Bird Feeding Mistakes: Six Things You Must Stop Doing

I know the title to this article seems a little dramatic.

You’re just trying to feed some birds and go on with your life, without getting accosted by some yahoo on the internet.

But there really are a few common mistakes that can either put an unnecessary dent in your pocket, prevent you from attracting a diverse array of species, or – unfortunately – harm the very birds you’re trying to help support.  

Don’t worry; none of them are very hard to correct.

Except for maybe one. And you may not even think that’s a mistake. I go back and forth about it myself.  

1. Storing Seed Incorrectly

I know this is a mistake that’s the rough equivalent of not eating enough vegetables, but proper birdseed storage is actually a very important part of feeding your local flocks.

Failing to do so may lead to sprouted seeds, which will represent wasted money, or even worse, spoiled seed that may make your local birds sick. Fortunately, it is really easy to store birdseed properly – you just need to keep it cool, clean, dry and protected from insects and rodents.

Easy peasy.

There are a variety of purpose-built seed containers available, and there are also a number of more generic options that’ll work very well for birdseed. However, you can also use whatever plastic container is taking up space in the back of your closet. Just be sure to clean it well and dry it out before using it. Some bird folks use aluminum trashcans with locking lids or simple plastic sandwich bags, if they can store the bags in a rodent-proof area.

The ideal container size will depend on the amount of birdseed you use over time.

Birdseed will usually last for months, and perhaps as long as a year if properly stored (shelled seeds tend to last longer than nyjer and other unshelled seeds). So, try to figure out the amount of seed you’ll use in a given time period, and purchase a container of the appropriate size.

Some bird lovers like to store their seed in very large, “bulk” containers, but I’ve always thought that it’s a better idea to use several smaller containers instead. It’s not only easier to carry around smaller containers of seed, it also provides a bit of protection against spoilage.

If a clump of seed in a small container develops mold or becomes infested with insects, you’ll only have to discard a relatively small portion of seed. Conversely, if a clump inside a large container spoils, you’ll have to discard a much greater quantity of seed.

2. Inviting Rodents to Set Up Shop

Squirrels are an obvious rodentential (rodental? Why can’t I make rodent an adverb?) problem. So much so, that I’ve written an entire article about them. So definitely read that, but don’t sleep on their rodent-relatives, the rats, mice, chipmunks and others. 

Seriously.

I can’t stress the importance of rodent-awareness enough.

Back when I was running a nature preserve, we installed a ton of new feeders one fall. We’d always had a smattering of feeders set up around the main buildings, but we really upped our bird-feeding game and created a number of feeding opportunities for the feathered faithful.

Unfortunately, in addition to the normal levels of seed spillage that came courtesy of the birds (and young human volunteers, who were often tasked with refilling duties), the squirrels also descended upon these feeders en masse.

And feeder-raiding squirrels will dump tons of seed on the ground.

Literal tons. You put a pound and a half of birdseed in a feeder and somehow the squirrels alchemist-wizard that into 2,000-odd pounds of rat-attracting seed on the ground below the feeder.

Long story short, we started attracting rats like you wouldn’t believe, and by the spring, the local rat population had exploded.

To be fair, this place was essentially carved out of a nook in the forest, so the rats were already there, ready and waiting. I was just the one dumb enough to give them an easy food source.

We got control of the situation, but it was not easy (or cheap). I can’t imagine how harrowing this problem would be for the average homeowner.

So, just be sure that you’re keeping rodents in mind when setting up your feeding station. And this means considering the following (among other things):

  • Never scatter seed on the ground. Sure, you can feed sparrows and doves by just slinging seed around your backyard (that is, after all, why we try to use hay or straw to cover grass seed). But you can attract these species in myriad other ways, which won’t entail ringing the dinner bell for rats. 
  • Select a seed without low-appeal fillers. The birds will just kick these undesirable seeds to the ground, where the rats and mice will feast upon them with gusto.
  • Keep the squirrels at bay. Squirrels not only steal your seed and bully birds out of the way, they are messy critters, who scatter seed everywhere. Squirrel-deterrence is a complicated endeavor, but ‘tis a worthy and noble battle.
  • Try to install feeders over open ground. Despite your best efforts to the contrary, a little bit of seed spillage is inevitable. So, it makes sense to try to make this spilled seed as unappealing to rodents as possible. This essentially means forcing them to cross large stretches of open ground – rather than amid the dense foliage of shrubs – to access it.

Also, while I’m not making it a separate bullet point, refer back to mistake #1: Store your seed properly. Rats and mice can and will find any vulnerabilities in your seed-storage strategy, so use rodent-proof storage methods anytime you have to store seed in a garage, out-building or outdoors.

