Frequently Asked Questions - Feeding and Attracting Birds
- I have a hummingbird in my area past migration time and I’d like to feed it as long as it stays around, what do I need to know?
- Are products that use hot peppers or their extracts to discourage squirrels at bird feeders safe for birds and squirrels? Could they get it in their eyes?
- Is organically-grown birdseed healthier for birds?
- What can I do about my Homeowners Association ban on the feeding of birds?
- What is the ideal depth of a bird bath ?
- Don’t birds freeze in the winter when they take baths?
- When is it safe to remove nests around buildings?
- How do I keep squirrels and raccoons off my feeders?
- Can feeders or bird baths make birds sick?
- Will birds’ feet stick to metal perches in winter?
- Is peanut butter or uncooked rice harmful to birds?
- Where can I get plans to build a bird house? What are the correct dimensions for each species?
- Where do I get information on what to plant for birds?
- When should I start and stop feeding birds?
The answer depends on where in the US you are.
If you live in an area where the night-time temperatures dip below freezing regularly, and you choose to feed the hummingbird, you will need to make sure your nectar feeder does not freeze. You can either bring the feeder indoors overnight when it gets cold and put it back outside first thing in the morning (hummingbirds need to feed as early as possible, especially when it’s cold, to keep their energy up) or you can hang an incandescent light bulb near the feeder. These bulbs give off enough heat to keep the feeder warm.
If your night-time temperatures only dip slightly below freezing, and especially if it usually warms above freezing during the day, in fact your hummingbird nectar may not freeze. The sugar solution has a lower freezing point than straight water, and that may help. However, of course it’s better not to have your hummingbirds drinking very cold nectar, even if it does not freeze. This can actually cold-stun them if they do so. You can either bring the feeder indoors overnight when it gets cold and put it back outside first thing in the morning (hummingbirds need to feed as early as possible, especially when it’s cold, to keep their energy up) or you can hang an incandescent light bulb near the feeder. These bulbs give off enough heat to keep the feeder warm.
Some areas of the U.S. do see hummingbirds normally over the winter. Several species of hummingbirds regularly overwinter along the Gulf Coast of the U.S. , southern Arizona, and south Florida. Anna’s Hummingbird is resident from northwestern Baja California along the Pacific coast to British Columbia, Allen’s Hummingbird is resident in coastal Southern California, and Costa’s Hummingbird is resident in Baja California, southeast California to western Arizona. Please refer to your field guide or Audubon’s online field guide to learn about the winter range of particular species of hummingbirds.
There really haven't been any scientific studies on whether the hot pepper extract, capsaicin, is harmful to the animals' eyes. It does deter squirrels from eating seed. The nerve receptor in mammals that is triggered by capsaicin, however, is apparently not activated in birds; and, therefore, the mucous membranes in the gastro-intestinal system of birds ingesting capsaicin are not irritated. This might be the same for their eyes, but that is not clear from the scientific literature. Capsaicin is deadly to bees and other beneficial pollinators, so that is not something we promote spraying around our yards as an insecticide.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology operates Project FeederWatch, with whom we work closely on backyard citizen science bird projects such as the Great Backyard Bird Count. The advice they provide to people feeding birds is the following: "Use no additives in seed or nectar. Capsicum [the genus for hot peppers] irritates the eyes of humans and is likely to do so with birds as well. We do not recommend adding capsicum to bird seed."
The studies on humans ingesting organic food versus non-organic food are complicated, and take a long time due to the very small amounts of pesticide residue that would be ingested each year. Seed-eating birds don't live very long in the wild, so there may not be enough time for pesticide residues to harm them significantly. They probably benefit more from having a steady food supply at feeders, than they would be harmed by any residue. In fact, much bigger threats to yard birds are the following: diseases they could pick up from dirty feeders and bird baths; diseases they could pick up from coming into contact with other sick birds in close quarters (eating closely with other birds at feeders is an unnatural activity); neighborhood cats; and hawks looking for an easy meal at feeders.
