Feeding Birds

Teresa Manucy, DVM
By Teresa Manucy, DVM on Dec. 12, 2022
red male cardinal sitting on a bird feeder

Wild bird enthusiasts often provide food to attract birds to their local outdoor environment. This allows the birds to be observed up close. Different types of wild bird foods may attract a variety of species. Offering various types of feeders with a mixture of food and water sources combined with perching options will bring a variety of birds year-round.

Is Feeding the Birds a Good Idea?

Feeding wild birds helps to ensure that food is available and easily accessed during their migration to a different geographical area. Providing food for wild birds also ensures they have enough nourishment during the harsh winter months.

This also allows the bird enthusiast to learn about the various species in the area during each season. Songbirds, hummingbirds, woodpeckers, finches, chickadees, cardinals, bluebirds, and other species can all be observed at different times of the year.

What is the Best Thing to Feed a Bird?

Wild birds may be fed a variety of options that include nectar, combinations of seeds, nuts, insects, soft fruit, and suet in various blends, cylinders, cakes, and butter formulations. Different options are available to support the demands of nesting and winter stress. Some even have ingredients to deter competing wildlife and insect pests from eating the feed.

Organic ingredients offer the benefit of nutrition without exposure to chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides. Live or dried mealworms will add variety and are a good source of protein. In addition, fruits and nuts are a welcome treat for increased energy, and most will be eaten by a variety of birds.

Bird feeds appropriate for each season include:

  • Spring: seed blends, sunflower seeds, sunflower chips, millet, fresh fruit, suet when dry weather permits, nectar, peanut butter, mealworms, crushed eggshells

  • Summer: seed blends, sunflower seeds, sunflower chips, Nyjer seeds, millet, nectar, fruit, jelly, mealworms, peanuts, suet

  • Fall: seed blends, sunflower seeds, Nyjer seeds, millet, nectar, nuts, fruit, suet, cracked corn

  • Winter: seed blends, sunflower seeds, millet, Nyjer seeds, nuts, suet, cheese, fruit, peanut butter, cracked corn

Human foods such as bread, cereal, and crackers do not provide the necessary nutrition and may fill up wild birds too quickly, preventing them from getting enough nutrients for optimal health. Due to the inadequate amounts of protein and minerals, young birds may develop growth deformities when offered these foods.

Bird Feeders

The best wild bird feeders are based on the type of food that is offered and the types of birds that are expected to feed from them. Varieties include cylinder seed feeders, with mesh, tray, and weather guard options. Nectar feeders will have a cylinder or tray design. Some are designed to deter insects and squirrels from eating the food. Other styles will attach to a window for up close indoor viewing.

Materials used for bird feeders include natural and non-toxic painted wood, recycled plastic, wire mesh, and metal. Bird feeders should be cleaned every other week (scrub with soap and warm water, thoroughly rinse) or sooner during wet conditions or when there is exposure to visibly sick birds.

How Often Should You Feed Birds?

Wild birds may grow dependent on this supplemental food source. Generally, the frequency will depend on the demand and the season. Once per day is recommended initially but feeding may increase to twice daily during winter months.

Feeding wild birds will attract them to neighborhoods any time of the year. There are times when the birds will gain added benefit from this supplemental source of food. During the spring, birds are nesting and raising young and an increase in the demand for nourishment is required. Harsh winter conditions may increase a bird’s physical requirements for survival when resources may be scarce.

Bird seed should be placed in feeders daily, when possible. Offering fresh portions first thing in the morning or just before sunset will allow routine bird-watching opportunities.

Where to Place Your Bird Feeder

An ideal location to place bird feeders includes locations where they are easily visible from inside and a place relatively safe from predators or collisions with windows. Avoid placing feeders too close to natural cover to prevent tree dwelling animals from having access to the feed and to keep predators from being hidden. Locating feeders closer to windows will help prevent injuries from collisions as they will not be up to full flight speed.

Ground Level

Ground feeding can be accomplished by sprinkling seeds across the lawn or on a platform such as a stone, decking, or platform feeder on the ground. Choose a location away from busy areas near the house and close to vegetation for protection. These areas should be easily visible to attract a variety of birds, including mourning doves, sparrows, towhees, and juncos.

Table Level

Feeding at table level can be created with a tray feeder, hopper, or cylinder feeder that hangs from a bird feeder pole. These should be located away from busy homes, driveways, or playgrounds and at least 5 feet up from the ground, 7 feet away from other horizontal surfaces, and 9 feet away from trees or buildings to deter other wildlife from eating the feed. They should also be placed closer than 3 feet or farther than 10 feet from windows to minimize in-flight collision injuries. Table-level feeders may attract bird species like cardinals, finches, and jays.

Hanging Feeders

Hanging feeders may be either a traditional hopper, cylinder, or platform style. They must be secured so they don’t fall when the bird lands on them or when the winds blow. They can be placed high in a tree, hanging between trees, or on a pole. Prevent squirrels from bothering your hanging feeder with a baffle placed on top of the feeder. Those placed on a bird feeder pole should also follow the table level location and height recommendations. Be sure to separate feeders by 3-4 feet to reduce territorial fights. Bird species that enjoy hanging feeders include titmice, goldfinches, and chickadees.

Tree Trunks

Some bird feeders are cleverly designed to be attached to the trunks of trees. They may be decorative and hold a small platform for the birds to perch and feed on. The ease of access to the feed by squirrels may require more frequent refills to replenish the bird food. Woodpeckers, nuthatches, and wrens specifically love these feeders.

Dangers of Feeding Wild Birds

One threat with feeding wild birds is the possibility of communicable disease spreading through close contact at bird feeders. Bacteria such as E. coli and Salmonella may cause digestive illness leading to dehydration and death. Highly pathogenic avian influenza is quickly spreading among wild bird populations and other wildlife species putting exposed humans at risk as well.

Feeding wild birds at feeders keeps them coming back to a predictable location which makes them more susceptible to predator attacks from feral or backyard cats and local hawk populations. The presence of food in bird feeders may also attract other wildlife such as squirrels and bears that are looking for easily accessible food. Taking steps to strategize the type of food and the location of bird feeders can minimize these opportunists. A deterrent such as a squirrel baffle may reduce the easy access to these unwanted wild animals.

When bird feeders are placed near buildings, the birds see through the glass and may collide with it. Even reflective or colorful stick-on additions may not be enough to prevent these injuries. Keeping feeders less than 3 feet or more than 10 feet from a window will reduce high speed collisions by keeping their flight speed slower and allowing birds time to maneuver away.

Featured Image: iStock.com/doug4537

Teresa Manucy, DVM


Teresa Manucy, DVM


Dr. Teresa Manucy is a 1997 graduate of the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine. She completed an internship in small...

Help us make PetMD better

Was this article helpful?

Get Instant Vet Help Via Chat or Video. Connect with a Vet. Chewy Health