Working Out Which Type Of Bird Feeder To Use

If you want to start feeding birds in your garden, or even from an apartment balcony, it can be a great hobby. If you put some suitable bird food out, the birds will come. It might take a while but they will come. The main thing to know is which type of wild bird feeder is best in your situation.

The feeder you choose should be suitable for the food you want to put out.

  • for seed in a hanging feeder, choose a feeder with small feeding ports, so the seed doesn’t fall out.
  • use a ground feeder to attract ground feeding birds, such as robins and blackbirds.
  • a windows feeder is a good idea for apartments or balconies.

Choosing The Right Bird Feeder

Of course, you can put a plate of seed out on the grass and the birds will find it. Some might like it, some might not. The danger here is that other ground feeding animals will also find your offerings, such as rats and squirrels. Even other birds you might choose to avoid will undoubtedly steal all the food from other birds – pigeons spring to mind, as well as magpies and crows.

Five Ways To Feed Birds In Your Garden.

First of all, lets have a look at the main methods we use to feed garden birds. You might prefer some over the others for a number of reasons. You should think about your garden environment and consider what suits it best.

1. On The Ground

By using a ground feeding method you can attract a greater range of birds, without limiting visits to those that are happy to perch and feed. What I mean is, birds like Blackbirds and Dunnocks usually feed from the ground. They are not likely to fly to a higher perch to feed from a hanging feeder.

Ground feeding birds will often be found near to a hanging feeder or bird table, collecting the food that falls to the ground below. You will find that the usual Great Tits, Blue Tits, Green Finches, Robins and others will also feed from the ground, if that is where the food is.

There is the obvious risk of attracting rats and squirrels, though. They will not be able to resist an easy meal. Pigeons are also a party-pooper here.

Therefore, if you want to reserve the food for the smaller birds and only birds, it is a good idea to cover the food with some kind of mesh or surface with holes large enough for a small bird to fit through and small enough that bigger birds and vermin cannot.

This is a ground guard available at Amazon. It is a bit like an upside down supermarket basket. You will see the holes are large enough for small birds to get through and feed safely. There are no sides made of plastic or metal, which would retain the heat from the sun.

If you don’t want to pay for a purpose made product, you can easily make your own. Guess what my first idea is going to be… yep – a metal supermarket basket. Many supermarkets now favour plastic baskets but if you know of somewhere you can liberate a metal one from (lawfully) it would be a great way of keeping your ground feeding birds safe.

A more convention way of making your own ground guard would be to get hold of some cheap chicken wire. You know the sort, with small hexagonal holes in a wire mesh. It is easy to shape and easy to cut. Mould some chicken wire into a dome or a simple cube and use it to cover the bird food.

2. Naturally Occurring Plants

A natural way of attracting birds is to provide some of the plants they like to feed on. This is a nice, low maintenance method of seeing garden birds in their natural habitat. This also works for balcony garden but either way, it depends on which birds are in your area.

Closeup of a great tit on a sunflower

Ivy – Personally I do not like ivy but, it attracts insects which in turns attracts birds like Robins. Ivy usually grows small dark berries in the autumn. These are liked by Waxwings, Thrushes and Blackbirds to name just a few.

When we moved into our house there was so much ivy in the back garden that it was taking over. It had completely covered the fence and it was difficult to maintain. Ivy is persistent, so be sure you are ready if you are going to introduce it! If you do have enough ivy growing in the right places, it provides a great sheltered place for nesting birds.

Honeysuckle – I like this one. We have it on the fence on one side; it is a climbing plant that does really well at looking nice too. For me one of the main points of having plants in the garden it to provide a splash of colour to make the place look nice.

I have been watching the Blue Tits as they leave the feeding station and they often like to flit over to the honeysuckle on the opposite side of the garden. They spend a while there picking of small insects that are attracted to the sent of the flowers.

Sunflowers – These provide an oil rich seed for small birds such as the Nuthatch and Long Tailed Tits. They also provide a bit of colour in the garden. My young daughters came home from school with some sunflower seeds to grow as a project. They were so easy to grow but we lost a bit of momentum and allowed them to dwindle before they reached maturity.

I know we have Nuthatches in the area and some Long Tailed Tits have made an appearance recently too. I am definitely going to grow sunflowers again soon in the hope I can get more.

A top tip – out of the seeds we planted last year, the ones that grew best were from a packet of cheep sunflower seeds I bought to feed the birds. I just got a few, pushed them into some earth in a pot and up they came.

Teasels & Thistles – These two are widely known to be awesome at attracting Goldfinches. Teasels are popular in dried flower arranging circles and thistles are commonly associated with weeds. Of the two, a thistle is more colourful when in flower but both provide an important food source for the Goldfinch, especially in late summer.

There is one thing that I have found to be a magnet for Goldfinches in my garden – niger seed. These tiny little black seeds from the plant named guizotia abyssinica attract the Goldfinch all year round. It is so noticeable that just a couple of Goldfinches visit until I put out the niger seed. Then, they are queuing up!

