Using bird feeders to attract birds to your yard – how to feed backyard birds and attract new bird species

Or “I don’t have any money now and the backyard birds eat better than I do”.  It’s a lot of fun to feed and watch your local birds. But it can feel daunting when you’re just getting going. If you’re wondering how to get started with backyard bird feeders, this post is for you.

What size bird feeder is best? What’s the best kind of bird feeder? How do you decide what kind of bird seed to use? All of these are common questions and the answers will depend on your location, budget and overall inclination. This guide to getting started with bird feeders and backyard bird watching will help you figure out the best options for your flocks.

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Let me start with the most important tip for getting starting with backyard birding: BE PATIENT. My first weeks as a new birder were filled with empty feeders and disappointment but now  my yard  generally has dozens of birds feeding or hanging out, and we have over a dozen different species who visit regularly.

Attracting birds to your backyard feeders

To my own credit, I didn’t really expect to put the feeder up and immediately attract every Kentucky backyard bird to my feeder. But I didn’t expect total apathy, either. Now I know that a slow start is just part of the process but it can feel disappointing if you aren’t prepared for it.

I started by scattering sunflower seeds, safflower seeds, nuts, and other tidbits on the ground and that DID bring birds! House sparrows,  to be precise. But I didn’t worry about getting the “wrong” birds because birds are curious and social. A bunch of birds hopping around on the ground makes other birds stop and investigate.

It actually didn’t take much time before we had our first “good” bird visitor, a cardinal. He was a balding gent (they can molt their head crests, leaving them with a bald, black head) whom we lovingly dubbed “Sir Patrick”. With him, came a lady Cardinal, Beverly. Female cardinals are a soft fawn color, with bright orange beaks. They’re not as showy as the boys, but they’re very striking. Cardinals tend to mate for life, and we often saw Sir Patrick hop over to Beverly and gently pass a seed to her.

We quickly ended up with another redbird duo (Riker and Troi, respectively) and a juvenile male (Wesley, obviously).

Now, that all sounds great! I said I wanted backyard birds, and here was a whole crew of cardinals! Except, they  weren’t really hanging around the garden for long. I also wasn’t  keen on scattering food everywhere indefinitely, so I wanted to find a feeder they would use.  After reading endless reviews of bird feeders,  I settled on this feeder:

Backyard bird feeders

The filling mechanism is smart and the top is flared to make a built-in baffle (fancy name for flared top or lid that keeps squirrels out – these can be part of the feeder design or added to a pole or hanging feeders). The reaction was….underwhelming at first but not totally discouraging. The birds noticed it and explored it. Occasionally, one even perched and ate. Overall, the birds just didn’t seem to like it much.  I kept moving it around, though and it finally became a hub of activity. Most days, this feeder is covered with house finches, cardinals, sparrows, blue jays and even woodpeckers and red-winged blackbirds.

How to Choose a High Quality Bird  Feeder

I mentioned above that I did a lot of research via customer reviews on Amazon before I bought that first red feeder and that was incredibly helpful. Trial and error is a part of the process but by sharing links to feeders and supplies I’ve found to be well-made and effective, I hope to minimize your wasted time and money. I went through several other larger seed feeders and ultimately got rid of them because they were either hard to clean or refill or they broke.

To bring more diverse species, I added this suet feeder for woodpeckers and nuthatches (which have still never shown up!) and a nyjer feeder for goldfinches. Both of those are fairly popular with the birds, but it still took weeks for them to become regular stops. Nyjer seed, a fine thistle, can be pricey but this bag is a pretty good deal.

Though it can be effective to add specialized feeders, it’s not always necessary and I would caution you against buying tons of different feeders or types of seed until you’re sure you need them. Unless you really enjoy doing so, in which case, go for it!

In the next paragraph, I discuss types of seed and link to the very best bird feeder I have ever used.

How to choose the right bird seed and bird food

There’s tons of bird seed options and lots of special mixes that claim to be really attractive to specific birds. While there’s nothing wrong with buying highly specialized seeds or foods, you probably don’t need a ton of different seeds and mixes, especially when you’re just starting out. If you’re getting one feeder, fill it up with good old black oil sunflower seeds. Many common backyard birds love sunflower seeds and it’s a great starting point. They’re also very inexpensive and easy to find. That link will take you to amazon, which is the cheapest source I’ve found for them. When possible,  I buy mine from our local pet food store, but sometimes I need them before I can purchase locally.

