Bird Feeders

Many people place feeders in their yards in the spring to attract birds. They enjoy having the birds around and may spend hours sitting outside watching them. However, when winter arrives and it gets too cold to sit outdoors, such feeding programs may stop. Birds need a steady supply of food to generate the energy needed to keep their bodies warm in winter. Unfortunately, those attracted to the now-abandoned feeders discover their easy food supply is cut off just when natural foods are harder to find. If feeding programs are not going to be continued all year, the birds would be better off if the handouts were saved for the winter months.

To make life a little easier for the birds in your neighborhood this winter, you might consider setting up a feeding station. It will provide a supply of food for them until spring when natural foods such as seeds, berries, and insects are easier to find. Once you start a feeding program, try to continue it all winter. The birds you attract may be depending on your handouts.

Bird Feeder

A well-equipped winter feeding station should have a feeder of some type for seeds, a container for suet or birdseed cake mixtures, and a water source. Wild bird seed and commercial feeders can be purchased, but if you want to be more personally involved, you might build your own.

A square, gallon-sized plastic milk jug can be converted into a simple feeder quite easily. It may not be as attractive as a commercial feeder, but the birds won't mind. Cut openings about three inches wide and four inches high, in the two sides opposite the handle. They should be about two and a half inches from the bottom of the jug. Arching the tops of these openings will make them more decorative. (A hobby knife is a good tool for this job, but because these knives usually are very sharp, it would be wise for children to have adult help or supervision. In fact, most of the activities connected with building an outdoor feeding station may need some adult assistance.)

Add perches to the milk-jug feeder by drilling a set of holes through the jug about one-fourth inch below one of the openings. Insert a wooden dowel through these holes. Drill another set of holes through the jug one-half inch below the other opening and insert a second dowel. The ends should extend about two inches on the sides with the openings to form perches. Drilling one set of holes lower than the other set allows the dowels to cross inside the jug.

Attach the milk jug feeder to a piece of wood with a couple of wood screws through the handle. Mount the pieces of wood on a post, tree, or the house and your feeder is ready to use.

Another simple feeder can be made out of a wide-mouth quart jar, an aluminum foil pie pan, a few scraps of wood or Masonite 3/4 inch wide, 1/4 inch thick, and 6-3/4 inches long. Divide the strip into three pieces – one 3-1/2 inches long and two 1-3/8 inches long. Attach them to the outside of the lid in the shape of a cross using short U-shaped nails. Drive them into the wood from the inside of the lid. Drill a 1/2-inch hole in each of the four spaces on the lid not covered by wood strips.

Place the lid, wood-strip side down, in the center of the pie pan. Set the pan on a 9-inch square or round piece of wood or Masonite. Drill a 1/4-inch hole through the center of the lid, pan, and wood. Put a bolt through the hole and attach a nut to the bottom to hold all the pieces together. Drill three evenly spaced holes through the wood to which the pan is attached. Insert the 30-inch pieces of rope or cord in the holes. Tie the ends of the cords together under the feeder and at the top. Fill the jar with birdseed, screw on the lid assembly, and quickly turn the unit over. The seed will flow into the pan through the holes in the lid, and as the birds eat the available seed, more will flow out to replace it. Hang the feeder from a tree limb or post.

A platform feeder also is easy to make, but you have to clean it often to keep the food from becoming contaminated with bird droppings that might cause disease. To build it, just attach a raised edge to a two- or three-foot square piece of wood. This edging, which keeps the seeds from blowing off, should have an open space on one side so water can drain off. Adding a roof and placing glass or Plexiglas on three sides will protect the birds and food from wind and weather. Wooden sides also offer protection, but you can't watch the feeding birds through them. The platform feeder usually is attached to a post or windowsill, but it also can be hung from a tree limb.

The hopper-type feeder resembles a flip-up mailbox, except the front is glass or Plexiglas and slants inward at the bottom. A space between the bottom of the glass and the feeding tray allows the seeds to flow out as needed. The food is protected, the clear front lets you see how much food it contains, and the flip top makes it easy to fill. The hopper-type feeder can be attached to a tree, post, or house.

After you have made or bought a feeder, you must decide where to put it. The south side of the house offers protection from the cold north wind and the east side is exposed to the warming rays of the morning sun. Both locations are suitable. Cats and squirrels also must be taken into consideration when you are choosing a location for your feeder. Cats, of course, want to eat the birds, and squirrels want the birds' food. Be sure to hang the feeder far enough off the ground to be out of jumping range, and check for nearby limbs that could serve as launching pads. A cone-shaped metal shield can be added to a post-mounted feeder to stop animals from climbing it.

The basic food for your feeder is a combination of seeds, and hungry birds can consume a lot of it. Even insect-eating birds eat seeds in winter when insects are not available. Commercial wild bird seed mixtures may include all or a few of the following ingredients: millet, milo, cracked corn, buckwheat, canary grass seed, sorghum, sunflower seeds, barley, hempseed, oats, safflower, and peanut hearts. These commercial mixtures are excellent, but they can be expensive over a long period.