Birds that we know are harmed from pesticides are the ones eating in fields that have been sprayed while they are eating, or soon thereafter. Here, they would ingest the chemicals directly before they have time to degrade. By the time seed reaches our birdfeeders, it has been many months of being sorted, processed and stored; and many of today's pesticides break down after a week or two exposed to air. There is a benefit to purchasing organically grown birdseed, but it is the same benefit to purchasing any human food grown organically -- any time we can encourage a reduction in the use of pesticides by buying organically-grown food, we are keeping the pesticides out of fields, streams and the air which helps birds and us.
A number of very strong chemicals are used on food grown in South America that is then shipped into the U.S. for human consumption. Migrating birds that winter in South America are poisoned directly by the hundreds of thousands each year due to those pesticides.
For more information on efforts to eliminate the use of those pesticides, and ones used in this country, visit the American Bird Conservancy's site: http://www.abcbirds.org/abcprograms/policy/toxins/pesticides.html
First, you can appeal the ban and suggest modifications for a compromise. The National Audubon Society has found no reason for people not to feed birds, but some people can and do overfeed and can create a nuisance for their neighbors. The following are suggestions for some limits to feeding that might solve whatever problems resulted in the restrictions:
- Prohibit feeding on the ground in certain areas.
- If larger mammals attracted to feeders are considered a problem (such as raccoons), it might be appropriate to allow hanging feeders only or feeders on poles with "critter guards" to keep them from climbing up to the feeders.
- Tray feeders could be banned, or only allow feeding during daylight hours.
- If suet is an attractive nuisance, just ban that.
The key is to have a discussion with your association members to discover what exactly prompted the ban. Was there an actual problem in your neighborhood, or did someone read something that made them worried? Figure out how to solve the actual local problem without going overboard on the issue. Even if you have no restrictions for bird feeding in your neighborhood, we encourage everyone to plant native flowers, trees and shrubs for birds. Imitating nature in your yard will bring in lots of birds naturally, and even if you put out feeders, you'll attract more birds with a diversity of native plants.
You can find a lot of suggestions, ideas, and resources for creating an environmentally-friendly yard, home, schoolyard and neighborhood at our Audubon At Home website: http://athome.audubon.org/
Typical commercial bird baths are usually no deeper than 2" in the middle, and often taper from shallow edges into the deeper middle. This depth seems to be ideal for the larger birds -- grackle, cardinal, etc. The smaller birds, however, would prefer an inch deep or so. If you observe birds around streams, you will see that they mostly use very shallow, quiet, pebble- or rocky-bottom pools or very slow-moving shallow streams for bathing. You can make a bird bath more "natural" by placing pieces of slate in the bottom to vary depth, or larger rocks that stick up above the water, but have sloping sides giving birds different depths at which to stand. You can also tip a deeper dish so it is on a slight angle, giving you the gradation of depth.
While it would seem that winter bathing would put birds at risk, actually they can do it quite safely. This is because the feathers of a healthy bird shed most of the water, preventing it from leaking through to the insulating down and skin below. This is most obvious in ducks which paddle about in freezing water, but it also applies to land birds who can shed and shake water from their plumage. The water helps them clean their feathers of dirt that would otherwise interfere with the feather barbules that act like Velcro to lock out water from penetrating. In nature, wintering land birds typically bathe in shallow water along flowing streams. Of course no chemicals should be added to bird bath water to keep it from freezing.
Most songbirds only use a nest once, and are genetically programmed to build a new one before they lay eggs. Once young have fledged (or left the nest), you can remove a nest and clean the site. Some species of songbirds will nest two or three times from spring to early fall, so by cleaning the desired nesting sites or boxes you are enhancing the likelihood of nests around your property. Never remove an active nest that has eggs or young, as they are protected by federal law. The exception is nests of House (English) Sparrows, Starlings and Pigeons which are not native to North America.