One drawback of sunflower seeds is that they can, well, turn into sunflowers. Be prepared to find some volunteer sunflowers during the summer. The good news is that they’re easy to pull up if they’re in a bad spot – but if you can let them grow, they’ll feed your bird friends for free!

Adding specialized bird food sources

Once you’ve established yourself as a food source with sunflower seeds and other basics,  you can start adding things like nyjer, suet or nectar. Another very popular option is peanuts, either shelled or unshelled. The downside to these is that they can be pricey and squirrels REALLY like them.

If you’re going to offer peanuts, I suggest using this feeder. Lots of feeders will tell you they are squirrel proof. This one actually is. I have watched squirrels try like heck to get a nut out of it to no avail. I’m not kidding when I say that this is the best bird feeder I have ever used. It only works for larger offerings, like peanuts and sunflower seeds, but that’s fine.

It’s also very well-made. If you’re only going to buy one feeder, make it this one. It will pay for itself in no time just by keeping squirrels from emptying it.

At this point, sunflower seeds and peanut chunks are the only foods I offer year-round and we have more birds than ever. In the winter, I put out suet and nyjer because there are fewer alternative food sources (i.e. bugs and flowers). I don’t bother with seed mixes any more. They tend to have a lot of filler seeds that just end up spilled all over the ground. Having said that, your experience and your birds may be different, so don’t be afraid to test out other ideas over time.

Here’s a few more quick tips for how to get started with backyard bird feeders and bird watching:

1 – Research. You need to know what species are in your area and what time of year they’re around. It doesn’t do any good to put out food for a bird that will almost certainly never show up in your location. Books are a great starting place but I recommend the Audubon app. It’s a great field guide and it also provides some data on recent local sightings. E-bird is another excellent resource for understanding your local bird population and their habits.

You can also talk to your neighbors, if any of them are birders. They can often be a great source of information and if you combine your efforts, you’re more likely to succeed in attracting and supporting a diverse bird population.

2 – Check your landscaping. Some birds like open grassy areas and some like dense coverage. Others like both! If you’re not seeing much bird activity or if the birds you’re looking for don’t seem to stick around, make sure you’re providing the kind of habitat they like. The more diverse and eco-friendly your yard and garden, the better luck you’ll have getting backyard birds. One of the surest ways to have a yard full of birds is to add plants native to your region. These attract and support birds as well as insects and larvae that some birds eat.

If you use pesticides or have your yard sprayed for weeds or insects, stop. Not only is it awful for the environment, you’re probably poisoning the very birds you want in your yard. Insects or plants end up with insecticide or pesticide residue and when birds eat them, they become poisoned. At the very least, fewer “bugs” in your yard mean less food for birds like wrens, chickadees, mockingbirds and even hummingbirds.

3 – Quiet down. Birds aren’t fans of loud noises. The quieter you can make your yard, the more birds you’ll have. It’s not just that birds have delicate sensibilities, either. Birds use song to communicate with each other, especially during mating season. If your yard is noisy, they won’t be able to hear each other and they’ll head to quieter places. The more you can reduce noise in your area, the more birds you’ll likely see.

4 – Do everything you can to deter predators. If you have a cat, keep it indoors and discourage stray cats from hanging out in your yard. I love cats but I don’t feed the neighborhood strays because I know my local birds won’t come around if there are cats in the yard. The safer you can make your yard for birds, the more they will hang out.

5 – Familiarize yourself with the migration habits and dates for your area. This will help you avoid putting out nectar for hummingbirds while they’re still enjoying their winter in Mexico, for example. It will also let you add food for species that are only in your area for a few weeks. In our zone, Rose Breasted Grosbeaks travel through for a few weeks in spring and fall, so I add an extra sunflower seed feeder for them.

These tips worked to help me attract backyard birds and they can help you, too. It’s such joy to see the birds use our yard and garden, especially as new species show up and join the party.

So what’s the real trick to getting tons of birds in your yard? Patience. It takes time for birds to notice new food, water or shelter sources. If you don’t see birds on a new feeder immediately, give it a few days. Watch and see if birds are approaching it but shying away or if they’re not even paying attention. Make changes accordingly, but make them slowly. Try not to change more than one element at a time.

This guide is not exhaustive or definitive but it’s a good place to start. Every single yard and garden is different, so what works for me may work less well for you. Remember that your birds may come and go with the seasons (even the ones that don’t migrate) and they may behave in unexpected ways. Start with the tips and recommendations I’ve laid out here and then add, subtract or change as you observe your yard and birds.

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