3. Placing Your Feeders Near Hazards

Placing a bird feeder near a tangible hazard is a pretty careless act. I mean, just think about a cute little chickadee, going about his day, trying to raise her little chickachicks and live her most chicktastic life, but she runs into a friggin’ window and dies because you put the feeder in front of a reflective surface.

It’s the kind of thing that would be funny in a cartoon, yet tragic in real life.

Reflective surfaces are notorious for giving birds intellectual fits. Towhees, cardinals and other fight their reflections all the time, and too many birds to count run into windows at full speed, as they’re apparently unable to discern the reflection from empty airspace.

You can avoid this problem to a degree via feeder placement, but you can also buy window films that’ll help birds recognize and avoid reflective obstacles, and DIY solutions abound.

Other potential hazards to consider include roads, outdoor cats and loud nighttime noises, such as fireworks. Roads and outdoor cats present obvious dangers (at least there are commercial solutions for the latter), but many people fail to understand how dangerous loud, startling sounds can be. The chaos they can cause inevitably leads to danger for the birds.

4. Forgetting about Water (and Other Important Resources)

I discuss this at length in a dedicated article, so I’ll keep things short and sweet here: Birds need lots of stuff besides seed. For that matter, some birds really aren’t interested in your seed. But that doesn’t mean you can’t encourage them to hang around by providing other sorts of resources.

In (very) short:

  • Birds need water, and it isn’t always easy to find, so, like, give it to them.
  • Birds need places to roost (chill out at night), nest and raise young, so give them places to do this too.
  • Birds also like places to hide, things to build their nests, and bugs to eat. Give ‘em these things too.

Seriously, just go read the other article. But the point is: Birds need plenty of things besides seed, and too many bird-feeding enthusiasts neglect to provide these resources.

5. Failing to Keep the Feeders Clean

Like proper seed storage, this is admittedly less-than-sexy. But it’s super-important. Feeding the birds tainted food a veritable witch with an apple. And that’s not cool.

Once seed gets wet (especially if it gets warm and wet), it’ll start becoming colonized with bacteria and fungi – including some that are dangerous to birds. And as you’d expect, these pathogens will contaminate the feeder too. But these issues are pretty easy to avoid by simply washing your feeders regularly – about twice a month.

If you can, just toss your feeders into your dishwasher (ideally, without your dishes). If this isn’t possible, just wash them with soap and hot water by hand.

Thus far, I’m just talking about feeders that hold seed — hummingbird feeders require a bit more care. Because you are basically offering up a container of bacterial and fungal food, you need to wash liquid feeders every few days. Say five at the most. And you’ll want to avoid using soap when you do – just rely on mechanical cleaning (a brush or your dishwasher’s water jets) and crazy hot water. A dilute bleach solution will also work but be sure to rinse and dry it thoroughly before refilling. 

I know this sounds like a lot of hassle to feed some birds, but you’ll incorporate it into your routine in no time. Just tie it  to your re-filling schedule and Bob’s your uncle (sorry, I’ve just always wanted to say that).

6. Feeding Harmful Species

I saved this for last, as I find some of the arguments against it compelling. Somewhat. It all comes down to your view of birds.

Do you see them as components of an ecosystem, who’ve playing a small role in making the world what it is, or do you see them as a collection of feeling beings, who deserve to live the most comfortable life possible?

If your thinking lends more toward the former, you probably think feeding invasive or otherwise-destructive species is a bad thing. But, if you feel that no matter the historic and natural context, these birds are individuals who’s suffering should be avoided, you may feel like feeding them isn’t a bad thing after all.

So, skipping past that philosophical conundrum, let’s just assume you think that feeding harmful species is a bad thing. Well then, Sparky, you need to exercise a bit of care.

And this chiefly means trying to discourage starlings, house sparrows, and cowbirds (among others) from visiting your feeders.

Now, this is not always an easy goal to achieve, but I’ve spoken about it at length in another article. Ultimately, your basic strategies are to:

  • Select seeds – like safflower and Nyjer – which do not appeal to many harmful birds.
  • Employ various feeding filters, such as weight-sensitive feeders, to exclude problematic species.
  • Consider the other resources problematic species require and try to eliminate them.
  • Manually discourage them, by doing ridiculous things like chasing away starlings when you see them. Admittedly, this is – in a best-case scenario – marginally effective. But this just illustrates the challenge of the entire situation.

Honestly, I also saved this mistake for last because it’s the hardest one to avoid. If you thought discouraging squirrels was tough, try keeping house sparrows at bay without chasing off all the other tiny fliers who visit your feeder.

But it’s likely – philosophical views aside – you can be somewhat successful.

***

We all make mistakes; there’s certainly no judgement here. I just want to help you help the birds.

So, with that said, stop doing these things. You’re either shooting yourself in the foot or hindering the very critters you’re trying to help. Besides, none of the mistakes mentioned above (save, potentially, from the whole feeding house sparrows and starlings thing) are terribly difficult to correct.

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