Last Updated on March 17, 2022 by Nancie
When birds are not coming to your feeders, what can you do? When trying to attract birds to your yard, it helps to think like a bird. Here is a checklist of possible problems and solutions for attracting birds to your feeders, either for the first time or when birds have disappeared from your feeders.
Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Are Your Feeders Consistently Full?
If you only put out food occasionally, it may take birds a while to find it when you do put it out. If feeders go empty often, birds will look for more reliable food sources. They may not come to your feeders as often.
Some bird watchers feed birds year-round while others only put out food in the winter. If you only put food out in certain seasons, that’s fine. Just understand that it might take neighborhood birds time to realize that food is available again. To get an idea of how long it can take to find a new or moved feeder, check out my post on Will Birds Find My Feeder?
What Seed Is In Your Feeders?
Make sure the seed in your feeders is what birds want. Each type of bird has their own preferences. Many cheaper seed mixes are full of filler seed that birds either typically don’t like or that appeals to birds we’d rather not attract.
Black oil sunflower seed appeals to many birds we typically try to attract to feeders. (Try sunflower hearts/chips if the black oil seed shells make too much mess.) But there are also other seeds to try.
For example, cardinals often love safflower seed. Sparrows, juncos, Mourning Doves and many other ground feeders (including starlings and cowbirds) also like white proso millet. In warmer months, sugar-water mixtures appeal to hummingbirds. Suet appeals to many birds in the winter as well as in their breeding seasons. Some birds don’t eat seed at all, and are instead attracted by things like berries or caterpillars they find in your yard.
The seed you put in a feeder makes a big difference. To help you decide what seed(s) to use, check my post on How to Choose Birdseed For Backyard Birds. Also see Cornell Labs Feeder Watch’s chart to help you pick foods for the birds you are hoping to attract.
Is The Seed/Food in Your Feeders Fresh?
All birds are looking for nutritious, fresh food. Goldfinches in particular are notoriously picky about nyjer seed, but no bird is going to be thrilled with moldy or dried up stale seed. (Moldy seed is also not healthy for them.)
If the seed is wet and clumped or full of cobwebs or has been sitting in a feeder for months, get rid of it. Start fresh.
Are Your Feeders A Match For Birds You Want to Attract?
Different birds like feeding in different ways. A woodpecker is going to favor suet from a suet feeder, preferably away from other busy feeders. Cardinals tend to favor platform feeders. Juncos and sparrows like to feed on the ground. Finches will feed from tube feeders and platform feeders.
Research the birds you want to attract. Put the food they like into the type of feeder that suits them. I have a post on Which Feeders Attract Which Birds that you might find helpful.
Is Your Yard Bird Friendly?
Is There Cover For Birds?
Most feeder birds appreciate quick access to cover so they can escape from predators. A feeder on a pole out in the middle of a barren yard of cut grass may detract squirrels, but may not get as many customers as a more thoughtfully sited feeder.
Feeders should not be not right on top of bushes where neighborhood cats can lurk. But at the same time, they should also not too far away from bushes, brush piles, trees or other cover.
If you don’t have a lot of cover, make some! Build a brush pile. Gather branches as they fall to create brush piles within a short flight from feeders.
In the winter, especially during snow storms, I have sometimes also put a low platform feeder under an old picnic table. It tends to be popular then, probably because it offers protection from hawks during a period when trees are not leafed out. Also see my post on offering seed to ground-feeding birds on a snowy day. (Keep in mind though that cats can be a problem with low ground feeders under cover.)
Is There Water For Birds?
One of the best ways to attract birds is to provide water. Most of us aren’t lucky enough to have streams or ponds in our yards. But you don’t have to spend thousands on a fancy water feature or even hundreds on a birdbath. An inexpensive shallow pot saucer from the local hardware or nursery placed on the ground or a small table a few feet from some cover will thrill many birds. If you want to purchase a birdbath, check: My Favorite Birdbath or a Simple Inexpensive Birdbath or on Choosing and Maintaining Heated Birdbaths.
In the winter months, consider a heated pet water bowl or add a de-icer to a regular birdbath. You’ll be the talk of the local birds if you have water available when it is frozen everywhere else.
Is There Abundant Alternative Food For Birds to Eat?
It is also possible that birds are simply finding enough food elsewhere. The food in our feeders is a supplement to birds’ diets. You will probably notice that when insects are hard to find and native seed is buried under snow and ice, you’ll see more birds at feeders. But in summer, feeders are likely to be quieter as many birds can find tasty insects for a larger portion of their diet. A surge in insect population, for example broods of periodic cicadas, can also result in fewer birds at feeders.
Where Are Your Feeders?
If you place feeders in an area with a lot of human activity, some shyer birds may stay away. Think about where your feeders are located. Right next to the door might make it convenient for re-filling, but you might get more customers with a little distance from where people come and go often.
Are Predators Stalking Your Feeders?
In my neighborhood, there have been feral cats in the past, as well as neighborhood cats whose owners let them wander during the day. Now, I love and own cats myself. But even well-fed cats do like to stalk birds, something I don’t tolerate around the feeders.
Local birds keep an eye out for them and will usually back off from the feeders until the cat moves on (or at least stay off the ground). As long as the cat doesn’t linger in the area, the birds usually come right back. If you have problems with cats lingering near low birdbaths or feeders to spring on unsuspecting birds, see Keeping Cats Out of Birdbaths. A Yard Enforcer sprinkler can be helpful too!
A hunting hawk on the other hand, can scare birds away from the feeders for hours or even days. Birds take hawks very seriously! Usually only a single hawk arrives at my feeders, but every once in a while, two will hunt together. Then the feeders get really quiet as birds stay away.
Sometimes you’ll see recommendations to take feeders down for a week or two if a hawk is hunting around your feeders and you don’t like it. I find that local birds will often make themselves scarce. And that encourages the hawk to move on . . . temporarily. Hawks generally come back eventually because they’ve got to eat too! For more, see my post on Hawks and Flocks: Predators at Feeders.
Problem Solving to Attract Birds to Your Feeders
Feeding birds can be as easy is filling a bird feeder and hanging it up outside. But more often a bit of problem solving goes into it. When problems come up, spend a little time observing and thinking about it from a bird’s point of view.
You may need to try a few things before you find what works. You might think that this is a bad thing, but I don’t think so. When you see something that isn’t working in your bird feeder set-up and find a solution, it feels really good. It is like solving a puzzle.
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