Top tips for choosing bird feeders

Hello birdwatchers

It’s been a wonderful few days and I’ve been catching up with jobs around the home. There’s nothing like pottering around in your own space and putting your own little world to rights.

One of my not so little jobs was to take down and wash all of the bird feeders in my garden. Now this isn’t the most pleasant of tasks at the best of times and one job that you definitely need a nice day for. Today was the best of days, great weather, birds singing all around me and I had all the time in the world to do it. However, most of the time, we’re very busy; the weather isn’t so inviting or it is just too darn cold during the winter months, so you need to be able to get the job done fast.

Here are my top tips for choosing the right bird feeders for your garden..

1. Don’t go for bargain priced feeders.
It really is a false economy and you may be contributing to the ill health of your garden birds. Cheap feeders tend to be badly designed and poorly finished to the point that I’ve seen birds get their legs caught in badly fitting wire. Cheap plastic feeders are less likely to have proper drainage holes too. 

Good wire mesh feeders

2. Check that the food ports have suitable drainage holes
Poor drainage creates a breeding ground for mould and bacteria and optimum growing conditions for the seed. If you regularly see your seed sprouting then this is probably because of poor drainage. Have a look at the base of the bottom feeding port – has it got holes? Are they blocked? When topping up your feeders, make sure that you poke out any dust that has accumulated at the bottom. If there is any damp food in there then take the feeder apart and clean it. Use a reputable dealer when restocking on feeders and when buying disinfectant (see the list below) 

3. Think squirrel! 
If you’re lucky enough not to have squirrels in your garden then you’ll be able to keep the initial cost of buying feeders to a minimum and buy non-metal varieties. Be aware though that plastics do react to the elements (especially UV light) and may soon have to be replaced when they become brittle. For the rest of us who are plagued with destructive squirrels, go for metal feeders that won’t rust. The seed feeder tubes will still be plastic but the feeding ports, top, base and hanging mechanism will all be made of robust materials. The top will also be shaped to disperse raindrops and prevent the food from getting too wet. Some feeders are housed in a squirrel-proof cage which only young squirrels are sometimes able to squeeze themselves into. I can recommend The Nuttery for their caged feeders. I’ve had mine for over 20 years and they’ve replaced parts for me free of charge. Droll Yankee feeders are also very robust and reliable.

I’ve had this feeder from The Nuttery for over 20 years – check out the supplier list below

Of course the squirrel can just tip this caged feeder at an angle to get the food out, but there are some squirrel-proof feeders on sale that completely prevent the little darlings from using them. As soon as a squirrel comes near the feeder, a metal sheath drops down to prevent them using the ports. I’ve not had to use one myself but those that have assure me that it provides hours of fun! 

4. Check how they’re put together 
To ensure that your garden birds remain fit and healthy (or at least that you’re not responsible for making them ill) you need to clean your feeders regularly. “How regular is regularly” I hear you ask. Well, recently on Springwatch we were advised to clean our bird feeders on a weekly basis if we had seen any signs of greenfinches with Tichomonosis (a protozoan disease – we’ll cover that in a future blog). I think you could see Chris Packham blanching at the thought of having to do this each week until Michaela demonstrated by dunking a feeder whole in a specially formulated disinfectant. If you’re going to clean your feeders weekly by dunking them fully assembled then, depending on what they are made of, your feeders probably won’t last very long. You may get away with it over the warmer months but for the rest of the time I would advise that you take them apart – at least four times a year at least. My general rule is to wash them when I see the plastic tubing going a bit opaque and when a bit of bird poo has accumulated on the top.

So, once you’ve decided that you’re going to take them apart, this is when things can get very onerous. Bird feeders range from the very simple to the ridiculously complicated when it comes to taking them apart. When buying new feeders, have a good look at how they are put together.

a) How many fiddly screws do you have to undo to get them apart?  It’s not easy to do this when your  hands are freezing and, if they are difficult to take apart and put back together, you’ll be less likely to clean them. Also, trust me, you’ll end up dropping a vital screw on the ground and it will mysteriously disappear. I have one small feeder that comes apart by removing just one screw. Simple and beautifully designed.

b) Ask yourself how easy it could be to actually damage the feeder by taking it apart. Sounds silly but there are feeders out that require the use of pliers or mole grips to get them apart. Once you’ve done this they look scratched and the protective coating is easily removed from the metal.

My feeder that is held together by 1 small screw
This feeder from Nature’s Feast allows you to use 3 different types of food. It is very weatherproof but is very difficult, and fiddly, to take apart and is easily damaged.

Metal fat feeder and a hanging bird table for perching birds
A selection of metal feeders including a niger seed feeder (left)

Don’t forget that not all birds can use hanging feeders so make sure that you provide food for birds that like to feed on the ground too. If you see blackbirds and robins trying to balance and take food from your hanging feeders, don’t be amused, be aware that they are doing this out of desperation. All that activity is making them use up valuable energy so give them a hand and put some food on the ground.

We’ll look at what to feed and when to feed in my next blog and you can learn about the common mistakes that people make when feeding birds.

I’ll be spending the day at the Blue Barn in Pool-in-Wharfedale near Leeds on Sunday 16th August to answer questions about birds and feeding birds in your garden. Do come and say hello and you can enter my prize draw to win a free 2 hour birdwatching class, a feeder and some seed.

Here are some garden feeder suppliers

BTO bird care range
CJ Wildbird Foods
The Nuttery     
Little Dicky Bird     
Ernest Charles 
Garden Bird Supplies 
Nature’s Feast 
Living with Birds.
Bird Box          
The Blue Barn  

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