Strictly speaking, you don’t have to buy a bird feeder.
You can just buy a bag of seed and start tossing fistfuls out into your yard. No one is going to stop you.
A few birds will probably drop by and indulge.
But it’ll likely take a while for the local birds to notice the seed you’ve scattered hither and yond.
And chances are, it’ll be the pesky invasive house sparrows or starlings who notice first.
For that matter, the local rats and mice are likely to find the seed before the birds do.
And any seed the rodents miss will spoil as it sits on the damp ground, potentially sickening the very birds you’re trying to help.
I take it back – you really do need a feeder.
We’ll take a look at the different types of birdfeeders below, and discuss the situations in which they work best, the seeds they’re best suited for, and which bird species they’re most likely to attract. I’ll also identify a few of the best feeders on the market and tell you how to make your own birdfeeder, if you don’t want to buy anything.
Picking a Good Birdfeeder: Key Points
Quick-and-Dirty Birdfeeder Buyer’s Guide
Different Types of Birdfeeders
There are basically six types of birdfeeder, and it’s important to select the best type for reaching your goals. There is a bit of crossover, but each type has different strengths and weaknesses and is generally best suited for feeding a different collection of species.
Hopper feeders essentially consist of a small tray and a vertical storage container that dispenses seed as the birds consume it. They often look like little houses, but there are plenty of other designs used.
- They can be convenient to fill
- Effective for a wide variety of bird species
- Many installation options available (hanging, pole-mounted, window-mounted, etc.)
- Work with most types of seed
- Cheap versions prone to blockages
- Not ideal for ground-feeding birds
- Best For: A broad variety of songbirds, including most common feeder visitors. Not useful for birds that feed primarily on the ground, but great for birds that may be too large to comfortably visit tube feeders. One of the best options for feeding large quantities of birds.
At their simplest, platform feeders are no more sophisticated than a tray of seed on the ground. But most good platform feeders also incorporate things like roofs and seed-retaining walls. But they’re all essentially a flat plate with some seed on it.
- Quick-and-easy to fill
- Most are easy to install
- Attract doves and other ground-feeding species
- Conspicuous, so they attract attention quickly
- Will work with any seed, as well as insects, fruits or other non-typical foods
- Often attract starlings and other non-desirable species
- Can be tricky to squirrel proof
- Require frequent cleaning and re-stocking, as the seed is exposed to the elements
- Best For: Feeding doves or feeding non-seed foods, such as fruit slices, mealworms or peanuts in-shell. Personally, I think platform feeders are a great component of a multi-feeder layout, but I wouldn’t use one in a single-feeder situation. They may be especially helpful for educational purposes, when you must attract birds quickly.
Tube feeders consist of a metal or plastic tube, which is usually mounted vertically and equipped with one to five feeding stations. Each station consists of a little perch and an opening in the tube, through which the bird can access the seed. As with most other feeder styles, there are myriad variations upon the tube feeder theme. In fact, some have rectangular, rather than cylindrical, “tubes.”
- Work well in tight spaces
- Great for feeding small birds
- Work with most types of seed
- Often showcase the seed well
- Not as easy to refill as hopper-style feeders
- Can be difficult to clean
- May harbor moisture
- Best For: Feeding a variety of small- to medium-sized birds. It’s important to select the right size for your needs, as these feeders require frequent cleaning and re-filling; if you select one that’s too large for your flock, you’ll end up throwing away seed a lot.
Nyjer (Thistle) Seed Feeders
Because thistle seed is quite a bit smaller than many other common bird seeds, it is usually used in feeders specifically designed for it. They’re usually tube-shaped and feature small openings for the small seed. Some are rigid and made of plastic, but sock-style thistle feeders made from mesh are also common.
- Perfect for thistle seed
- Work well in tight spaces
- Typically won’t attract squirrels
- Only useful for Nyjar (thistle) seed
- Best For: Feeding goldfinches and other Nyjar-seed loving birds. Makes a great component of a total bird-seed setup, and it won’t usually attract squirrels (mainly because of the seed, not the feeder itself).
Suet comes in many forms, and suet feeders reflect this. Accordingly, there aren’t many things all suet feeders have in common, except that they’re designed to hold a given type and shape of suet cake.
- Easy to fill
- Available in a variety of styles and sizes
- Suet is a great winter food source for birds
- May attract woodpeckers and others who rarely visit other types of feeders
- Suet may melt in high temperatures
- Rarely squirrel proof
- Best For: Targeting woodpeckers, improving the overall diversity of the food you offer, or providing winter birds with a nutritious treat. Squirrels and high temperatures are both potential issues though, so careful planning is required.
