The birdfeeder had been up for weeks, but no birds came to dine. My friend was understandably frustrated. “Why won’t the birds come to my yard?” she asked. “I spent all this money on a feeder and birdseed, but they don’t seem to care!”
I thought about all the birds flocking around my assortment of feeders, and tried to see the differences. What was she doing—or not doing—that I was doing differently? We both lived in suburbia, amid rows of houses with lawns and trees and shrubs. In fact, we were only a few miles apart. So why did I have finches and doves and hummingbirds (and more), and she did not?
First, I asked what she had filled her feeder with. Turns out she’d bought one of those packages of mixed bird seed from the market. Those mixes are often based on millet, with a few other things thrown in to make it look more appealing. More appealing, that is, to us humans. After all, we’re the ones buying it. There are few species that like white millet—doves and pigeons, House Sparrows, quail—but most of the birds we hope to attract much prefer something else. (The cheap mixes also contain a lot of “filler” seeds that the birds really don’t like at all—red and white milo, or wheat.) I suggested she pick up black oil sunflower seeds as a primary food, and maybe some Nyjer to attract goldfinches and siskins (above, right).
Another option is to offer suet, especially during the colder months. Many birds who ignore a seed feeder will eagerly scoop up this high energy food.
Next, I took a look at her feeder. It was pretty, but not very easy to access, at least from a bird’s point of view. The perches were too close to the seed ports; a bird standing on one would have to go through some major contortions to reach inside. There are plenty of well-designed alternatives—tube feeders, platform feeders, and covered trays being some examples.
Looking at where she’d hung her feeder, I realized that it was right next to path that got quite a bit of traffic. Every passing person would scare away the birds. We decided to move it to a more secluded spot, still visible from inside her house. The ideal spot was close enough to cover that the birds didn’t feel too exposed (and so they had a place to hide in case a Sharp-shinned Hawk tried to find a finch meal) and not too close to any shrubs that could conceal a predator (such as the neighbor’s cat).
Placing the feeder close to the window minimizes injuries caused by birds flying into the glass. That sounds backward, but the idea is that the birds don’t have time to get up to speed before impact. If they do hit the window, they simply bounce off and fly away.
Another way to attract birds is to offer water. Especially if your yard is in a dry area, water can be a bird magnet. Look for a birdbath with a shallow “beach” area and a rough surface (so the birds don’t slip and fall). It doesn’t have to be expensive—even a plant saucer can work. The birds will see the mirror-like reflection and come over to investigate. If that isn’t enough, try hanging a gallon jug full of water overhead. Make a pinhole so that the water drips slowly into the saucer. The sound will grab the attention of any passing birds. If you want to be extravagant, install a water feature with a burbling waterfall that spills over a pile of flat rocks. The birds will happily come and take a shower in the spray.
Attracting hummingbird takes a different approach. They’re programmed to look for tube-shaped red flowers, although yellow, orange, and purple ones also get a visit. Anything red will get a second look (even a gardener in a red shirt!). While it’s not a good idea to color the sugar water red (the jury is still out on whether the dye is harmful), most feeders have some red on them. Make sure the red part is visible from the sky. If that’s not enough, tie a big red bow where it can be easily seen. When the hummers come to check it out, they’ll (hopefully) notice the sugar water nearby.
Planting hummingbird favorites is even a better way to draw them in. My feeder was ignored until my Monarda bloomed. Now my yard is full of the birds, streaking from flower to feeder and back again. Once the birds learn that your yard has food, they’ll be back every year.
There are more things we can do to attract birds—plant shrubs and trees that provide berries, let flowers to go seed, leave some leaf litter on the ground to hide bugs, include plants that provide shelter and nesting spots, and/or put up nest boxes, for some examples. We can put out the welcome mat in lots of ways. Then we have to be patient and wait for our guests to arrive.