Squirrels not only jump well, they are quite acrobatic and can climb over almost anything. There are feeders you can buy that close under a squirrel's weight. These sometimes work unless a squirrel figures out how to bypass the closure system. There are also feeders enclosed in a cage that allows smaller birds through that work very well.
The only sure way to keep squirrels off of a conventional feeder is to place it atop a pole, 20 feet or more from a branch or roof, and attach a metal "squirrel guard" (stovepipe-like tube or cone-shaped baffle) just below the feeder. Raccoons can't jump as well, but are great climbers and need a similar guard to keep them from climbing up the pole. A stove-pipe type of raccoon guard needs to be a little longer than one for squirrels. Many people also put out food for the mammals to reduce their interest in feeders.
Bringing birds together like we do at feeders and bird baths is unnatural, and increases the chances for them to spread disease, or for waste to accumulate and breed diseases. By spreading out feeders and providing several sources of water in different parts of the yard, you not only decrease the concentration of disease and wastes, but the reduced competition is less stressful on the birds. It is also critically important to clean feeders and bird baths regularly to not only remove old seed and bird waste, but to also disinfect them with a weak bleach solution.
A bird's feet sticking to a perch is an extremely rare event. Birds do not have sweat glands on their feet, so they do not have the problem that people would have putting a wet finger or tongue on a freezing cold metal object. The only way a bird's feet would stick is if they were standing on a perch during freezing rain, and the rain froze around their feet. In the remote chance that happens, pouring cool or lukewarm water on their feet is the best way to thaw the ice.
Peanut butter, by itself, is not harmful to birds. Some people dilute it with birdseed or cornmeal to reduce its stickiness, but that is not necessary. Uncooked rice is also not harmful. Uncooked grains are a staple for the diet of species of many birds, so throwing rice at weddings is not going to harm any birds.
Birds that build nests in tree cavities are called "cavity-nesters." These include bluebirds, chickadees, some owls, woodpeckers, kestrels, and many others. Each species has its own "ideal" specifications that it looks for when choosing a cavity for nesting; so when you provide that cavity in the form of a nest box, you are more likely to attract the desired species if the box meets the bird's preferred design. A classic book of 28 different nest box plans was developed by Carrol Henderson of the Minnesota DNR that is still available for purchase: www.dnr.state.mn.us/publications/books/index.html. Many state natural resource agencies have reprinted this book or have similar books or fact sheets. Check out this link for a chart of design specifications for the birds most likely to use a nest box.
Audubon At Home is an Audubon program with information on making your home more wildlife-friendly and actions you can take for a more environmentally-friendly community. Also provided are lists of regional resources for native plants, along with action ideas for protecting and conserving water, reducing pesticides, and removing exotic plants: http://athome.audubon.org. The North American Native Plant Society also has a web site listing local native plant nurseries around North America that includes contacts for state native plant societies: www.nanps.org.
Seed-eating birds get their food from a variety of sources throughout a day, so what people provide is a convenient and easy source of food, but not necessary to help the species of birds that come to feeders. So, starting or stopping your feeding at any particular time of year won't have much of an impact on those birds. The only exception is if there is a bad snow or ice storm and natural food is buried for a period of time. In that event, the seed you put out could be life-saving for some birds. Some people choose to only feed in winter, but others feed year-round to attract them closer to enjoy them up close.
Nectar-eating birds, such as hummingbirds and orioles, begin their migration north from the tropics in January. Hummingbirds may arrive in southern states as early as January, the middle states in March or April, and upper Great Lake states in May. As hummingbirds head south again, the birds farther north will stop at feeders along their way south; so some people leave their feeders out for a few weeks after they notice their summer birds have left, in the event passers-by stop to refuel.
For people who only feed during the summer, they can stop feeding in the fall whenever they want. Migratory birds leave on their own schedule, regardless of food availability, so continued feeding will not prevent birds from migrating as they should.
For more information, visit our Bird Feeding Basics page.
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