Further down I describe the best way to feed niger seed, so keep going…

3. Bird Tables & Platforms

Bird tables are still a ‘thing’. They provide an elevated platform for bird to feed from with a 360° view of approaching danger. A platform like this is an easy way to put out kitchen scraps and actual bird food of any type; no need for a cage, hopper, tube or anything to contain the food.

The types of bird that like a platform include Tits, Sparrows and Robins. Using a lower down platform will allow Blackbirds, Dunnocks and Sparrows to feed.

A word of warning though. A bird table is easily accessed by ‘you know who’. Even a higher up table mounted on a post is no problem for an expert climber. Most of us throw out bread crusts and stale bread for the birds but if it is not eaten the rodents and pests will come.

A feeding platform could be a good idea for a balcony. Rats and squirrels are less likely to climb very high up an apartment building, so it is more likely your food will be taken by birds. It just depends on which type.

If you use a bird table or other type of flat platform it is important to consider drainage and cleaning. Water that gathers will soak the seed and may cause it to sprout. This can be dangerous to birds because of fungal and bacterial growth. Standing water can also spread disease.

Bird droppings will gather quite quickly on a popular feeding platform. It is essential that the feeding surface is cleaned regularly and old food cleared away. We want the birds to return and feed, we don’t want to harm them.

A very well reviewed bird table by the RSPB is over here at Amazon.

4. Window Feeders

I have to admit, I have not used a window feeder yet but it is something I will get around to. What i like about them is the way they offer a close up view of feeding birds. Great for children to watch without scaring the birds off.

Blue tit on a window feeder

Finches and Tits are likely to use a window feeder but you might get the odd bigger bird clumsily chancing their luck too. Most window feeders provide a tray or hopper type setup; a surface for the birds to actually stand in and feed, rather than perching and poking a head in. With this in mind it is likely the seed inside the feeder will become soiled with droppings quite quickly. It will need to be cleaned out regularly. A small price to pay for such wonderful entertainment. See a range of windows feeders like the one pictured here at Amazon.

But what about window collisions? The theory is that you should place bird feeders either close to a window or a lot further away. If the feeder is within a metre of a window and an approaching bird hit s the window, they aren’t likely to be flying fast enough to hurt themselves. A feeder that is no where near a window will not have any influence. Weird that a feeder can be placed right there on a window, right?

The important thing with window bird feeders is that they should be sturdy and well attached. The last thing you want is a feeder falling to the ground below and hurting someone. Most come with strong suckers that keep the feeder in place and require some force to remove them. Test them first!

The other consideration is food debris and bird mess falling below. Think carefully about what is actually under the window where the feeder is going to be. It could get messy.

5. Bird Feeding Stations

A bird feeding station is usually a vertical pole stuck into the ground. At various points toward the top of the pole are hanging points for feeders. Some stations can accommodate five or more feeders, not including the water tray.

The great thing about a feeding station is that you can change the arrangement to suit. I like being able to turn the feeders around the pole so I get the best view of a certain feeder. I also like being able to hang things and change feeders around a bit, putting them at different heights. The one in the photo is reasonably priced at just under £20. Check the latest prices at Amazon.

With a feeding station you have got a slightly better chance of beating the squirrels. The pole can be coated with something slippery like Vaseline. I have also seen people using a slinky spring to defeat those invaders. Baffles are easily attached to a pole as well.

I have been quite lucky in that the squirrel that visits my garden has mainly stayed away. This week he has been around a lot more and he is dominating the feeding station.

Choosing The Best Feeder For The Food

At the beginning of this post I said it might be better to consider which feeder is better for the type of seed, rather than which feeder is best for different birds. I have learnt from experience that big holes are no good for small seed. It sounds obvious but many people don’t think of that.

To clarify – you should use the correct type of feeder for the food you are using. Most feeders are labelled according to their use, for example – suet feeders, nut feeders and so on. They are intended to effectively contain a certain type of bird food whilst allowing a bird to feed on it easily.

Things To Consider When Choosing A Feeder

The feeder will be made with the intended food and the birds in mind. Some things to look for:

  • Hole size – if you are using smaller seeds like niger, you will want a smaller feeding port. This will prevent seed escaping or being wasted.
  • Perches – I have found that the feeders with perches are used more than the feeders without. Birds like something to, well… perch on while they peck away at a feeder.
  • Feeder construction – for some reason, last week I decided to fill peanut feeder (wire mesh type construction) with some seed mix. It didn’t go well, do not do this!
  • Cleaning & Maintenance – Cleaning your bird feeders is important to help prevent the spread of disease, as well as reducing the chance of mouldy seed. Consider whether the feeder is easy to clean.

An Example

I started off all this with just one feeder that I bought a few years back. As my interest grew I bought other feeders and different types of bird seed but still use the old feeder. The thing is, the feeder is completely the wrong type for the seed I used to fill it with – niger seed.

Niger seed is very small, each seed is about the size of an ant. The feeding ports in my original feeder are way too big. When filling it up seed will fall out the bottom hole (sorry if that sounds rude). Although the seed mostly stays in place once filled, it tends to spill out and starts to gather on the bottom ledge. It gets messy and wasteful. Time to get a proper feeder for my niger-loving Goldfinches.

