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How do you make your yard’s bird feeders a success with a wide variety of birds? If you’ve got more than one or two feeders, and have the space, consider spreading them out! Too many feeders right on top of each other, each appealing to different types of birds, creates congestion. This increases conflict as species and personal spaces overlap.
This doesn’t mean that every feeder has to be its own remote island. Think about about feeder types and which birds are likely to visit each feeder. Then cluster the feeders that make sense to be near each other. Leave space in between the clusters to allow various species to eat relatively peacefully at the same time.
Choosing Bird Feeder Location
Ok, I’ve got a lot of bird feeders. I’ll readily admit that. I like to joke that some women collect shoes; I collect bird feeders. Most people don’t have, or necessarily want, as many feeders as I’ve got, but if you’ve got a few, I think my experience can still be helpful to you.
There is a surprising amount of thought that goes into deciding where to put a bird feeder. From a human perspective, you want to locate them where you can see them easily from your house or wherever you watch birds. And you want them where they won’t interfere with other activities in your yard or create a mess.
From a predator deterring perspective, you want them out of reach of jumping, climbing, dangling and reaching squirrels. And you want to put them a relatively short flight from cover. This gives birds a space to retreat if the neighborhood hawk or cat comes to visit.
But you also need to think about it from a bird’s perspective. Cornell’s All About Birds describes bird feeders as not the peaceful idyllic scene you might envision. Instead they compare it to fight club. It makes sense when you think about it. Even when there is plenty of food for all, birds want to be sure they get the nourishment they need. To do that, they will jockey for the limited spots at the feeder. After all, they never know when human activity, loud noises, predators or the arrival of more dominant birds will suddenly interrupt them forcing them to leave the banquet.
Note: The seed you put in a feeder makes a big difference. Check out my post on Choosing Seed For Backyard Birds.
Reducing Bird Feeder Conflicts
There is a dominance hierarchy going on at any feeder. Within a species there are usually birds that are more dominant. This can vary by species but might be determined by things like gender or relative size or maturity.
And then there is dominance of one species over another, decided by things like size or aggressiveness. (Cornell’s Feederwatch currently has an interesting citizen science project to track interspecies dominance hierarchies.)
When two birds show up at the same feeder, one bird may back off in deference to the other. Or one bird might invade the other’s space with their body or their beak to get the other to give way. Most of the time, the noticeable physical bickering and fighting we see at feeders is within a species. But anyone who has watched a European Starling move around a feeder, knows that there can be interspecies aggression too.
While we humans can do nothing about a lot of this feeder friction, we can set up our feeders to make things run a little smoother. Here is how I arrange things in my yard.
1) Suet Feeder Clusters
I have five Birds Choice upside-down suet feeders. Three are clustered on one dual shepherd’s hook pole in the back yard. Two more are on another dual shepherd’s hook pole in the front yard. With the exception of starlings, most birds using this type of feeder can coexist fairly peacefully. But some of them are a little shy about eating right next to flocks of busy, sometimes bickering birds. So my suet feeder clusters are thirteen feet and twenty-four feet from other feeders.
Even when other feeders are full of very active birds, the woodpeckers, wrens, nuthatches and other birds can eat at a suet feeder in peace. Having some suet feeders in the front yard and some in the back lets some Downy Woodpeckers use the front feeder and others use the back. This limits some intra-species territorial disputes.
2) Nyjer Feeder Cluster
There are a LOT of American Goldfinches in my yard each day. Most other feeder birds are bigger and more dominant (except sometimes when they greatly outnumber the other species.) I have a cluster of four Aspects nyjer tube feeders over by themselves in the side yard. This is goldfinch territory. Occasionally a House Finch or a Purple Finch will grab a feeder spot too and in the winter, sparrows grab fallen seed under the feeders, but most of the time it’s all for them.
3) Cage and Tube Feeder Cluster
To give small birds sure feeder access, I currently have three cage type feeders: two Woodlink feeders and a Nuttery Globe feeder. I fill these feeders with sunflower hearts. They are clustered together on one dual shepherd’s hook pole in the back yard near the house. A sunflower heart filled Squirrel Buster Plus feeder is also about ten feet away from this feeder, currently surrounded by anti-House Sparrow wires.
All of these feeders appeal to the same group of birds: American Goldfinches, House Finches, Purple Finches, White-Breasted Nuthatches, Red-Breasted Nuthatches, Carolina Wrens, Carolina Chickadees and Pine Warblers. The Eastern Bluebirds also seem to like the Squirrel Buster Plus feeder for sunflower hearts, but they get along fine with these birds. Most of the time these feeders have finches of one type or the other on them. Other birds pop in occasionally to grab a seed or two and then go off to eat or cache them.
