Some Tips For
Safe Bird Feeding

August 30, 2001
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Seeley Lake, Montana

by Ken Wolff,
a semi-domesticated
native of Condon


We begin with the promise we're trying to attract birds, and not attract deer, bears, lions and rodents.

Bird feeders help wild birds the most during winter, and wintertime bird feeding also avoids potential beer conflicts. There is simply no need to supply bird feed during summer. Birds rely on natural native food sources during the spring and summer - and have been doing so for about 100 million years. And actually, many species of primarily seed-eaters switch to an insect diet during spring and summer - a greater source of protein to feed nestlings. Small falcons and small owls rely heavily on insects, mostly moths and grasshoppers, during summer months. If you feed birds during summer, please take down your feeders about Labor Day and not rehang until bears hibernate, say about the first of December. Bears are very active, especially during the fall months, spending most of their waking hours searching for food, and many bear conflicts at bird feeders happen during fall months. December through April is best for feeding birds. It helps the birds most when they need it most; it avoids potential bear problems; plus being cool weather, there is less chance for seed to spoil or mold.

Unless you fence them out, deer are likely to show up around bird feeding areas. If they get no food reward they will not become accustomed to your space and will move along. If deer find spilled sunflower seeds under your feeder today, they will be back tomorrow and will possibly bring along a few relatives, and the things that eat deer.

Feeder designs are pretty much up to you. Roofed-type feeders, tubular feeders, and platform feeders will all work. Different species will utilize different styles of feeders more so than other species. Some birds feed from the ground, gleaners such as juncoes. Some bird species will not attract to feeders of any design. Feeders, regardless of style and design, should be cleaned monthly, washed with a 10 percent bleach solution and allowed to dry in the sun. Finches in particular are highly susceptible to diseases spread via bird feeders, but all flock type birds can spread disease throughout a population and to other species. Should a sick looking bird show up at your feeders, take your feeders down, clean them, and leave down until that particular flock of birds has moved along.

Feeders should be placed away from the house - away from human activity, hung high enough to avoid reaching bears (ten feet), secure from house cats, and hung near trees that allow some cover for feeder birds. Bird feeders work best near deciduous trees. A water source is optional, but water will attract birds more so than will feeders. Spilled seed should be quickly cleaned up. Jays and finches in particular have a habit of spilling lots of seed.

Smaller raptors, especially accipiters, falcons, and owls are known to hang out around bird feeding areas, and will readily cruise by and select one of your feeder birds for it lunch. Appreciate this great natural spectacle. To intervene in a bird eating birds situation is illegal, immoral and unethical. Wild animals eat each other; accept and appreciate. A pygmy owl eating a junco is no different than a robin eating a worm, or a swallow eating a mosquito, or a pine marten eating a tree squirrel. It is supposed to be this way, and designed as such. Federal law prohibits any intervention in the activities of migratory birds. All migratory wild birds are protected by federal law, excepting pigeons (rock doves), starlings and English sparrows. Watching a pygmy owl or a sharp-shinned hawk grab a junco you've been feeding brings new meaning to the phrase "bird feeding."

If you install bird feeders near houses, expect to have some casualties from birds flying into windows. Windows are the number one killer of individual birds in the country, perhaps as many as fifty million annually (domestic house cats are a close second). Placing hawk or owl silhouettes in windows is a waste of money. Something that hangs in front of a window and moves, as like with a breeze, such as windsocks or streams, will help deter window strikes.

What to feed? Overall, the best choice is Montana grown black sunflower seeds. Secondly, just plain old ordinary black sunflower seeds. Least effective and most costly are the pre-packaged assortment of seeds, much of which local birds do not eat. Peanuts are good; thistle seed is good; striped sunflowers are less than good but OK; suet feeders are good. Suet does not do so good during mid-August. Offer suet in the winter time. Huge giant feeders are not good. There can be a tendency to mold or rot, which can cause a fatal respiratory disease in many bird species. Feed an amount that your birds will clean up in a couple of days. The amount of feed you go through will vary according to season and weather conditions.

Making our places more bird-friendly can help more than throwing out a few sunflower seeds every day. Encourage native plants and flowers that benefit birds. Plant deciduous type trees if you can (many do not do well in this locale); leave thickets for cover and safe nesting sites for birds. Provide a water source for birds if you can. The sound of trickling water is a great bird attractant. Do not use any chemical insecticides, redenticides, pesticides, herbicides, or commercial fertilizers. Immediately clean up anti-freeze spills. Do not leave open containers of engine oil or other fluids uncovered.

A couple of worthy off-shoots of feeding birds can be undertaken. Start a journal of what shows up at your feeders and when. Start a list of all species seen on or over your place. (I have about 100 species at my place over 16 years.) Hang up a few bird houses and hope for tree swallows to move in, as they eat a thousand mosquitoes every day.

Put up a couple of bat houses; leave some habitat for snakes; encourage birds - insect and rodent control all free for the inclination, and the planet is a little better off because of you.