Feeding the Birds: Enticing and Observing Feathered Guests

Some are drably colored and others, simply brilliant. Many have melodious voices and others are just raucous. They're adeptly adapted to soar and dart, allure and court, and find and prepare food. Twice each year, nearly 80 percent of birds in the U.S. make incredible migratory journeys, sometimes flying up to 90 hours without stopping or feeding! With a resume like that, it's worth taking a closer look.

Feeding birds, especially during winter months when natural sources are limited, will enable your keen observers to get a close-up view of their antics, structures, and meal preferences. Students can also learn to identify who's who and set up a host of feeding experiments. Bonding with birds can inspire a passion for preserving habitats and explorations of how they intersect with our lives. After all, we enjoy food, clothing (think "down"), and other products that hail from the avian world. And our language and literature are rife with bird references, sayings, and symbolism.

Building a feeder (or several types that entice a variety of visitors) is a wonderful starting point. Using materials that would otherwise be recycled or discarded can spark new discussions and inquiries. Before you decide which type(s) to build, have students observe or research birds' feeding habits (the chart, below will help). Once they've done their "market research," they can decide which projects to tackle.

Come spring, your class may be ready to create a living menu by raising garden flowers with seeds and nectar that birds love or planning a more ambitious habitat that includes shrubs, trees, and other elements that sustain year-round and seasonal visitors. Read on for advice, curriculum connections, and links to excellent resources.

Building Bird Feeders

Almost any container that can hold bird food and be placed in a safe feeding area can serve as a feeder: half a grapefruit peel, an empty coconut shell, a mesh bag, a used pie tin, or a combination of these odds and ends. Below you'll find directions for building a milk carton feeder and hummingbird (nectar) feeder, tips for creating platform and suet feeders, and links to more ambitious projects.

To protect visiting birds from predators, do your best to locate feeders near shrubs or trees where they can quickly find cover. Make sure they're far enough off the ground to foil neighborhood cats.


Milk Carton Feeder: scissors, string, nail, milk or juice carton, cord (or a coathanger if you have a way to cut it), 10- to 12-inch twigs or chopsticks, birdseed

Hummingbird Feeder: Baby food or other small jar, string, hammer and large nail, beet, sugar, saucepan

Milk Carton Feeder

You can try different variations on this feeder such as adding a roof to provide protection from rain and snow, painting it with camouflage colors and patterns, or making it from a plastic milk container. Let students' imaginations and growing knowledge of birds guide their design options.

1. Prepare carton. Wash the carton and allow it to dry completely. Staple or tape the pour spout closed. Use the nail to make a hole in the top edge of the carton. This is where you'll thread the cord or hanger.

2. Cut feeding holes. Starting about 2 inches from the bottom of the carton, cut a 2-1/2- to 3-inch-tall triangular section from each corner.

 3. Make perches. Use the nail to make a hole to receive twigs or chopsticks.

 4. Fill 'er up! To stock your bird cafe with seeds, make a funnel from a rolled piece of paper or cardboard, and pour in the seed. Thread the string through the top hole, and hang your feeder. If you use a coathanger, cut a section and bend it to create a hook on both ends for hanging.)

Hummingbird Feeder

Hummingbirds do eat insects, but they are better known for their nectar-sipping ways. The best source of carbohydrate-rich nectar is flowers, but you can supplement it when blossoms are scarce by making a feeder. Before launching the project, be sure you can commit to cleaning the jar every few days and refilling it with fresh "nectar." (If allowed to sit more than a few days, nectar can ferment, and this is harmful to hummingbirds!)

1. To make nectar, bring 1 cup of water to a boil in a saucepan, and add 1/4 cup of sugar. Stir until the sugar dissolves and allow it to cool.

2. While nectar is cooling, start working on the feeder. Remove the lid from the jar. Place it on a flat surface, and with the hammer and nail, make 3 to 4 small holes along one edge. Make sure no sharp edges are exposed.