4) Mixed Feeder Cluster
Another twelve feet further out in the yard is another dual shepherd’s hook feeder. This one has three feeders: a Birds Choice hanging platform feeder, a small Birds Choice hanging hopper feeder and a Squirrel Buster Classic tube feeder with the perches removed.
I usually fill these feeders with safflower seed. So most of the time, this is the spot where you will find Northern Cardinals, House Finches, Purple Finches and Mourning Doves. If I swap out the safflower in the tube feeder for sunflower hearts, many of the other small birds that come to the cage feeders visit this one too.
Once or twice a day, I’ll toss a couple handfuls of peanuts into this platform feeder on top of the safflower. This makes it pretty lively for about twenty minutes. The more usual birds back off while Blue Jays, Red-Bellied Woodpeckers and the occasional Common Grackle or Tufted Titmouse zoom in and out until the peanuts are gone. Because of the platform feeder, this cluster can also get popular with mixed spring flock birds like Common Grackles, European Starlings, Brown-Headed Cowbirds and Red-Winged Blackbirds.
5) Pole Mounted Cluster
Another cluster of two feeders mounted on poles is located seventeen feet even further out in the yard: a Birds Choice covered platform feeder and one an old large metal hopper. Mourning Doves often dominate these two feeders, but it is also the favorite spot in the back yard for Northern Cardinals. House Finches like it too. Other birds like Tufted Titmouses, Carolina Wrens, Carolina Chickadees and (rarely) Rose-Breasted Grosbeaks will visit this feeder too.
In the spring, mixed flocks of Common Grackles, European Starlings, Brown-Headed Cowbirds and Red-winged Blackbirds sometimes mob these feeders. This makes it particularly rough on the cardinals who, while they will bicker among themselves during breeding season, almost always seem to back away from almost any other bird species. (They get along well with the House Finches and with the Red-Winged Blackbirds as long as there aren’t too many blackbirds.)
The cardinals in my yard very much favor the same platform feeders that these spring flocks like. They will usually back off to a nearby tree to try to wait them out rather than try a different type of feeder (with one exception I’ll get to.)
6) Mealworm Feeder
Twenty-two feet off to one side, is a feeder all by itself, the Erva Mealworm Feeder. When I first tried to offer dried mealworms in their own feeder, a small Squirrel Buster Standard, I had them on the pole in the middle of the yard with the platform feeder and the Squirrel Buster Classic. Aggressive starlings were constantly disturbing access to the other feeders on the pole. So I moved the feeder off to one side where it hung from a tree limb under an Erva baffle. That brought more peace to that cluster of feeders and was a good move.
The starlings mostly leave this new feeder alone, only occasionally trying it, in apparent hope that THIS time they’ll be able to get in. So it doesn’t really need to be set aside, but it’s working okay there for now and I’m out of pole space at the moment anyway.
7) Hummingbird Feeders
From mid-April to mid-fall, I also put up two hummingbird feeders. They each hang from the house about twenty to twenty-five feet apart in the back and fifteen to twenty feet from other feeders. Ruby-Throated hummingbirds can get territorial about feeders and chase other hummingbirds away. Separating the two feeders helps keep the peace.
8) Front Yard Tube Feeders
Finally out in the front yard, there are two feeders each hanging from a tree limb under an Erva baffle. A Squirrel Buster Plus tube feeder is filled with either sunflower hearts or safflower. The other feeder is a huge metal mesh feeder filled with safflower. The mesh feeder is the front yard favorite of Northern Cardinals and House Finches. Mourning Doves are typically found eating dropped seed underneath it. The Squirrel Buster Plus’ customers depend on which seed I put in it and the time of year.
Each of these feeders is far enough apart and also far enough away from the front yard suet feeder pole that activity on one feeder doesn’t tend to interfere with activity on the other. There are not as many feeders in the front yard as in the back, but having this second main feeder area lets birds move to the front or back when there is human or flock activity in the other area that interrupts their feeding.
I also have six birdbaths, two in the front yard and four in the back. Many birds will coexist peacefully at birdbaths but having a variety lets them spread out and pick a non-busy one if they like.
Cluster Feeders Logically
Do you see the pattern here? I have clustered my feeders by type of food and types of birds that usually use the feeders. Yes, various birds will check out any of the feeders and that is fine. And sometimes, especially when the spring flocks descend on the feeders, the regulars have to back off from some of the feeders. But even then, there are some feeders (like the cage feeders, wired feeder and nyjer feeders) that the flocks leave alone so at least some of the regulars can still eat in peace even then.
You may live in a different area than I do and get a different mix of birds at your feeder. You may have fewer feeders or a different mix of feeder types. You may have a larger or a smaller space to put feeders. So your arrangement of feeders is going to be different. Watch the birds at your feeders and how they interact. If you see one species of bird routinely pushing out another that you enjoy seeing at your feeders, think about whether you can rearrange your feeders to let the less dominant birds have more feeder time.
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