“This time of year, you may get blackbird invasions,” he said. “They come in such large quantities, hundreds of them.”
Since blackbirds tend to eat in the middle of the day, bring in feeders when you leave for work in the morning and put them back out when you get home in the evening.
Feeders and locations
The best type of feeder depends on the birds you’re trying to attract, but the favorite of most customers is the tube-shaped, vertical feeder, with perches and holes down the sides where birds get the food – preferably with a tray at the bottom.
“The standard tube feeder kind of revolutionized bird feeding in America, but if it doesn’t have a tray, cardinals tend not to use it,” Marshall said.
Another favorite is a box-shaped feeder, also called a hopper feeder, and there are feeders to attract a specific kind of bird, like finches or hummingbirds.
Hudson said an important tip for any feeder is to check it regularly and clean out mushy seeds.
The experts recommend hanging a feeder in a place where you don’t mind seed shells, spilled seeds and bird droppings.
“You probably don’t want that mess on your deck,” Hudson said.
She suggested hanging feeders on a tree away from your house, but many customers like the feeders as close to a window as possible.
If you don’t have a tree, or don’t have one in a good spot for bird watching, many stores sell a metal pole, often called a “shepherd’s hook” to hang a feeder where you want.
Choosing the food
“My number one seller is called a ‘no mess blend’ because it’s seeds with no shells,” Shattuck said. “That’s cleaner around the feeder. Seeds in shells mean 30 to 35 percent of the bag is shell weight.”
He said some birds, like bluebirds, have difficulty cracking open shells.
“Customers have told me they have bluebirds showing up for the first time in 15 or 20 years and they’re eating sunflower seeds without shells,” Shattuck said.
Hudson said if she could only use one kind of food, she’d use black oil sunflower seed.
“The black oil is smaller, but has more protein,” she said. “The big striped sunflower seed makes a lot of mess but it still attracts a lot of birds.”
While a bag with a variety of seeds can draw a variety of birds, Hudson said it can also be wasteful.
“Sometimes big birds get on a feeder and throw all the little seeds on the ground to get to the sunflower seeds,” she said.
She suggested using a specific type of seed in each feeder, for example putting black oil sunflower seeds in your largest feeder and then using special seeds to attract smaller birds like goldfinches at smaller feeders.
Another way to attract birds is with a suet cake – fats, sometimes with peanut butter, often mixed with seeds.
“Suet is a very good feeding tool,” said Hudson. “It attracts a variety of birds. I have a beautiful woodpecker in my yard that loves it.”
Hummingbird feeders use “nectar” – sugar water that can be bought or made at home after boiling the water to remove impurities.
While winter is usually when most people think about feeding birds, the experts said feathered friends still come to feeders during warmer weather. Some, like hummingbirds, are only seen in this area in the spring and summer.
“In the winter, there’s not as much food available naturally, so birds visit feeders more,” Shattuck said. “But in the summer months, the actual number of birds is higher because of all the baby birds.”
With an abundance of natural food in the summer and early fall, backyard bird watchers may only want to put out a small amount of food. That way, the seeds will be eaten before they go bad. Rain, heat and humidity mean you may have to clean out the feeders more often because the seeds go bad faster.
Shattuck said putting some seed in feeders during warmer months helps birds with the education process. Adult birds show their young how to find food in nature, but they also show them how to eat at feeders to help them survive the winter, he said.
Feathered friends on Facebook
Bird watchers share their photos from throughout the state on the “Delaware Birding” Facebook page, recommended by Shattuck.
High-tech bird identification
The Merlin bird ID app from the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology features a photo ID system. Users enter a photo of a bird, and Merlin helps identify it. The free app is available for iPhone, iPad, and Android devices in the Apple App Store and on Google Play.
The Audubon Bird Guide app features 821 North American species of birds with sounds, images and range maps. The app is free and available for smartphones and tablets through the Apple App Store, Google Play and Amazon App Store.