Sugar Water Feeders
Sugar water feeders – sometimes called oriole or hummingbird feeders – are typically a glass or plastic jar, with some feeding ports and decoration. In fact, decoration is often one of the primary distinguishing characteristics of sugar water feeders, and there are options aplenty.
- Awesome way to feed hummingbirds and orioles
- Cheap and easy to keep filled
- Available in numerous designs
- Uninteresting to squirrels
- Many are noticed surprisingly quickly
- Low-mess alternative to seeds
- Ants may be a problem
- Can be tricky to clean
- Relatively narrow appeal
- Best For: Sugar water feeders are great for mess-averse people or those who don’t want a simple way to feed local birds. They’re also the perfect choice for those who don’t want to worry about squirrels or are particularly interested in hummingbirds or orioles.
Hybrids and variations of these feeder types are common, so don’t be surprised to see feeders that are a combination of these types or feature completely novel designs, not discussed above. But these are the basic types, and they’ll represent the bulk of the products you consider when making your purchase.
Things to Look for in a Good Birdfeeder
After focusing in on the type of feeder you want (all of them – you want all of them), you’ll want to be picky when choosing specific products. Some birdfeeders work great, some are garbage, and you’ll definitely want to spend your money on those in the former group.
No matter which style you want:
- Pick a feeder that’s easy to clean. Many bird-feeding novices are completely unaware of the importance of hygiene when feeding birds, but it is critical that you clean your feeder regularly. So, try to select feeders that have big openings to fit your hand into or breakdown into smaller components easily.
- Look for a feeder that’s built to last. Cheap feeders will fall apart or break before you make it through your first bag of birdseed, so stick to those made of high-quality materials. This thing is going to be assaulted by sunshine, wind, rain and worse, so pick one that’s rugged enough for the task.
- Choose a feeder that’s easy to install. You can probably engineer a way to install any bird feeder in any fashion you like, but why go to all that trouble? Just pick one that’ll make it easy to set up shop and serve dinner.
Once you’ve narrowed it down this far, you may want to consider things like shipping times, warranties or guarantees (especially if you’re spending a wad of cash on a feeder), and buyer reviews. Personally, I also like to buy from small, mom-and-pop-style companies that market or manufacture feeders and similar stuff, but that’s not always feasible.
The “Elephant” in the Room: Squirrels, Birdfeeders and Squirrel-Proof Birdfeeders
The grey squirrel () – and to an extent, its relatives – is the arch nemesis of the bird-feeding enthusiast. And like it or not, these cute, clever and cunning agents are going to influence many of your decisions and purchases. They have supernatural-caliber skills for getting birdseed in their bellies, and they’ll quickly polish off the seed you provide, while elbowing many of the birds out of the way in the process.
So, it is important to factor the squirrel problem in when designing your bird-feeding plan.
This subject is important and complex enough to warrant its own article, but you basically have three ways to protect your seed from these worthy adversaries.
Squirrels regard different birdseeds with varying levels of reverence, so you can be reasonably successful by just offering stuff they don’t particularly want. The average grey squirrel would wash and wax your car in exchange for a black oil sunflower seed, but he probably wouldn’t get out of bed for a safflower or Nyjar seed.
This isn’t an infallible method (such that any exists in this arena), as some squirrels aren’t as opposed to safflower seed as others are. Additionally, safflower seed isn’t quite as popular among many bird species as sunflower seed is.
Squirrels aren’t usually interested in sugar water, so hummingbird and oriole feeders are like freebies in this context (although you may have to worry about ants).
Block the Path
This is probably the most popular – and, if I’m being honest, fun – ways of protecting your seed from the squirrels. It’s also the one with the most options. There are surely millions of ways you could put something in between a squirrel and your seed.
You can buy or improvise large, circular baffles that will serve as roadblocks along poles or cables. You can apply slick substances to poles or cables to prevent the squirrels from being able to get a grip. You can also utilize different cage-like designs, which often use narrow wire fencing, which will allow small birds but not squirrels to pass.
Space is also your friend when trying to block the path of squirrels. It’s usually wise to think of the feeder as being inside a 10-foot bubble. Remove everything you can from that bubble, and then use some other type of obstacle for any places that do provide a path to the feeder.
Buy a “Squirrel-Proof” Feeder
Squirrel-proof feeders utilize any number of clever hacks to keep your birdseed safe from squirrels. Different designs and specific products work better than others, but the well-conceived and constructed ones are often quite effective. Just understand that almost all of the effective ones are expensive.
