New birders frequently ask me for solutions to typical novice problems. When I reflect on their questions, I realize it isn't what they're doing but what they're not doing that's causing problems.
Mistakes like not using the right feeders, not placing feeders in the correct place, not protecting feeders from squirrels and other animals, and not feeding the proper foods are often the cause.
These are all common mistakes that any Google search can fix, but from my point of view, the worst bird feeding mistakes are the ones that threaten a bird's health.
If you're a new birder, avoiding these three mistakes will help ensure you keep your small birds healthy and encourage them to be frequent visitors to your back yard.
Mistake #1: Not Cleaning Your Feeders and Baths
Birds congregating at a feeder are near each other and if one bird is sick, then you can bet others will get sick too. An infected bird could visit other feeders and quickly pass the infection around.
Before you know it, you could have an epidemic on your hands.
To make matters worse, if another bird like a raptor eats an infected bird, then that bird will likely die as well.
Deadly diseases, like mycoplasmal conjunctiv which kills house finches after blinding them, are easily spread by bacteria, mold, and parasites found in dirty bird feeders and bird baths. The responsible thing to do and the best way to prevent disease is to keep your feeders and baths clean.
How to Clean Your Feeders and Bird Baths
At a minimum, clean your bird feeders once a month. The exception is hummingbird feeders. To be safe, and because bacteria grows fast in sugar solutions, clean nectar feeders twice a week or any time it looks cloudy. Clean your bird baths weekly.
Use a brush and hot soapy water or a bleach solution made with one-part bleach and nine parts water for cleaning.
With feeders, take as much of them apart as you can and clean all pieces—inside, outside, perches, tray, and feeding ports. Thoroughly rinse feeders and baths when you're done.
Let your feeders dry completely before refilling. I air dry my feeders and then use a hair dryer to get rid of any droplets that didn't evaporate. If your feeder is even slightly wet, then the seed will rot, and you'll be back where you started.
Be sure to clean under your feeders too. Hulls and dropped seed are a haven for bacteria, fungus, and mold. Rake it up and dispose of it in a tightly closed bag.See also: How to Clean Your Bird Feeders
Mistake #2: Not Providing Water
Many new birders and a surprising number of more experienced ones don't know all birds need water year-round.
They also don't know the hazards natural water sources can present:
- Stagnant or standing water can harbor disease.
- Pollution is finding its way into more lakes and streams.
- Oil from cars, trucks, and tar contaminate rainwater that collects into puddles.
And water evaporates and becomes scarce during summer and freezes in the winter.
Birds need water to rehydrate, quench their thirst, preen, clean their feathers, and remove parasites.See also: 8 Things You Should Know Before Installing a Birdbath
A bird's feathers need to be in tip-top shape for flight and to keep their body temperatures regulated—cool in the summer, warm in the winter. It's this critical need to maintain their feathers that warrants offering water in all seasons.
Additionally, providing water will attract more birds to your garden than feeders, since only certain species visit feeders. Offer water and you'll get birds you might not otherwise see.
Fresh Water Tips
When offering water, you'll want to check the supply daily. If it looks dirty, change it.
Please don't ever add chemicals to the water to keep it fresh.
Consider adding an attachment to your bird bath that makes water flow, drip, wiggle, or creates a mist. Moving water is easier for birds to see and hear, will attract even more birds, and will deter mosquitoes that carry diseases like West Nile virus from laying eggs.
Mistake #3: Using Cheap Seed
It's tempting to buy the economy brand seed you find at big box and discount stores.
Don't do it. You're wasting your money.
Cheap seed and suet are less expensive because the ingredients used in them cost pennies. But most birds toss these “filler ingredients” aside. They don't eat it.
Cheap seed can contain as much as 73 percent filler. That means for every dollar you spend, 73 cents go into the trash. That's no bargain.
Read the ingredients on the bag or packaging and avoid the ones with the most frequently used fillers:
- red milo
- wheat, oats, buckwheat
- cracked corn
- golden and red millet (white proso millet is fine)
On the other hand, sunflower seeds—particularly black oil sunflower seeds—are by far the favorite food of the widest variety of birds.
Christopher Ingraham, of the Washington Post, wrote about what goes into bird seed and came to this conclusion:
"The take-home is pretty clear: If you're just starting out bird feeding and want to bring in the widest variety of birds, skip the commercial mix for a big bag of black oil sunflower seed (or, if you really want to go wild, a bag of shelled sunflower). While it may cost more, it's virtually guaranteed that none of it will go to waste."
Another problem with cheap seed? Who knows how long it was sitting in the warehouse before it made it to the store shelf?
As seed ages, its nutritional value drops. The oils in the seed that birds depend upon evaporates over time. It's also more susceptible to mold, bacteria, rot, and sprouting.
Birds recognize when seed isn't fresh, and they'll reject it.
Avoid the Top Three Bird Feeding Mistakes
Feeding wild birds is a wonderfully rewarding hobby, but it comes with responsibilities. One of them is to keep the birds healthy. To keep your feathered friends healthy and to avoid the three worst bird feeding mistakes:
- Keep your feeders and baths clean.
- Provide fresh, clean water.
- Use premium seed.
Even if you make other mistakes, you'll avoid most problems new birders face.