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Expensive bird feeders are not required to attract songbirds to your yard. All you need is good quality seed

House finches and pine siskins at a bird feeder

Black-oil seed hearts (shucked) attract house finches and pine siskins. House finches are now a regular year-round visitor at the feeder, while the pine siskins are winter visitors from the distant north.

Local bird feeders will be bustling soon and maybe even busier than last year.

If you are just starting to feed birds, it may take time for the new feeders to attract a variety of birds, though. In addition to common feeder birds, unusual species from the far north may begin showing up across the Berkshires. We need not live at the edge of meadow or wood to have an interesting bird life visit, and expensive bird feeders are not required to entice a variety of fascinating songbirds to our yards. A small plot of ground in town, kept clear of snow, makes the simplest of feeders when liberally sprinkled with white millet, sunflower and safflower seed, and a good seed mix. The trick is to purchase good quality seed, especially when purchasing mixed seed, avoid less expensive mixed seed with red millet, oats, and flax.

Birds do not give second thought to messing their dinner table though. Therefore, a simple improvement to scattering seed on the ground is the ground-level platform feeder, made of a few boards fastened together making a table about the size of a dinner tray. It can be cleaned and sanitized regularly. A raised platform feeder with a roof is easier to maintain, keep clean and is less apt to become buried during a snowstorm. When bare ground is used, it is important to sweep the area regularly to prevent bird droppings and waste seed from accumulating. Birds that will readily accept a mix seed handout on the ground or a low platform feeder during the winter months include the slate-colored junco, mourning dove and the American tree sparrow. Sometimes a white throated sparrow might visit, especially if the seed mix offered contains millet, one of its favorite seeds. Of course, almost any bird will accept a handout at almost any possible style feeder that fits its feeding adaptations, provided the food is of the right type.


Downy woodpecker at bird feeder

This female downy woodpecker, seen here with one leg raised, brought two youngsters to the feeders. She fed at our feeders for just over one year!

Hopper feeders are platform feeders with an added improvement, they keep larger quantities of seed available to the birds, and most importantly, the seed stored within the hopper remains dry and clean. When purchasing this type of feeder, look for one of a sturdy design. The hopper feeder is an ideal dispenser for sunflower seeds, safflower seed or a mix. Keep a stiff brush handy to frequently clean away spent or soiled seed. Some, I included, prefer several inexpensive plastic hopper-style feeders that can readily be soaked in a mild bleach solution (one part bleach to nine parts water) from time to time in an easily available five gallon pail, rather than the more expensive redwood feeder. When filled with mixed seed, sunflower seed or safflower seed, these simple feeders can accommodate a wide number of birds. The black-capped chickadee, white-breasted nuthatch, house and purple finch, northern cardinal and blue jay are a few of the birds that take advantage of a free meal at such a feeder holding a mixture of safflower and sunflower seed.

"Five Star" dining for the birds requires providing an area that is frequently cleaned of spent seed, wet and moldy seed, and seed that has been spoiled with bird droppings. Ensuring that fresh food is available at all times during the feeding season in a clean environment should not be overlooked. Consider the successful feeding station with large numbers of birds of several kinds concentrated into a small space. The locality not only becomes a place for birds to congregate, but a place for pathogens to propagate. So, keep the feeders clean as well as the surroundings.


Tubular finch feeders designed to accommodate the goldfinch, common redpoll, and the pine siskin by dispensing niger (thistle) seed have very small ports that may either be reinforced with metal or not. Both stand up well as squirrels are not interested in this kind of seed.

The snowbirds have arrived. Does the early arrival of the junco mean that snow is coming soon?

Tubular feeders designed to dispense sunflower seed, should be constructed of thick, hard plastic with metal feeder ports (to discourage squirrel gnawing). When filled with sunflower seed — preferably black oil seed, and I prefer the shelled seed – many kinds of birds may be attracted. These include the black capped chickadee, tufted titmouse, American goldfinch, white breasted nuthatch, pine siskin, common redpoll, house finch, purple finch, blue jay, northern cardinal and more, including downy woodpeckers. The evening grosbeak is also a fan of sunflower seed, although not seen much in recent years. Safflower seed is now being marketed for wild birds with claims that squirrels ignore it. Titmice, chickadees, and the northern cardinal readily accept it. Tube feeders can be hung from a support, a branch or mounted on a post.

If you want to get close up and personal with the birds, invest in a small clear plastic feeder with suction cups that fasten it directly to your window pane. When filled with black-oil seed, chickadees quickly find it. Another up and close style feeder is a window feeder that has one way glass, allowing one to view the birds as they eat without their seeing the viewer. This is especially good for families with small children. I want to get one of these one day!

In addition to offering seed, provide suet from the supermarket meat counter or manufactured suet cakes. The advantage to offering birds manufactured suet cakes is that processing or rendering makes them far less prone to getting rancid. The white breasted and red breasted nuthatches, an occasional Carolina wren, in addition to brown creepers, starlings, crows, downy woodpecker and hairy woodpecker will take advantage of suet feeders. The red-bellied woodpecker is also becoming more frequent at local feeding stations and will eat suet.


Feeding wild birds must run close behind baseball as a national pastime; nearly everywhere we look, wild bird food is offered for sale and bird feeders are swaying in the wind. Annually, 60 million Americans spend more than two billion dollars or even more luring songbirds to our yards. And just why we are so preoccupied, is not fully understood. Many of us assume that we owe "Mother Nature" a little help now and then, or that many birds would die without our benevolence. The truth is that we like birds, and we are far happier with them around. Under most weather conditions, except ice storms or the foulest of weather, most wild birds get along quite well without our assistance. Although studies suggest a lower mortality rate during prolonged low temperatures in areas with bird feeders. By feeding birds, when the days are short and energy requirements are high, we do make their lives a bit easier though, while having our own spirits lifted. Feeding birds is fun.


Some good news recently arrived. Marion Larson, MassWildlife outreach coordinator, sent me a news release highlighting eight projects receiving MassWildlife Habitat Management Grants; three are located in Berkshire County: 

  • The Town of Lenox and the Berkshire Natural Resources Council will receive $26,810 to control the hardy kiwi vine at Kennedy Park and on adjacent properties.
  • The Sheffield Land Trust will receive $16,040 to conduct brush hogging and invasive species control at Ashley Falls Woods.
  • South Lee Associates and the Berkshire Natural Resources Council will receive $17,400 to control invasive species and improve floodplain forest habitats on multiple Housatonic River properties.

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