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Choosing and Supplying A Bird Feeder

The first of a two-part article by Helen Downing, edited and updated by Ariel Downing.


Choosing a bird feeder can be challenging, since a wide assortment is offered in catalogs and stores. Feeders can be purchased or homemade and can be made of many kinds of materials—wood, clay, wire and plastic. The most important consideration when buying or making a feeder is that it is easy to clean. When bird feeding stations are established, the owner assumes responsibilities similar to those of owning a pet.

Feeders can be inexpensive—an empty plastic milk jug can be made into a feeder ( Perhaps the best aspect of a milk jug feeder is that it can be easily replaced, and the old jug can be cleaned and recycled.

Suet feeders provide an excellent source of nutrition in cold weather and are used by woodpeckers, flickers, chickadees, nuthatches and finches. Plastic covered wire cages are preferable in order to thwart squirrels, raccoons and dogs.

Selecting the type of seed to use involves some trial and error. Keep the feeding operation small and put out only as much seed as your birds can clean up in a couple of days. Black oil sunflower seeds have a great deal of nutrition and are an excellent choice. The seed mixture sold in stores is inexpensive and includes a variety of smaller seeds in addition to sunflower seeds. The seeds which are not eaten will give an idea of what your particular birds do and don’t like and you can then adjust your feeder supply.

Keep in mind that some birds—towhees, juncos and some sparrows, for example—feed on the ground. A millet mixture is a good selection for these birds, because the smaller seeds will fall onto the ground. Corn is good for the grouse family and pheasants and some small birds. Unfortunately, corn produces dust which gets moldy when wet. Place the feed in an open container, raised slightly off the ground, and the corn will be less likely to mold quickly.

Predators at feeding stations do not reduce wild bird populations as much as one might suppose. For example, Sharp-shinned Hawks can be seen near feeding stations taking advantage of an easy meal, much as the smaller birds are doing. Hawks sometimes take slow-moving prey and can help eliminate birds that are old or perhaps sick. Predators normally do not completely deplete their food sources—they simply move on to a better supply.

Bird feeders attract a number of different species, depending on the type of feed offered. Observing feeders and keeping track of species seen can be quite rewarding for adults and children alike. Long-term observation at feeding stations can provide information on the range extension of certain species. For example, the Blue Jay has increased its range westward in recent decades, and this range expansion was noted by observers at feeders.

When establishing a feeding station, always remember that it takes some time for birds to find a newly established operation. Be patient—if you build it (or hang it up), they will come.


This article was sourced from information published in The Sheridan Press, January 20, 1994.


Keep Your Bird Feeders

Clean to Prevent Disease

A two-part article by Helen Downing, edited and updated by Ariel Downing.

Additional information provided

by Dr. Jackie Canterbury. 


When birds sit in their food supply, they contaminate it with their feces. Contaminated feeders are a source of many diseases found in wild birds. We should also beware of wire or plastic feeders that can cause cuts, which could allow harmful bacteria to enter the birds’ systems.

Over the years, many feeding station operators have noticed abnormal growths about the face and head of house finches. According to reports, avian pox is transmitted by direct contact between birds, contact with contaminated objects such as perches or feeders.

Aspergillosis is a noncontagious fungal infection, which grows in damp or wet bird seed. Aspergillosis is not spread from one bird to another by bodily contact, but from spores of the fungus in the air, soil, moist nesting material and moldy food.

Hummingbird species are especially vulnerable to mold and specialized hummingbird feeders should come completely apart for thorough cleaning, with a brush. Always feed a clear sugar-water solution in these feeders—never use red food coloring or honey. A mixture of 1 cup water to 1/4 cup white sugar is recommended.

An avian salmonellosis outbreak was noted in the northwestern United States toward the end of 2020. This disease is often fatal to birds and has been spreading eastward. It is common among feeder birds and is caused by bacteria transmitted by bird-to-bird contact and also through fecal contamination of food and water. According to a prominent birding website, this disease has probably already arrived in Wyoming ( If avian salmonellosis is suspected, all bird feeding should be discontinued for a time. Feeders should be cleaned with a chlorine bleach solution. 

The best way to keep avian diseases to a minimum is to keep all feeders meticulously clean. To clean your feeder, take it apart and use a dishwasher on a hot setting or hand-wash with either soap and boiling water or with a dilute bleach solution (no more than 1 part bleach to 9 parts water). Rinse thoroughly and allow to dry before refilling. Debris under the feeders must be removed and feeding stations should be moved to new locations from time to time.

Avian diseases also occur in the wild but are more noticeable at feeding stations because of the presence of large numbers of birds at one time. Those who feed birds in their backyard are encouraged to remove feeders when warmer weather arrives. When native food sources are readily available, birds are widely dispersed and not as vulnerable to disease-causing contaminants. Allow birds to find their natural food sources during the summer months by planting native plants. Plant nectar-producing, tubular flowers to attract hummingbirds. Plant rose, juniper, hawthorn and buffaloberry to provide food, cover and nesting sites for birds.

Ultimately, we want to help keep our bird populations healthy, and this is best done by regular cleaning of feeders and birdbaths. If a little time is spent on regular maintenance, we can attract a great many birds to feeding stations and provide them with good nutrition, especially during the winter months when it is most needed.


This article was sourced from information published in The Sheridan Press, January 20, 1994.

Audubon Ariel Bluejay.jpg

What To Feed the Birds

by Ariel Downing


In the first of this series of articles, we discussed various types of bird feeders and the necessity of keeping them clean (April 2021). In the second, types of avian diseases were mentioned, and further details provided on keeping bird feeders and the surrounding area clean (May 2021).


In this, the third and last of the series, our topic is what to feed the birds.


