dsc_0152Wild animals are just like we are.  They’re inherently lazy (ok, maybe it’s kinder to say they conserve their energy) and will always prefer an easy solution to a problem, if they have an option.  In the winter, particularly, many birds are on a constant search for food to keep them going through scarce times, and an easy source is a good source.  As a result, one of the easiest ways to connect with your local wildlife – I mean really local, like your own backyard – is to set out a buffet, and literally invite them onto your back porch.
Bird feeders are simple and fun to build, and provide the opportunity to observe wild animals up close, and get a glimpse into their lives, behavior and social interactions.  It’s a great project for kids, particularly if you can help them see beyond the craft project, and understand how a little effort on their part can help wildlife and be entertaining to us as well!  Use this as an opportunity to learn who lives nearby, and get to know their habits.
(NOTE: In support of this article, my kids and I set out to build a couple feeders – and they wound up trying several ADDITIONAL designs not described here.  We wound up making six different feeders and hanging them all out.  I made a companion YouTube video to show some of this experimentation and examples of what we tried.  That video is located on the Flying Squirrel YouTube site, at the link below!)

How to Build One

Almost any plastic or cardboard drink container you’d normally throw into your recycling can be made into a feeder.  You can convert those bottles in three easy steps, one of which is optional.

1) Start with a juice carton, a jug, a bottle, or even a tall water bottle.

Using a razor knife or strong scissors (parents probably want to help with this part), cut a hole (or holes) into it to provide access to the goodies that will be inside.  This can either be a big hole (detergent or milk jugs), or small holes (water bottles), depending on what you start with.
dsc_0140

“Large Jug” method, made by my son.  Large windows and skewer perches

A large jug or carton can be thought of as a “room” full of seed.  Cut a big front door, and invite the birds on in – they don’t mind standing on a pile of breakfast and picking seeds out from beneath their feet.  But they DON’T like the feeling of being enclosed or trapped, so if you have a sturdy jug, like one used for detergent or some juices, you can cut out multiple openings and leave evenly spaced “columns” of material to support the seed tray – just leave 2-3 inches of jug at the bottom, or you won’t have room for much feed.
Narrow bottles need a little more planning – make dime-sized holes on both sides, opposite each other, on the side of the bottle.  Make your first holes about 3 inches from the bottom, and if your bottle is tall enough you can make a separate set, turned 90 degrees, higher up.  Opposing holes will let you use a single perch (structurally stronger) and give access from opposite sides.

2) Insert a perch, or perches, to provide access to the holes.

dsc_0146

“Tall Bottle” method.  Dime-sized holes with skewer perches below.  Note gravel in bottom.

Perches can be almost anything, and your wide-open jugs don’t really even need them (the birds can land right on the lip of the opening).  If you’re using a tall water bottle, shove a kitchen skewer, a dowel, a straight stick, popsicle stick or something similar all the way through, at a point about one and a half (1.5″) inches below your access holes.  This places the feed at a good beak height for the smaller birds (sparrows, finches) that will enjoy these feeders.

3) (Optional) Decorate your feeder.

Go crazy.  Birds don’t really care.  Some might be curious about bright colors, but aside from that, the aesthetic isn’t something that will attract or deter them, once they realize there’s food available.  What DOES catch their attention, and curiosity, is movement – so a little leftover Christmas ribbon or something else that flutters might just draw them in. You can personalize to your heart’s content with paint, stickers, or whatever – so this can either be fun for your kids (or inner child), or it can match your own personal ideas of proper back-porch decor.  Do what you like!

What To Put In It?

What do birds eat?  Really, a lot, if you think about it.  And if you’re looking to attract a particular kind of bird, you need to know what’s on their particular menu.  The feeders I’ve described here are really designed for seed, as seeds are the easy starter course – sunflower seeds, corn, and millet will be of interest to a pretty wide variety, including chickadees, titmice, sparrows, cardinals, finches, jays…  no wonder your typical “wild bird mix” is as popular and effective as it is.
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Yet another design idea!

Just one suggestion, if you have the tall, skinny water-bottle variety with small holes in it, fill your feeder with pebbles, or marbles, or anything else decorative, up to the first set of holes.  No point in putting seed down in the bottom where nobody can get to it – and this will deter the bigger birds from tearing your feeder apart to get to those last few morsels.  If you have the bigger bottle with an open foyer, and the birds can hop right in, then you don’t have to worry about this.

If you want to take the next step in preparing your backyard buffet, remember that not all of your neighborhood songbirds are vegetarian.  Robins, woodpeckers, orioles and others eat meat – insects, worms, even carrion.  They can be attracted with high protein treats like suet (basically a rendered fat), peanut butter, or in some cases, fruit.  Pack suet or peanut butter in a cage or a mesh bag (like the ones onions are packaged in), and hang them on a tree.  Leave an orange half, pulp side up, on your porch rail.  Some experimentation is entertaining, and you’ll learn who likes what.  Observation and education is part of the fun here!

Where Do I Put It?

Even though the objective here is to connect with the wildlife, keep in mind that even in your yard, it’s not a Disney cartoon.  Birds have predators.  Small mammals (like your cat) eat birds, and some raptors (Coopers Hawks, Sharp-Shinned Hawks) specialize in hunting songbirds.  For this reason, your guests are not always going to be excited about sitting in the open, backs to the world and defenseless, regardless of how much food is available.  They need cover.  Nearby shrubs, evergreen trees, and other vegetation make your visitors a lot more comfortable, as they have a place to dash in and hide if something goes down.
dsc_0150If the cover is TOO close, though, you have the opposite problem – a perfect place for cats and other predators to lurk, within pouncing distance of the feeder.  There are also “nuisance” animals to worry about.  Grey squirrels aren’t predatory, but they also pounce, are quite systematically relentless, and they’ll eat all the food.  I recently saw a raccoon hanging on a bird feeder at mid-day.  All fine and good if you’re trying to draw these animals in (not always a great idea), but we’re focused on the birds here!
Hang your feeder at least 5 feet off the ground, and give yourself a ten-foot buffer between the feeder and cover.  This is close enough to hide in when the birds get nervous, not so close as to represent an entirely new danger.
dsc_0236With all these considerations in mind, save a bottle from the landfill, and reuse it!  Get your feeder out there, and be prepared to observe and learn who lives in your backyard – at least this season.  Winter is definitely the time of year when feeders are most appreciated, but you can keep birds coming all year, and it’s very entertaining to observe the patterns and shift in your clientèle.  If you don’t get a lot of traffic at first, don’t worry – just like when a new restaurant opens in town, it takes a while for customers to hear about it.  You can advertise a bit, by sprinkling some feed on the ground under your feeder and make the presence of food more obvious.  Soon, you’ll have regular guests to enjoy!
As a result of our experiments this week, we got Tufted Titmice, Carolina Chickadees, Field Sparrows, Dark-Eyed Juncos, and one Northern Cardinal all within a couple days of setting them out.  Let me know if you try it, and what happens!
Troy
flying-squirrel.org
For more info:
Cornell University – All About Birds
Seed Preferences (also from Cornell)

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