Backyard Banquet

By Jim Wilson | November 2, 2000
From Missouri Conservationist: Nov 2000

Everyone can enjoy feeding the birds. It’s a simple hobby demanding little investment in equipment.You don’t even need a yard, for many people feed birds from park benches or at campsites.

During the last 25 years, bird feeding has become remarkably popular, ranking second only to gardening as America’s preferred outdoor pastime. About 43 percent of American households provide food for wild birds, and we spend at least 2.5 billion dollars annually on bird-related products, including seed and feeders.

People love to see beautiful birds up close and watch their antics. Later, they may be intrigued by the myriad bird interactions, their diversity of feeding styles and the unusual species that visit. Usually, people find binoculars and a field guide helpful for observing and identifying the various birds that come to feed.

Although individual birds benefit from receiving supplemental food and seed, feeding has almost no effect on total bird populations. Even when food is plentiful, habitat availability still limits bird numbers. The best way to increase overall bird populations is to increase the amount of bird habitat. The Conservation Department publication Landscaping for Backyard Wildlife includes recommendations for plants that offer food, cover and nest sites.

When to Feed

The best time to start attracting birds is during the first cold snap or snows of winter. During winter, a variety of birds eagerly accept handouts because they need calories. Some winter birds form large flocks and can seem quite tame when hungry.

Birds that winter south of Missouri, such as indigo buntings, rose-breasted grosbeaks and chipping sparrows, arrive in spring and can often be drawn to feeders. Feeding in warm weather helps you discover which birds are nesting in your neighborhood, especially if they bring their new fledglings around for a snack. Don’t worry about starving the birds if you cut off their food supply when you go on vacation. Wild birds can almost always find food.

Where to Feed

The best place for a feeder is where you can observe it and refill it easily. If you set out only one feeder, mount it on a deck railing or hang it from a tree limb where you can see it from inside your house. If possible, place the feeder near escape cover, such as evergreens or shrubs, so that birds will have a refuge if danger threatens.

Types of Seeds

To attract the greatest diversity of birds, the best seeds to use are black oil sunflower, striped sunflower, hulled sunflower and Niger thistle seeds. The latter two types can be used in tubular feeders designed for small birds, like chickadees and goldfinches. Although not as widely sold, peanut hearts and safflower seeds also have their adherents. White proso millet is used by juncos and sparrows that feed on the ground.

Many components of standard wild bird mixes sold in stores are used by relatively few birds. Put out milo, for example, and you won’t have many takers. The cracked corn often found in these mixes may attract nuisance birds, such as house sparrows, starlings and crows. Bread crumbs and other table scraps are especially inviting to these aggressive, less desirable species.

Types of Seed Feeders

The hopper-style feeder is the most common design. It provides birds easy access to seed and protects it from rain and snow.

A feeder can be as simple as an open platform with an edge to reduce seed spillage. Birds that feed on the ground, including juncos, towhees and fox sparrows, will visit open feeders. They also learn that the ground beneath other types of feeders contains spilled seed for them to eat.

Other Foods

If the weather is cool enough to keep it from spoiling, suet (fat trimmed from meat) can be hung in mesh bags for woodpeckers, Carolina wrens and chickadees. Pre-made suet cakes are also available.

Berries, raisins, cut fruit or jelly may attract robins, bluebirds and mockingbirds in winter, plus orioles, tanagers and catbirds in summer. Nectar-consuming birds, including hummingbirds, orioles, tanagers and house finches, may be drawn to specially designed dispensers of sugar water.

Water necessary for bathing and drinking, water may be harder to find than food during freezing weather and droughts. In subfreezing weather, put out water daily at the same time to allow birds to develop a routine, or purchase an immersion-style water heater.


The most common problem at bird feeders is squirrels. You can discourage them to an extent by hanging feeders or placing feeders on posts. A baffle (central disk) around the supporting cable or post can further challenge them. However, they can still jump from eight feet away to the feeder. Squirrel-proof feeders are made of metal to prevent chewing and have counterweights that close the feeder to all but lightweight customers.

Certain flocking birds can become so numerous that they drive off others and reduce the variety of birds. If house sparrows, starlings and grackles become a problem, switch entirely to sunflower seeds in the hull. Purple and house finches can become monotonously numerous, and additional feeders may be required to reduce competition. The aggressive behavior of blue jays bothers some people. You can discourage them with swinging feeders and the counter-weighted feeders already mentioned.

Occasionally, sharp-shinned or Cooper’s hawks may take advantage of an assemblage of prey at a feeder. These bird-eating hawks are comparatively rare, but if their attacks on songbirds upset you, place feeders near escape cover or discontinue feeding. Hawks are protected by state and federal law.

If feeders have a downside, it’s that they probably attract a disproportionate number of diseased and handicapped birds that find it difficult to find food in the wild. One commonly seen disease is house finch conjunctivitis, a bacterial infection that causes swelling around a house finch’s eye.

To reduce disease potential, keep areas under feeders clean and occasionally wash feeders with bleach solutions and rinse. If disease appears epidemic, stop feeding immediately to curtail its transmission.