Which Feeder Is Best For Goldfinch?

The main feature you will notice on a niger seed feeder is how small the holes are. The first time I saw them I didn’t think a Goldfinch’s beak would be able to get in there to get anything out. But they do and the overall benefit of using this type of feeder is that the seed does not fall out or get spilled.

From time to time a seed or two will drop to the ground as the Goldfinch is pecking away but I can live with that. Clearly the niger seed feeder hole size is important, especially if you want to have a go at make your own (it’s quite easy by the way). A hole no larger than 5 mm in diameter will ensure the seeds stays inside the feeder; it will also be large enough for a finch-like beak to easily grab the seeds.

Feeders For Sunflower Hearts

By far the most popular seed in my garden is sunflower hearts. Buying bird seed can get expensive but if you are able to go for a good quality product, the results will be worth it.

I prefer sunflower hearts because they generate less mess. All birds do with sunflower seeds is remove the husk and throw it to the ground. I find the best bird feeder for sunflower hearts will have a perch and holes that allow feeding but not the free flow of seed.

Similar to the niger seed feeders, a sunflower heart feeder will have appropriately sized holes to prevent seed spilling out too easily. Generally the hole size is around 10 mm in diameter.

Another type of feeder for sunflower hearts is a hanging tubular hopper with a tray. The sunflower hearts pour into the tube, which has a tray fitted at the bottom. The hearts will naturally fall to the base where two small rectangular cut outs allow them to gather just outside the tube without spilling out uncontrollably.

The seed tends to be scattered more and can be flicked off the tray because there are no perches; the birds land on the tray and seed gets kicked. It is not such a popular feeder at my bird station.

Which Feeder Is Best For Nuts?

Most peanut feeders are made from a fine wire mesh and are either tubular or rectangular. A mesh is used for peanut feeders because a whole peanut could be dangerous for a bird. It also allow a bird to peck through the holes and get enough purchase to break the nut up.

A feeder with small holes would be pointless as a beak would just push the nut back from the hole and there would not be enough room for the beak to open across the surface of the nut. So, as to which feeder is best for nuts – go for a mesh feeder with holes large enough for pecking about but not so large the nuts can fall through. Fortunately, as I mentioned previously, bird feeders are usually labelled according to the type of food they are intended for.

Peanut feeders are not expensive – check the latest prices here.

Feeders For Suet Balls

In keeping with the theme here, the feeder is made according to the size of the food. I know it sounds obvious but many people buy feeders but then buy the wrong type of food (or vice versa). Suet balls are normally the size of a small orange, or maybe the size of a decent roast potato we would eat. They do not need to be in a feeder with tiny holes as there is no risk of them falling out.

Most suet or fat ball feeders are wire mesh or metal framed, like the peanut feeders but the gaps are much wider. Bigger gaps allow more movement as the bird breaks apart the piece they want. This food type generally doesn’t crumble or disintegrate and remain within the feeder until eaten. The tube or holder needs to have a sufficiently sized hole for the suet balls to fit through.

Suet Block Feeders

Suet block feeders are rectangular or square and allow the use of suet blocks, which are usually flatter, squarer blocks of suet. The food is not much different, if at all, it is just a variation on the shape. Rather than a common tube shape with a hole at the top, a block feeder is only an inch or so thick with a hinged flap or fold down lid. It comes down to choice but ultimately, your garden birds will tell you which they prefer!

See a range of suet block feeders.

How Much Does All This Cost?

How much does it cost to feed garden birds? Good question, the answer is – as much as you want to spend. There is a huge market for bird lovers making millions each year. But you do not need to spent a lot of money on feeding your garden birds. The simplest of things you find around the house can be recycled as bird feeders.

The birds themselves don’t really care whether you spent £5 or £25 on a bird feeder – they just want the food. I often see bird feeders for sale and I am shocked at how much they cost. Premium feeders made of high quality materials don’t really offer much more than less expensive alternatives. Its a plastic tube with a hole in it for goodness sake!

Sometimes the less expensive options actually look nicer and provide more functionality, like double perches and more feeding ports. Better still, make your own feeders. Old yogurt pots, plastic bottles, lollipop sticks and cheap wire mesh from a hardware store can all be used to fashion a bird feeder.

Good Bird Seed Can Be Expensive

The most expensive part of all of this is likely to be the food itself. Yes, you can make your own suet cake, fat balls or even just use kitchen scraps. However, birds will need some good quality seed at some point.

I have found from experience that cheap bird seed mix just won’t cut it for most garden birds. By far the best thing my birds like right now is the sunflower hearts and niger seed. Luckily I have found a good place to get these at a reasonable cost. I like feeding garden birds but I am realistic that my family comes first.

Something else you could do is go halves with a neighbour or friend who also likes to feed the birds. There are some great suppliers out there but shipping costs or bulk costs can be high. Sharing this cost can make this hobby a lot more accessible.