3. Pour nectar into the jar. Screw on the cap, and tie a long string around the neck of the jar with the knotted end opposite the holes in the cap. Refrigerate the remaining nectar for up to 2 weeks in a tightly-lidded container.

4. Hang the feeder from a branch, nectar will lap up against the holes, where hummingbirds can reach it with their slender beaks and tongues.

5. Paint or attach bright "petals" to the jar lid as an added attraction. To convert this design to an oriole feeder, make the holes larger and use orange for your petal color.

Platform Feeders

To protect ground-feeding birds such as juncoes and sparrows from prowling predators, provide a raised surface. This could be a pie tin hung with string or wire from a tree, or a simple wooden frame covered with window screen and nailed to a post. An important feature to build into your platform feeder is drainage: wet seeds grow mold, which can be dangerous for birds. Once a week or so, hose down the feeder to clean off any bird droppings, as they can spread disease if they accumulate among the seed.

Suet and Peanut Butter Feeders

One reason to encourage birds in the garden is that they help out with pest control by eating insects and worms. How can we help out when this important source of protein and fat is scarce? You can buy bags of mealworms at some supply outlets to fill feeders, bird fanciers typically provide their backyard visitors with suet (beef fat) or peanut butter. The easiest feeder for suet is a plastic mesh bag like those that oranges or onions come in.

Suet turns rancid during hot weather and can harm birds; until the weather turns cool, it's best to fill feeders with commercially prepared suet cakes. Otherwise, you can make your own. For peanut butter lovers, simply slather a batch into the crevices of a dry pinecone. Hang your protein packages within view of a window, and watch the woodpeckers, nuthatches, and chickadees flock in! Here are some recipes for gourmet protein-rich treats students might want to experiment with.

Other Feeders

If you're interested in a more ambitious project, you can gather some tools and build a rustic log feeder or simple wooden house-style feeder. If you have patience, you can grow "feeders" in the form of sunflowers and birdhouse gourds.

For more information on feeding birds, including suggestions for dealing with unwanted visitors (cats, squirrels, and other rodents), cleaning feeders, and feeding FAQs, visit the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Website.

Favorite Foods and Feeders


Food Birds
Black-oil sunflower seeds (The hands-down favorite for birds that use tube, platform, and house feeders. You can also hang garden sunflower heads on a fence in the fall.) Many types including chickadees, cardinals, grosbeaks, nuthatches, doves, cardinals, titmice, sparrows, jays, house and purple finches, redpolls, white-throated (and crowned) sparrows
Millet (usually on platform feeders) Doves, blackbirds, towhees, finches, sparrows, and others
Thistle seed (also known as niger) finches
Suet Woodpeckers, wrens, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, kinglets, thrashers creepers, cardinals, starlings, and others
Corn (cracked) Juncos, doves, house sparrows, bobwhite quail, and others
Unsalted raw shelled peanuts Chickadees, titmice, woodpeckers, cardinals, grackles, sparrows, thrushes, and others
Fruits: orange halves nailed to platform or branch or small pieces of apples or other fruits on platform Orioles, tanagers, mockingbirds, bluebirds, yellow-breased chats, and others
Feeder Type Birds
Platform feeder Juncos, white-throated sparrows, towheees, doves, cardinals, jays, and others
Tube feeder Perching birds such as titmice, chickadees, goldfinches, nuthatches, pine siskins. If it has a broad platform, it will draw larger birds such as cardinals, and house and purple finches
House feeder Chickadees, finches, nuthatches, juncos, sparrows, titmice, and others
Thistle feeder (can be a fabric or metal mesh tube or sock, or a tube feeder with tiny holes for fine seed) Finches
Suet feeder (You can buy one or make a hanging one from plastic mesh bags that hold onions or oranges.) Woodpeckers, wrens, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, kinglets, thrashers creepers, cardinals, starlings, and others
Nectar feeders Hummingbirds (sometimes tanagers, cardinals, orioles)
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