A Tufted Titmouse feeds on black oil sunflower seeds.

A Tufted Titmouse feeds on black oil sunflower seeds.

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Local winters can seem like a photo of a parade from a century past: long lines of gray, slightly out of focus, and vaguely depressing. Leaves are long gone, flowers are a memory. Is there any life outdoors in winter? The answer is yes. One of the best ways to remind yourself that the outdoor world isn’t as barren as it may look is to put up a bird feeder.
There are books written about feeding birds, but here’s a quick list that will separate fact from fiction to get you enjoying winter life in no time.


Nope. Grabbing a feeder from a grocery store or discount store is a waste of money. Having given in to the temptation of saving a buck, I can testify that cheap feeders break easily, even when handled carefully. The materials do not last, and the design allows for feeding birds that I don’t particularly want. Spending a few dollars more on a sturdy feeder will result in one that lasts decades.

Visit a store where people know about birding. Wild Birds Unlimited is an outstanding source of information and material, as are nonprofits like the Audubon Society of Rhode Island and US Fish and Wildlife visitor centers. All these (and others) carry feeders that will last, and they’re staffed by people who can put you in the right direction. Plus, you’ll be building good karma by supporting a local store. What could be better?


I used to have my front feeder about eight feet from my window. One day I heard a pop, like rapping on a glass door with a knuckle. Not seeing anyone at the door, I walked outside and found a Carolina wren on the ground, quite dead. This happened another time before I realized that the feeder I had set up to enjoy birds with was actually causing injury and death.

Birds at feeders are on constant watch for predators and other types of disturbances. When they flee a threat, they attain full speed in a distance of as little as six feet. Feeders that are placed either at less than three or more than eight feet from a window are less likely to cause injury or death. Window collisions cause millions of bird deaths every year. Since moving that feeder to about a foot from my window, there have been no more collisions. It also has the benefit of providing my indoor cat with the kitty equivalent of binge watching Game of Thrones.

See what I mean?  Best. Day. Ever.

See what I mean? Best. Day. Ever.


No and no. Supermarket seed often contains fillers, seeds that won’t attract the birds you want (pigeons, anyone?). Birds will pick through the rejected materials, knocking them to the ground, which wastes money and makes a mess. Not such a good deal. Besides, a check on the unit pricing (cost per pound) will often reveal that those small “convenient” bags are much more expensive than better quality seed purchased in larger amounts. On the other hand, it’s also possible to go too far in the opposite direction, buying boutique blends that are costly. These will indeed bring interesting birds to your feeder, and there will be far less waste than using the generic brands, but the expense may be a concern. Three food sources are both productive and relatively inexpensive. In fact, these sources were by far the most frequently mentioned in a recent informal survey among responders from a Facebook birding site for Rhode Island enthusiasts. First, black oil sunflower seeds will satisfy the palate of a huge variety of birds, including goldfinches, grosbeaks, cardinals; the list is nearly endless. Sunflower seed can cost as little as 55 cents a pound if purchased in bulk. I keep mine in a metal garbage can outside, which keeps both rain and pests out. If you’re concerned about the husks making a mess, you can spend more money and buy them husked. I write off the mess as a small price for cheap entertainment.

Next on the list is some form of suet. While technically from specific areas of a cow, most suet is composed of beef fat, and is roughly a dollar a pound the meat section of your local grocery. Suet will attract woodpeckers, like downies, red bellied, and flickers. Little nuthatches love it, as well. The suet can be placed in a metal “cage” or even hung from an onion bag. Suet is also available processed, or “rendered”, often blended with seed or fruit. They’re pressed into squares, making handling them a bit easier than the raw suet. The rendering process greatly inhibits spoilage, too, though that is less of an issue in the depth of winter. Both raw and processed seem to yield the same number of visitors, though some birders prefer the “purity” of the plain, non-rendered stuff. Pound for pound, suet is the cheapest way to feed birds.

Finally, there is nyjer seed. Also known as thistle, these tiny seeds attract goldfinches and redpolls. They are often hung from a “sock”, a fine mesh bag the birds cling to while they feed. There are sturdier nyjer feeders as well, with tiny openings designed to dispense seed without waste. A fringe benefit of nyjer: squirrels generally regard it as the dietary equivalent of Brussel sprouts.

Next week: more tips on getting the most from your feeder.

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