University of Vermont
Anytime News Article
Department of Plant and Soil Science
Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor
University of Vermont
Many gardeners, and even non-gardeners, enjoy feeding and watching birds,
particularly during the winter. You can buy the best quality bird
seeds but, if they’re not served to birds in the type feeders they prefer,
the number of species you attract and help will be limited. There are
an almost overwhelming number of bird feeders to choose from, but they
basically can be divided into six types: platform, hopper, tube, window,
suet, and skewer feeders.
The platforms or tray feeders are just that—usually about one foot square,
with a wire mesh bottom (so rain will drain through). Platform feeders
can be hung, put just off the ground on supports or attached feet, or
mounted on a pole. Since we have cats (one of the main bird predators)
in our neighborhood, ours is mounted on a pole about six feet off the
ground. You can make your own pole from pipe and a fitting you screw
onto the bottom of the platform feeder, or buy bird mounting posts just for
Just as with other feeders, you can hang platform ones from a tree branch or
a self-standing post as used for hanging baskets. The former has the
disadvantage of being easily accessed by squirrels and predators. The
latter posts can be found at most hardware, farm, and home center
stores. There are posts that easily attach to deck rails too from
which to hang feeders (or hanging pots in summer).
Platform feeders attract a wide variety of birds, from small sparrows to
large blue jays. They are preferred by ground feeders such as pigeons,
mourning doves, and cardinals.
The hopper or “house” feeders are perhaps the most common feeder, consisting
of a large holding area for seeds, usually surrounded with heavy
plastic. Looking down on them, they can be round or square, or in
various shapes and designs such as houses, barns and churches. Some are
quite colorful. Some have spring perches that will close the feeding area
with the weight of a squirrel. Hopper feeders tend to not keep seeds
as dry as a tube feeder, and are quite prone to feeding from
squirrels. They attract many birds, including grosbeaks and cardinals.
The tube feeders also are fairly common, and come in various
configurations. You can get them with two to six or more feeding
ports, and holding one to several quarts of seeds. Openings in the
plastic tubes are larger for either mixed and sunflower seeds, or smaller
slits for niger seeds (often called thistle, although it is not the thistle
that grows in gardens and along roadsides) for small birds such as
goldfinches and chickadees. Some tube feeders have ports with two size
openings—large and slits—that rotate, depending on the type birds you want
Depending on the type and size of the perches at the feeding ports of tube
feeders, you may get only small birds such as sparrows and finches, or
larger birds such as bluejays and grackles too. Some tube feeders have
perches above the feeding ports for those birds such as goldfinches and
nuthatches that can feed upside down.
The wire mesh tube feeders come in two mesh sizes—smaller for fine seeds
such as niger and larger mesh for sunflower seeds and shelled peanuts.
The former can be found as a cloth “sock” filled with the small seeds that
the birds extract. The latter, particularly if filled with peanuts, is
attractive to many birds including larger ones, such as woodpeckers.
Tube feeders keep seeds fairly dry compared to other feeders. (Of
course seeds in mesh feeders get wet but they dry quickly too.) They still
should be cleaned just as with hopper feeders, perhaps as often as every
couple of weeks. Look for ones easily cleaned, as seeds can accumulate
in the bottom and mold which, in turn, can make your birds sick. You
can get a long-handled bristle brush for cleaning these tube feeders, or get
one with ports or base that are easily removed for cleaning. Also look for
one with the base near the bottom-most feeding port
so few seeds accumulate at the base.
Tube feeders are less prone to squirrel feeding but, if you have squirrels
around, buy a feeder of heavy plastic with metal feeding ports, metal base
and tops, that they can’t chew through. Some are squirrel resistant
(no feeders really seem to be totally squirrel proof), either surrounded
with cages to only allow small birds in, with perches that spin squirrels
off, feeding ports that shut when they get on the feeder, or numerous other
devices. If feeders are mounted on a post, you can buy cone-shaped or
wide-spreading baffles to deter them.
You can buy squirrel decoy feeders too, in order to attract them away from
your bird feeders (at least in theory). Many have fun watching
squirrels on these, as they may be a trapeze that swings with their weight,
a reclining chair they sit on while eating a corn cob, or other amusing
Window feeders are just that, attached to the outside of windows by means of
suction cups. Unless a platform type, attached to a window frame, they
are heavy clear plastic and have a roof and overhang to help keep seeds
drier. They are smaller than the other feeders, and good if you want
to observe birds closely or don’t have room for larger feeders. Since
they are small, you’ll need to fill them often which is good since seeds
need to be changed frequently in them otherwise to prevent spoiling.
Suet feeders are generally plastic-coated wire, in a flattened rectangle or
square shape, to hold the suet blocks or cakes you can buy for birds.
These contain various mixtures of seeds and berries (cheaper ones just have
berry flavoring, so read the ingredients carefully), in addition to the
rendered fat that provides birds with energy. You even can find suet
in various shapes such as bells and figures, coated decoratively with seeds.
Suet is attractive to woodpeckers, nuthatches, and other insect-eating
You can buy chunks of suet in the meat area of grocers and put this out for
birds, but it may be carried off by squirrels if it isn’t contained.
Hanging this in a mesh bag may not be a good idea, as bird feet may get
caught in the mesh, trapping them. Hang suet feeders at least five
feet off the ground. Placing them on a wooden post or tree trunk will
attract more birds, such as woodpeckers, that like to cling to these
surfaces while dining.
Only use suet feeding during the winter, as the fat will go rancid in warmer
weather. You can make your own suet substitute with peanut butter for
summer, as well as use this year round. Mix one part of peanut butter
with five parts of corn meal, then stuff into holes made in a hanging log
(I’ve made holes about an inch deep and wide in a one to two foot birch
log), or stuffed into a large pine cone.
There is a sixth type of feeder—ones with skewers. The smaller ones
hold orange halves, which are mostly attractive to orioles and
tanagers. Another type with skewers (which you can make yourself from
nails in posts) holds whole, or sections, of dried corn on cobs. This
is particularly attractive to squirrels and large birds such as blue jays.
If you have room and the budget, try more than one type of feeder to appeal
to different birds. I find that many birds love a tall shrub with many
open branches (such as lilac) or small tree (such as shadbush) near the
feeder to operate from while feeding.
If all this sounds good, but you aren’t really sure what birds you have, you
might invest in a good bird field guide. Websites too can be great
resources, such as the Audubon Society (www.audubon.org) or the
Cornell Lab of Ornithology (www.birds.cornell.edu).
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