Feeding Backyard Birds: Tips and Tricks

By Sarah Cameron, Nature Store Buyer

While feeding birds can be an enjoyable activity year-round, it tends to be on our minds more during these cooler times of year. Why is this? Well, from the people perspective, it can be a little more difficult to motivate yourself to get outside for birding in the field during these often chilly and shorter days. What better way to enjoy watching birds than by bringing them to you? With Oregon’s mild climate, a fantastic variety of birds can be observed year-round! Another reason, this time for the birds, is that an added food source can help our seed-eating feathered friends during this time of the year when wild food sources are not as ample.

Three Pileated Woodpeckers eat from a suet feeder.
Photo by Jerry McFarland

A question that Portland Audubon often gets asked is, “What should I feed the birds?” This is a great question, usually followed with, “What birds are you trying to attract?” The best way to support native birds of all kinds is to provide natural food sources by planting native plants, but you can also attract a variety of backyard birds by setting up feeders. As humans we can be picky eaters, preferring one food group to another. For birds it’s different, different species have evolved to rely on different food sources – and even have different adaptations for acquiring food that play into what feeders and types of food you choose to provide.

What birds are you trying to see more of this season? Try these foods for each species variety.

  • A variety of songbirds: Black oil sunflower seeds have a reputation for being a crowd pleaser – attracting a slew of species to your feeder. Blends are also popular for providing a little of everyone’s “favorites” – such as sunflower seed, millet, corn and peanuts. A simple tube feeder with perches can be an efficient way to serve up these types of seed, and adding a seed hoop to capture spillover or a weather dome to keep the rain away can help keep your feeder (and the ground below) nice and tidy! (Picture of tube feeder with dome and seep hoop from store)
  • Sparrows: Sparrows, such as the Dark-eyed Junco, are ground feeding birds. They often indulge in similar seeds to other songbirds, such as black oil sunflower seeds or blends containing millet, but they are more likely to visit a tray-style feeder or to pick up the leftovers off the ground that other birds may leave behind.
  • Woodpeckers or warblers: Suet, which is typically made from rendered animal fat, can be a great attractant for both woodpeckers and warblers (bushtits too!). Suet is often shaped as a square “cake” and served in a cage-like feeder. For woodpeckers, a tail prop can help support their large size. (Picture of feeder with trail prop – photo from Nature Store with pileateds?
  • Finches: Nyjer thistle is small, thin black seed from the African yellow daisy – and a favorite for the finches, such as American Goldfinches and Pine Siskins. Nyjer thistle can be served up in a “thistle sock” or tube feeder designed for this specific seed.
  • Hummingbirds: Anna’s Hummingbirds are often one of the most treasured backyard visitors – Rufous Hummingbirds too during the warmer months! Hummingbirds are unique from other common backyard birds as they eat nectar rather than seeds or nuts. The Nature Store carries a variety of hummingbird feeders, as well as hummingbird feed mix. You can also create your own hummingbird nectar at home with a mix of 1 part processed white sugar to 4 parts water.   
Anna's Hummingbird, photo by Britta Heise

Our first priority when feeding should be to keep the birds safe. Cleaning your bird feeder frequently is always important, but even more so during the winter. Damp weather paired with birds flocking to feeders increases the potential for diseases to spread, including salmonella. It is important to not only clean, but to sanitize feeders as well. A great routine is to clean your feeders with soap and water, rinse, soak with a solution of 1 part household bleach to 10 parts water, allow to sit for 10 minutes, rinse, and dry before using again. The best practice is to clean your feeders daily, but if that’s not manageable as often as possible is the next best thing. If you see any sign of illness among birds at your feeders, remove your feeders right away for cleaning and keep them down for at least 2 weeks. Cleaning hummingbird feeders frequently is also very important for their health. Sanitize with white vinegar or bleach weekly in the winter and every other day when temperatures are high.

Feeding backyard birds can also attract other wildlife. You can learn more about living with urban wildlife from our Wildlife Care Center. Squirrels, a common feeder visitor, can be deterred by adding some spice to your bird food. The active ingredient from hot peppers, capsaicin, doesn’t impact birds the way that it does squirrels or other mammals. The Nature Store carries seed and suet that contains capsaicin, along with Cole’s Flaming Squirrel Seed Sauce that can be added to any other seed mixture. A feeder that will physically block squirrels, such as a Squirrel Buster, can be a helpful addition too. 

If you’re looking to add a new feeder to your yard, stock up on seed, or purchase a pair of binoculars to observe the birds – the Nature Store has you covered! The store is open daily from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m., but if you can’t make it up the online store also carries a selection of products available for shipping. 

If you’re looking to take it a step further and create a natural backyard habitat, you can learn more about the Backyard Habitat Certification Program offered in partnership with Portland Audubon and the Columbia Land Trust.

Birds using the "Squirrel Buster" bird feeder.