Black oil sunflower seed is highly nutritious and will attract a wide variety of birds. Buy it separately or along with standard birdseed mix, available at feed stores, hardware stores, and the like. Oftentimes I mix a little of this in the black-oil sunflower seed, so the ground feeding birds can eat the seeds that fall out of the feeders.


Safflower seed is also good, and most birds seem to like it, although it can be a little harder to find at feed stores.


Cracked corn will attract pheasants, blackbirds, grackles, starlings and a few smaller birds. One drawback is that deer absolutely love to eat corn and will clean out the feeder night after night. But what don’t our Wyoming deer like to eat? 


Suet and suet mixed with birdseed is full of nutrition and energy in cold weather and will attract woodpeckers, chickadees and the occasional nuthatch. Suet feeders should have strong, coated wire cages, to prevent squirrels from tearing them up.


Fruit, such as oranges cut in half, and small cups of grape jelly are a favorite of tanagers and orioles. Orange halves can be wedged into smaller tree branches or spiked into a specialized feeder. Offer them earlier in the season when these species are migrating through to higher elevations, or in the early fall, when they’re migrating back through your area.


For hummingbirds, use a specialized hummingbird feeder containing a mixture of ordinary white sugar and water (1 cup water to 1/4 cup white sugar) and NO red food coloring or honey. If you live at higher elevations, you can feed the hummingbirds all summer. Those living at lower altitude should feed the hummers as they migrate to and from the mountains in the spring and fall months.


Other sources of food for birds are provided by nature and can be planted by humans:

·        Native plants and bushes that produce flowers and berries. These are sources of food and cover, both of which are important for birds.

·        Large trees, which provide insect food for birds such as woodpeckers, nuthatches and Brown Creepers.

·        If you have a traditional lawn, don’t spray it, since birds can eat the insects living among the grasses.


Always remember to clean your bird feeders thoroughly and regularly (more information can be found in the April and May newsletters). Move them from place to place in your yard so that debris and droppings don’t build up. It’s a good idea to remove feeders by mid-June, so birds can find the wild food they are meant to eat, and to give your feeding stations a rest during the summer months.


Also provide a source of water for the birds—a large, shallow dish works well. Always keep them clean and freshen the water regularly. One suggestion is to have two watering stations so one of them can be cleaned, while the other one is available for the birds.


“Bully” Birds

by Ariel Downing and Tina Toth


A conversation has come up recently about so-called “bully birds.” These birds can be introduced species, such as Starlings, or native species such as Blue Jays or Grackles. They locate feeding stations and drive other species away with their aggressive behavior.


Admittedly, those of us who feed the birds generally do so because we like to observe certain species, and the more contentious birds typically drive our favorites away during the summer months. They can also consume a great deal of bird food. However, these species have to eat too, and it is unethical and against the law to harm them, so what is a birder to do? [1]


Several options are possible. Using certain types of feed can help, for instance offering safflower instead of mixed seed (which is typically contains filler material most birds won't eat). Some aggressive species really like cracked corn, and a platform can be built to feed them in another part of the yard. An extra feeder can be used that will attract the larger birds, with feeders for smaller birds in a separate part of the yard.


Another possibility is to use feeders with cages that only smaller birds can get through, or weight-sensitive perches that close off the feeder when a larger bird lands on the perch.


A third option is to simply remove the feeding stations when these “bully birds” show up for the season. Unfortunately, this option cuts down on bird-watching opportunities in your back yard, but it allows the ground feeding birds to clean up the seeds that have fallen. It also allows you a chance to clean your feeders thoroughly, and clean out the debris under the feeders. Removing this debris goes a long way to preventing avian disease. When you put the feeders back up in the fall, put them in a different place than before.


Once you put your feeders away for the summer months, the birds should be able to find the food they normally eat in the wild, which is really the best thing for them. On a positive note, when the more aggressive species have hungry young to feed during nesting season, they benefit humankind by eating a great number of insects from our trees, shrubs and lawns.


[1] Migratory Bird Treaty Reform Act of 2004 (Division E, Title I, Sec. 143 of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2005; Pub. L. 108-447), and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (16 U.S.C. 703-712).


Children’s Corner: The Blue Jay

by Ariel Downing


The Blue Jay is a handsome bird and immediately recognizable by its blue coloring and perky crest. According to children’s author Thornton W. Burgess, the Blue Jay looks as though “Nature must have cut off a little piece of the sky when it was bluest on a summer day . . . and a strip of the whitest cloud to trim [its feathers] with.” [1]


Jays are a member of the Corvid family and are related to crows and ravens. They are smart birds who learn new things quickly. They can also be very bold. They will come right up to a feeder, even when someone is standing there!


They can make several different sounds, including the well-known “Thief! Thief!” call, and a melodic, warbling sound. Blue Jays can also imitate the calls of certain hawks. Scientists believe they do this to warn other jays that danger is nearby.


Blue Jays eat mainly insects and nuts. They have very strong bills that can even crack acorns. They also like sunflower seeds, cracked corn and peanut pieces. If you want Blue Jays to visit your yard, put these foods out for them in a tray or platform feeder. They are larger birds (10 to 12 inches from beak to tail), so they have difficulty with hanging feeders.


Blue Jays appreciate a drink of water, so put a shallow bird bath out for them. It is always fun to watch them drink and bathe.


Blue Jays have not always been found in Wyoming. About fifty years ago, they did not live much farther west than the middle of South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas. Now we see and hear them frequently in northeast Wyoming. Birds can’t live where they can’t find the foods they like to eat, so we can conclude that they are finding food and habitat to their liking in this area.


Here is a photograph of a Blue Jay. Do you think Thornton W. Burgess was right?


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