Backyard birds and the feeding thereof
March 29, 2015 2:22 PM   Subscribe

My backyard birds seem to enjoy spilled dogfood just fine, but what if I wanted to level up?

I have lots of backyard birds, and frontyard birds, and last week I was sitting in my car in my driveway and looked over into the rosebushes and saw 20+ tiny almost-perfectly-round little birds all motionless, waiting for me to leave. I enjoy having them around, and my dogs seem disinclined to bother them any, so I would like to hang a couple of birdfeeders.

Every time I go to the hardware store, though, my head explodes at the options. Do I want finches to be able to feed upside down? Which of these food and food-delivery products are appropriate for my birds? I definitely want to do whatever's necessary to thwart the squirrels, because my squirrels are complete assholes, but I rent so I can't construct some kind of permanent squirrel-punishment device.

This is suburban Los Angeles (San Fernando Valley, if the microclimate matters) and I would like to learn more about the local birds who come to my bird feeders. Are there types of feeders that are more fun, or more appropriate to normal bird biology/ecology? Is there a bad birdfeeder? I don't want to hurt anybody (except maybe the squirrels, but they are clearly doing fine because they take 3 bites out of each of my oranges and then throw the remainder on the ground).
posted by Lyn Never to Home & Garden (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I definitely want to do whatever's necessary to thwart the squirrels, because my squirrels are complete assholes, but I rent so I can't construct some kind of permanent squirrel-punishment device

Nothing short of nuking the immediate neighborhood, then following that up with a week of napalm bombings, will thwart squirrels. And I'm not totally positive that would work. The best I've been able to do is hang a feeder off a tall metal pole (like a 5-foot tall shepherd's crook) and have all that sitting out in the middle of open ground, away from anything like a tree or roof, from which the squirrels could jump onto the feeder. And they can leap a crazy distance.
posted by Thorzdad at 2:35 PM on March 29, 2015 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: (I do mean that more in a "which birdfeeders are generally less amenable to squirrels, those fuckers" kind of way. I know there's no stopping them. Because they're awful. But what will give the birds a fighting chance?)
posted by Lyn Never at 2:42 PM on March 29, 2015

Best answer: I've had one of these Absolute squirrel-proof bird feeders in almost constant use for 30 years. It's all scratched up from their teeth and claws, but no squirrel has ever cracked it. Of the various seeds I've tried, black oil sunflower seeds are by far the most successful for attracting lots of different sorts of birds.
posted by Corvid at 2:58 PM on March 29, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Yay! Birds!

Birdseed: Get a bird seed that is entirely black oil sunflower seed. Lots of different birds love it, and it's better for them than the millet in mixed bird food. Brand doesn't seem to matter; I’ve found that the store brand works just as well as Wild Birds Unlimited / fancy brand. Suet / brick kinds of bird food will get rancid quickly if the temperature is over about 70*F, I’d stay away from those.

Feeder type: The bad kind are the kind that break and/or have ridiculously tiny food holes. A good feeder is one that will stick together, under the weight of seeds and the weight of the inevitable squirrel. I’m partial to the tube-shaped feeders that are made entirely out of large-gauge metal screening. Sometimes they have perches that stick out. Plastic tube feeders seem to disintegrate easily. As long as you aren’t put off about the Squirrel Bonanza that this will become, sprinkle some seed on the ground, too. You can attract ground-feeding birds and perch-feeding birds.

Squirrel Deterrent: Seconding the feeder hanging from a tall shepherd’s crook. It might be worthwile to get one with a metal cone ~2ft off the ground to act as a squirrel baffle.
posted by Guess What at 3:04 PM on March 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Birds are great! And yeah if you don't mind the cost black oil sunflower will get a wide variety (you can also get some mixes that have mostly that and peanuts and whatnot, birds flip out). I would concur that a shepherd's crook type with a squirrel baffler would be good. There's also squirrel deterrent that you can get (basically red pepper and spicy stuff) that you can mix in with seed. Birds can't taste it, squirrels hate it. I have mixed luck with it but it's worth a try. Suet feeders sometimes bring in the woodpeckers. So I suggest a setup maybe like this. You can have one sunflower feeder, one thistle feeder (gets birds with little beaks like goldfinches) and a suet feeder on the other hanger. Then get a squirrel thing so they can't climb up. Maybe a small pair of binoculars so you can check out what you're getting. If you have a yard you can also put in a birdbath which birds tend to appreciate and squirrels don't care about.