More economical homemade seed mixtures may be prepared by buying a few basic ingredients in large quantities from feed stores or seed wholesalers. Sunflower seeds, hempseed, millet, buckwheat, and cracked corn combine to make a balanced home-made mixture. Rice, coarse oatmeal, dried bread crumbs, shelled nuts (not the roasted or salted type), and cereals can be added to your homemade mixture for variety. When birds feed naturally on the ground, they obtain a certain amount of grit that is needed to digest their food. If the mixture you use in your feeder does not contain grit, you will need to add to it. A teaspoon of fine sand, crushed eggshells, or crushed charcoal added to each quart of seed will meet the birds' digestive needs.

Although it won't fit in some of your seed feeders, fruit can be placed on a platform feeder for hungry birds. Small pieces of apples, oranges, bananas, tomatoes, and grapes are welcome handouts. Fruit that may be too ripe for most people to eat is just right for the birds. Check with the produce man at your local grocery store for special prices on overripe fruits.

Since birds need high-energy foods in winter, suet is another good thing to provide. Suet is the hard fat or tallow found around the kidneys and loins of beef and sheep. It can be purchased at the grocery store meat counter. Tie chunks of raw suet to a tree, or place it in small bags made from fiber-type onion sacks or netting. Attach these bags to trees or posts. Melted suet also can be used as a base for birdseed cakes. The recipes and serving containers for these mixtures can be as varied as your imagination.

Making a log feeder for suet seed-cake mixtures requires some woodworking skills, but the feeder will be an attractive addition to your feeding station. Drill a few quarter-sized holes about an inch deep in a small log. Leave the bark on it to provide footholds for clinging birds, and insert small dowels or sticks below a few of the holes to form perches for other bird species. Attach an eye bolt at one end, and the feeder is ready to hang from a nearby branch. Or, level off one end and attach the log to a platform feeder.

A foot-square, two-inch block of wood with a pattern of holes drilled an inch deep into its flat surface will make a tray-type seedcake feeder. It can be mounted on a post, set on the ground, or hung from a tree limb. To hang it, just drill holes in the corners (or use screw eyes) and attach cords.

If you don't have the materials or tools to make this tray-type feeder, an old muffin tin can be used as a substitute. And, if you look around the house, you probably will find quite a few things that can be used to hold the suet mixture. The shell from half a grapefruit or orange, foil pie pans, and plastic butter tubs are a few examples. Once you have decided on your container, the next step is to make the birdseed cake mixture. With some assistance from an adult, grind or cut the suet into small pieces, place it in a double boiler and let it melt completely. Allow it to cool and harden. Melting it again will give it a firmer texture when it hardens the second time, and it will hold the ingredients better.

The ingredients can be a combination of almost anything animal or vegetable. Some suggested items are: dried ground meat, cooked and chopped bacon rind, millet, sunflower seeds, rice, oatmeal, dried bread crumbs, cereal, corn meal, cracked corn, raw nuts, and raisins. Stir the selected ingredients into the melted suet just before it hardens. Mold it in the containers you have gathered, stuff it in the holes of your log or wood feeders, or spread it on the bark of a tree.

Peanut butter, although more expensive, is a high-energy food that can be used instead of suet in a birdseed cake mixture. To save money, buy the generic type instead of the name brand. Straight from the jar, peanut butter can cause birds a bit of a problem (you know how it sticks to the roof of your mouth), but adding cornmeal and seeds will create a tasty mixture to spread on tree bark or stuff into your special feeders.

Around Christmas, a decorative wreath feeder can be made for the birds. To a basic wreath, add sprays or seed clusters of milo, maize, wheat, millet, barley, or wild oats. Include dried seed pods, acorn caps, and pine cones that can be stuffed with your birdseed cake mixtures (either suet or peanut butter). For color and variety include berries, such as the red pyracantha. The finished wreath will add a festive touch to your winter feeding stations as well as provide food for the birds.

A water source is the last item needed for a winter feeding station, and something as simple as a garbage-can lid can be used to provide it. The lid can be attached to a stump, laid on a couple of cement blocks, or placed on the ground. However, if cats are a problem, it should be hung from a tree limb or clothesline. Drill three equally spaced holes just under the rim of the lid. Attach three ropes or cords and hang it high enough off the ground to protect the birds.

A well-maintained winter feeding station should meet the needs of your backyard birds until spring and give you many hours of bird-watching pleasure. If you want to continue to provide for the birds year-round, you might consider planting bushes, flowers, and trees that will provide not only seeds, berries, and insects for them to eat, but also nesting cover and shelter.

Some trees with edible berries, a few of which might be suitable for your area, are mulberry, dogwood, hawthorn, chokecherry, basswood, hackberry, and cedar. Shrubs and vines include yaupon, holly, pyracantha, Japanese privet, bayberry, members of the honeysuckle family, bittersweet, and Virginia creeper. You can plant any kind of flower since all of them have some kind of seed that may appeal to visiting birds. However, if possible, include the sunflower, as it is a special favorite.

When you have provided a feeding station for the birds' winter needs and planted growing things for their year-round use, sit back and enjoy watching the different species that visit your backyard sanctuary.

Additional Information:

Ilo Hiller
1989 – Bird Feeders: Introducing Birds to Young Naturalists. The Louise Lindsey Merrick Texas Environment Series, No. 9, pp. 18-23. Texas A&M University Press, College Station.