There are about a zillion bird feeders on the market. They come in a huge variety of shapes and sizes. They’re made from anything from plastic to wood to gleaming copper. Some hang from supports or tree branches, others perch on posts, attach to deck railings, or are anchored at ground level. Some feeders are designed to attract squirrels and others claim to exclude them. There are feeders to match every kind of seed, from tiny nyjer to peanuts in the shell, plus specialized feeders for corn cobs, suet, meal worms, jelly, fruit halves, and sugar water. With so many to choose from, how can one possibly decide which is the perfect feeder to buy?Like most of my birding friends, I have “new birdfeeder” on my Christmas wish list. Not only are my current ones wearing out, but there are better options on the market. What do I mean by better? Here’s what I’m looking for in a new feeder.
Materials. When we first moved to Colorado, I purchased a redwood feeder with Plexiglas panels that enclosed the seed, much like this one that I saw in Arizona. I happily filled it with sunflower seeds and hung it from the eaves outside my kitchen window. Strangely, the next morning my feeder was missing. I ventured outside to look for it, but all I found was a pile of chewed-up redwood and two pieces of Plexiglas—and a very stuffed squirrel. If you have squirrels, do not waste your money on a feeder made of wood. Even metal feeders can have chewable parts. Get something indestructible, such as a Sherman tank.
Then there are glass hummingbird feeders. Some are truly gorgeous, with steep price tags to match. I admit to drooling over these, but I’d never buy one. For one, I’m too likely to drop it. Even more significantly, I don’t think it would survive our next big wind storm. Give me cheap and replaceable plastic, please.
Shelter. How would you like to eat your picnic in the rain, or dig through a pile of snow to find a soggy sandwich? Right, didn’t think so. Most feeders are exposed to the elements. They look pretty sitting in the store, or depicted in a website photo on a lovely sunny day. But imagine the birds dining in inclement weather. My most popular feeder—the one the birds prefer—has a clear plastic dome over the top. They can hop inside and rummage through the seeds while staying warm and dry. The seed still gets damp—snow and rain can blow in the sides—but the small feeder size means that the birds empty it every day or two, so nothing has a chance to spoil. I’d love another covered feeder, perhaps like the one shown here, so I can expand my feeding station. (Hint, hint.)
Accessibility. Some feeders, usually low cost options from big box stores, have perches so close to the seed opening that the birds have to squeeze in sideways just to reach their dinners (below, left). Whoever designed these feeders didn’t have the birds in mind. Think about how the birds will access the seed. Are there only two or four perches, or can the birds cling all over the feeder? (This is especially applicable to nyjer feeders.) Do you want to keep larger birds, such as jays, crows, and magpies, away from the seed, or do you welcome all comers?
Maintenance. Birds aren’t the only ones who need access to the feeder. It’s our job to clean and refill them. My dome feeder—the one the birds like best—is a pain to refill. If I take it off the hook, all the seed spills out when I tilt it to hang it up again. Plus, the dome comes down so low, it blocks my seed scoop. I finally figured out that I can use an old cottage cheese container. If I squeeze it enough, it fits between the dome and the tray, and I can pour out the seed. You can be sure I’ll pay more attention to this issue when choosing any new feeders!
Maintenance is a particularly big deal when it comes to hummingbird feeders. So many of them have very narrow openings, barely big enough to get a bottle brush through. Yet, black mold accumulates inside the sugar water container, and needs to be scrubbed off. I look for feeders with large necks (like this one), specifically for this reason.
Squirrels. A number of feeders claim to be “squirrel proof.” There is no such thing. You can make a squirrel resistant feeder, but these rodents are smart and determined. Cages do not work; the squirrels will simply shake the feeder, then snarf up dinner from the ground. I’ve also had them unscrew the top and climb face down into the seed.
Some feeders (like the one shown here) are designed so that the weight of the squirrel closes a lid on the seed tray. My squirrels managed to support themselves on the feeder roof, then s-t-r-e-t-c-h and dine. (Are squirrels made out of silly putty?) Plastic domes keep out rain, but not rodents. They eventually find some way to hook a claw, anchoring themselves so they can then reach the seed.
The best squirrel-excluding arrangement I’ve discovered so far is to attach a cone baffle below a pole-mounted feeder. Not a single squirrel got past this baffle in the ten-plus years we had it. Unfortunately, it’s not the most attractive setup.
There are plenty of feeders available to suit even the fussiest birdwatcher. Don’t settle for something that will cause frustration. A good feeder should give you and the birds years of enjoyment.
The answer to last week’s bird quiz is Plain Chachalaca.