The only thing to keep in mind about with birdfeeders are 1) if you have megafauna (we have bears) you have to be mindful of the timing 2) it's good to clean then entirely out every few fillings because seed can molder and be bad for birds. I have this book, it's a little old and sort of simple but covers the basics.
posted by jessamyn at 3:20 PM on March 29, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Mealworms have been universally adored in my garden every time I've put them out. I've even had birds appear only when mealworms are present. They can be fed from a shallow dish. Sunflower hearts are more expensive than just sunflowers, but you get way less mess because there are no hulls to be thrown on the ground. Nuts are more likely to attract squirrels than seed, in my area at least.

It will be useful to figure out what species of birds you have locally, and then feed them appropriate food from an appropriate feeder. Some will like suet products, some will like insects, some peanuts, some seeds, etc. Some will be ground feeders (get yourself a mesh tray, it makes cleanup so much easier) in the open, some will prefer to ground feed under bushes, some will like to perch on a feeder, etc. Perhaps post a pic of the birds so we can identify them and suggest the best kind of food/feeder?

That said, birds will adapt to get food if they need to - there's nothing in nature like a fat ball, but my local birds demolish them within a day of me putting them out.

I've had some success with caged feeders like this one. Smaller birds can get through the holes, but squirrels are too large. There are feeders that spin, too.
posted by Solomon at 3:30 PM on March 29, 2015

Best answer: A couple of notes about birdseed: like others said, where I live sunflower seeds are almost universally loved, except by some of the tiny birds. Sunflower seeds are actually quite cheap around here, and then can be supplemented with a finch-type mix for tiny birds.

Birdseed often carries moth larva and your house may get infested unless you microwave the seed, or store it outdoors--in metal.

My favorite feeders are
1. a simple small platform I made--big birds like woodpeckers prefer it
2. A tube with tiny slits for feeding finches
3. A feeder with a 4x daily timer (Wingscapes), because flocks of sparrows were emptying other bulk feeders in about a day, and I go out of town a lot. The bonus of this is when the weather is bad I don't have to go outside to feed the birds.

and squirrel baffles on all the poles. You definitely don't want a slender shepherd's crook for feeders that hold a lot of food, go for a tall and beefy one.

Enjoy those birds! I find them so much fun to watch and photograph.
posted by Anwan at 3:57 PM on March 29, 2015

If you have a specialty store around where you live, you may be able to get sunflower seeds with capsaicin. It's too hot for squirrels but birds can't taste it. (At least, that's what I hear. It successfully kept the squirrels away when my family was feeding birds.)
posted by Jeanne at 4:23 PM on March 29, 2015

We have a bird feeder which suction cups to our window. It only holds ~2 cups of seed, but squirrels have yet to breach it.
posted by deludingmyself at 5:00 PM on March 29, 2015

Best answer: Seconding some kind of suet feeder. You can buy the refill blocks wherever you buy the feeder and having a variety of food in different feeders will attract the widest array of birds. You can also up the game a little by adding a birdbath.

As far as learning about the locals: the local birding groups frequently maintain species lists. If you want to invest in a book to keep near the window, my opinion is that the Sibley guide is the gold standard. It's a little too big to carry around in the field, though, if you ever get interested in trekking around the sticks. I've got some other resources on my profile page.

Welcome to the slippery slope!
posted by jquinby at 6:19 AM on March 30, 2015

I forgot to mention that around here, squirrels do that one- bite thing to tomatoes. Set up a birdbath they can access and they stop. I don't know if it will work in your area but it's worth trying and the birds will definitely love it. Birds prefer some nice shrubbery nearby for protection since they can't fly well with wet wings.
posted by Anwan at 8:50 AM on March 30, 2015

Best answer: I have black walnut trees and so endless squirrels. I bought this feeder two years ago and it have never seen a squirrel get any seeds. Multiple scratches on the lid where they tried to hang on, but no successes.
posted by rtimmel at 10:29 AM on March 30, 2015

Response by poster: Thanks everyone! After a really crappy couple of weeks at work, finally I took myself out this morning and got a suet feeder, this variable perch feeder, a bag of black oil sunflower seed, a hummingbird feeder (we've been getting frequent visits to our flowering shrubs lately), and a hanging birdbath.

I look forward to communing with my new feathered friends.
posted by Lyn Never at 1:05 PM on April 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

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