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I find it interesting that birds often have preferences for the level where they eat. And understanding their preferences can also be really helpful in setting up feeding stations for the birds you want to feed.
House Finches seem to like to be up off the ground. They prefer hanging feeders and usually only eat on the ground below a feeder if that is the only option. Even then, they’re more likely to wait in a branch for their turn at a hanging feeder.
American Goldfinches on the other hand seem a little less picky. Yes, they love the nyjer tube feeders. But they’ll also show up in platform feeders and on the ground if that is where the food is when other feeders are full.
When a really large Goldfinch flock settles into the yard, they seem to be everywhere, on every feeder, every water source and every tree, bush or flower that contains a possible seed to eat.
Dark-Eyed Juncos and White-Throated Sparrows, love to eat on the ground. You could have a hanging feeder bursting with food, but they’ll be poking around on the ground looking for dropped seed below it. Only very rarely will one try one of the hanging feeders. House Sparrows have similar preferences but show up at the tube feeders sometimes too. . . .
Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds seem to love their special hummingbird feeders, always hung in the air. And of course, they also feed from flowers in the garden. These birds will sit on a tree branch but I’ve never seen one on the ground.
Nuthatches, Titmouses and Chickadees
White-Breasted Nuthatches, Tufted Titmouses and Carolina Chickadees all have similar eating styles. While you’ll occasionally see them on the ground, they are more likely to make a quick stop at a hanging feeder. They grab a seed and fly off to a nearby tree to eat it or cache it. They all will take a bite at a suet feeder too, which are also off the ground.
The Carolina Wrens will beebop around on the ground with the sparrows and juncos, poke around on brush piles and will share the ground platform feeders with the cardinals. Every now and then, they’ll try the tube feeder or hanging platform feeder. They like suet too and seem flexible about suet feeder location, whether against a tree trunk or dangling.
Downy Woodpeckers and Red-Bellied Woodpeckers like to sidle up to the suet or nut block feeders. They’ll usually fly over to land a few feet above the feeder on a tree trunk, often on the opposite side of the tree. Then they’ll scoot down in little hops until they are beside or just below the feeder where they’ll hunker down to eat for a few minutes. Woodpeckers are also fine with suet feeders that are dangling in the air, even when they have to hang at an angle or upside down.
Northern Cardinals don’t seem to like most tube feeders all that much. But they love platform feeders and will use hopper-type feeders as well. They’ll poke around on the ground too, but if there is a spot at a platform feeder, they’ll usually go there first.
Blue Jays don’t often come to the tube feeders either. They will sometimes stop in to see what the platform feeders have to offer. They are fine with feeding on the ground, eating peanuts in the shell off wherever they might be found. When going after peanuts, they usually try to pick the biggest one and take it off to a nearby tree or bush.
Mourning Doves are too large for tube feeders. So they do most of their eating on the ground or on platform feeders.
Cowbirds, Starlings, Grackles & Blackbirds
Brown-Headed Cowbirds really love white millet (as do the birds in the sparrow family.) Spread millet on the ground and you are likely to get a flock of sparrows, followed by European Starlings, Common Grackles and Red-Winged Blackbirds, birds that often hang out together in the winter months. These other birds will also go for the sunflower seed when they arrive in mass.
These birds like to eat on the ground or in platform feeders but are pretty flexible. They will go to tube feeders as well if that is where the food is found (although starlings have more trouble with tube feeder ports.)
Starlings love suet and will hunker down on the top of a suet cage feeder for long periods of time to eat and eat and eat. If you don’t want Starlings, using suet feeders that require the bird to hang upside down. I’ve also had good luck with just half a block of suet in a dangling suet cage.
The local hawks, typically a Coopers Hawk or Sharp-Shined Hawk and occasionally a Red-Shouldered or Red-Tailed Hawk, of course prefer fly-by eating. They suddenly fly through the feeder area, hoping to grab birds that can be caught off guard while eating.
They seem to particularly swoop past the hanging platform and tube feeders and birds waiting their turn for any of the feeders in nearby trees. Birds eating at covered platform feeders or the ground platform feeder under the picnic table don’t tend to be targeted.
There are also other local yard birds that don’t often come to feeders but are attracted to fresh water and to berries found in bushes or trees. In my area, these include American Robins and other birds in the thrasher family, crows, warblers, Mockingbirds and Cedar Waxwings.
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