Feeder Birds

  • Blue jay - These members of the crow family eat anything from seeds to table scraps. Noisy, bold and gregarious, they sometimes frighten other birds away. They usually avoid freely swinging feeders.
  • European starling - These 6-inch natives of Europe have short, pointed wings and long, sharp bills. In winter, they have white spots on black, stocky bodies. They sometimes become so numerous and aggressive that they push out other birds. To discourage them from visiting, discontinue putting out suet, table scraps, corn or standard wild bird seed mixes.
  • Pine siskin - These 5-inch cousins of the goldfinch favor Niger seed, especially if it is provided in a finch feeder. Pine siskins are an unusual and exciting find.
  • Evening grosbeak - These stocky, 7-inch seed eaters visit sporadically in winter. Consider yourself extremely fortunate if you should find the bright male perched on your feeder. The female is not as vividly marked but is the same size as the male and has the same thick, ivory-colored bill. They are especially fond of sunflower seeds.
  • American goldfinch - Sometimes called wild canaries, these 4 1/2-inch birds are common in Missouri throughout the year. Their winter plumage is subdued, but in summer, the males are easily identifiable by their vibrant yellow. Goldfinches eat many kinds of seeds. Tubular feeders allow them to escape competition from larger birds that find it difficult to land on the small perches.
  • House sparrow - Often called English sparrows, these birds are monotonously common. Like starlings, they are not native and are usually unwelcome at feeders because of their messy, noisy habits. To discourage them, use a swinging feeder and discontinue putting out bread crumbs, other table scraps and standard bird seed mixes.
  • Purple finch - These finches prefer sunflower seeds. Flocks may be with us from mid-fall until May. Males seem misnamed because they are reddish, not purple. Females and immature birds are brown with heavily streaked breasts. Purple finch males are distinguishable from house finch males by the rose - rather than brown - streaking on their flanks. Female purple finches have a light line above the eye, while house finches are more uniformly finely streaked.
  • House finch - Though common, these birds were not documented in Missouri until 1980. In addition to the color differences mentioned, house finches have square-tipped tails. Purple finch tails are notched. Confusion diminishes in summer when purple finches vanish. House finches are with us year-round. They often nest in flower pots, decorative wreathes and spruce trees. Like purple finches, they favor sunflower seeds, especially if hulled.
  • Dark-eyed junco - Also called snowbirds, these lively, 5-inch winter residents are extremely common. They characteristically flash their white outer tail feathers as they flit about. They relish small seeds scattered on the ground.
  • Northern mockingbird - White wing patches help to identify this 9-inch, year-round resident. Severe winter weather often causes a decline in their numbers, so winter feeding can be a big help to individual birds. Berries are a large part of their natural diet in winter. You can attract them with raisins, suet and chopped fruit.
  • Northern cardinal - Everybody recognizes these beautiful birds. The bodies of females are yellowish gray, rather than the blazing red of the male. Cardinals will be one of the first species to discover your feeder. They relish sunflower seeds.
  • White-breasted nuthatch - These enchanting, 5-inch birds eat seeds and glean insects from the bark of trees by moving headfirst down the trunk. They are fond of suet and peanut butter, especially if it is smeared on the bark of trees or stuffed in holes in a small log suspended from a tree branch.
  • Red-breasted nuthatch - Unlike the white-breasted nuthatch, the red-breasted visits Missouri only in winter. They are slightly smaller than the white-breasted and have a dark line through the eye. Red-breasted nuthatches also relish suet.
  • Chickadee - Sunflower seeds, small seeds, suet and peanut butter are the favorite foods of these busy characters. They often cling upside-down on a branch or perch on the side of a tree, so you should suspend food from limbs or place it on tree trunks. Missouri has two species of nearly identical chickadees; the black-capped in the northwest region and the Carolina chickadee in the Ozarks. They are mainly distinguished by their distinctive songs.
  • Red-bellied woodpecker - Males of this 8-inch woodpecker have red over the crown, while females have red only on the back of the head. Contrary to their name, their belly is buff, not red. Red-bellied woodpeckers eat suet and seeds. They are permanent residents of our state and are one of the easiest woodpeckers to attract to a feeder.
  • Downy woodpecker - At only 5 inches long, the downy is Missouri’s smallest woodpecker species. Males have a red spot on the back of the head. Except for size, they are almost identical to hairy woodpeckers, which are 7 inches long and have no black cross barring in the outer white tail feathers.
  • Tufted titmouse - These 5-inch, crested birds eat seeds, suet and peanut butter. They are especially likely to visit stations near woods.
  • Pileated woodpecker - These gawky, crow-sized, "Woody Woodpecker" lookalikes cause more questions than any other bird at winter feeders. They are the largest woodpecker in Missouri. They sometimes visit suet feeders near extensive wooded areas.
  • Carolina Wren - At 4 inches in length, Carolina wrens are Missouri’s largest wrens and the only wren to visit bird feeders in winter. They are recognized by their rusty coloration, white eye-line, cocked tail and "tea-kettle..tea-kettle..tea-kettle" songs. They readily visit suet feeders and they occasionally eat seeds.
  • Red-headed woodpecker - The abundance of these familiar year-round residents fluctuates greatly from year to year and from area to area depending on natural food production. The solid red head and white wing patches distinguish them.

These are just some of the birds you’ll see at your feeders. An accurate field guide will help you identify some of the less common visitors that will surely arrive. Once you catch the bird-feeding "bug," you’ll find yourself looking forward to their daily visits

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
Designer - Tracy Ritter
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Composition - Libby Bode Block
Circulation - Bertha Bainer