Some utilize weight-sensitive feeding perches; a squirrel’s body weight will trigger a trapdoor cutting off access to the seed, while a finch will feed freely. Others accomplish a similar goal by incorporating some type of mesh that allows small birds to pass through, while keeping squirrels out.
Many other squirrel-proof feeders simply incorporate baffles or super slick surfaces in their design.
The Best Birdfeeders on the Market
Enough blathering on about the things you’ll need to think about – let’s get to some of the best feeders on the market. There is no “best one,” as they all bring different things to the table.
Think about the stuff we discussed earlier and pick out your feeder.
Affordable, no-nonsense window feeder that actually sticks to the window
If you just want to dip your toes in the bird-feeding waters, this is a great option. It’ll also be perfect for those with a great window that could benefit from some avian aesthetics.
Great general squirrel-proof option, but kinda pricey
Kinda pricey for a platform feeder, but it’s eco-friendly and US-made
A high-quality, tube-style feeder that’ll feed a bunch of birds and keep the squirrels at bay
A slightly more refined take on the classic hummingbird feeder
A cheap, but perfectly capable plastic hummingbird feeder
Make Your Own Bird Feeder
If you really want to feed some birds, but you don’t want to spend much money on a feeder, you can always make your own. You can even design your own feeder if you’re feeling particularly ambitious, but it’s easier to just use some existing plans.
The problem is, there are hundreds of birdfeeder plans online, and simply sorting through them all would take you hours. I’ve tried to help you sidestep this problem below, by sharing links to a small number – four in total — of the very best plans I could find.
I’ve tried to include versions that span the difficulty spectrum, including a couple that are pretty easy and one that is an elaborate, furniture-quality piece.
Acorn Bird Feeder
A simple, but effective and cute feeder that doesn’t require a ton of tools
These plans from Tried and True Blog demonstrate how to make a very simple feeder that still looks pretty good and should work very well. It’s a pretty neat design that should protect the seed from rain, while still providing a lot of airflow to help further prevent rapid spoilage.
You won’t need many tools for this one. You’ll need a pair of wire clippers to cut the metal mesh, but you can probably Macgyver your way through the rest of the project with stuff you have sitting around the house. Just know that cutting wire mesh isn’t particularly fun, so you may want to wear a pair of thick gloves.
Pinecone Bird Feeder
Ridiculously simple, essentially free, and easy to make with your kids
These types of bird feeders are obviously designed with kids in mind, but they do work. At least until the squirrels find them and make off with the goods. But you can make them with your little ones in a matter of a few (messy) minutes, and it’s a great way to introduce them to birds, bird feeding and the natural world in general.
You can find a good set of instructions at Audubon New Mexico’s site (and simultaneously give a worthy non-profit some clicks), but this isn’t rocket science: Tie a pine cone to a string, slather the cone in peanut butter or suet, and roll it in birdseed. Tie it to a tree, and you’ve got yourself a bird feeder. Go ahead and make a bunch and hand them throughout your yard.
Hollow Log Feeder
A great-looking feeder you could customize in myriad ways, but will require some skill and tools
Honestly, building this feeder from Sun Catcher Studio is probably beyond the capabilities of many bird lovers, and it’d surely be easier to just purchase something equally awesome. But, if you’re a serious DIYer, this may be pretty fun to make.
Essentially, you must carve up a log to make a hollow cavity to hold bird seed and provide a place for the birds to perch. Slap on some connectors to facilitate hanging it and you’re done. But doing all of this will require a chainsaw, bandsaw and ton of time.
I can’t help but think it’d be easier to build this by just using a couple of wooden circles, and a handful of half-log reptile hides. They aren’t really that useful for their designed purpose, but they seem like they’d work marvelously in this context.
High-Quality Hopper Feeder
A DIY bird feeder that looks like an expensive model you’d see for sale
If you’re not afraid of investing some time in your garage or workshop, this is a fantastic-looking feeder that should work well and last for years. As with most other fancy DIY options, this one will cost you more than you’d spend purchasing a similar model, so this really only makes sense for those who will enjoy the construction process.
This feeder features an elaborate design, so I won’t even begin to describe the construction process. Just head over to Lowe’s site, and they’ll break it down in step-by-step fashion.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by all of the different feeders available, so don’t overthink things too much if you’re just starting out. The important thing is that you start offering your birds food as soon as possible – over time, you’ll have the chance to adjust your approach and address any mistakes. Just pick an affordable option you like and jump in.