Bird Buffet

I’ve been considering a bird feeder for a couple of years. The idea started with my neighbor across the way who, after installing hummingbird feeders, waxed poetic about the thrill of their visits. Each time I’ve had the urge to try a feeder, a few moments’ reflection was enough to cool my ardor. Reports of having to manage hummingbird feeders—cleaning them constantly—helped make that decision easy. The fact that during hummingbird season, my yard is awash with black and blue salvia flowers (a hummingbird and bee favorite), cannas, and bee balm also helped dissuade me. My regular hummingbird visitors, Jack (underside bright yellowish-green) and Jill (underside tan-ish taupe), drop by daily all season. Their visits helped convince me that the yard was already a hummingbird feeder, so there was no need to add another one that required constant care.

Feeding other birds seemed more manageable, so I began to consider that possibility. Robins seem happy enough just showing up when I turn on the sprinklers every few days in summer. They also like the birdbath. And over the last few years, two robin families have made homes on our drains and eaves. A family of doves is currently reusing a nest site two feet from a window at the rear of the house, while just above the front porch is a family of house finches. With so many birds choosing to live with us, the desire to put up a feeder has been rekindled. Well-intentioned and very naive, I made the mistake of trying to buy a bird feeder on Amazon.

Well, the short version of this story is that there are too many types of bird feeders. I wanted to offer a little extra food, not become an ornithologist! Advice is plentiful, but after spending hours reading gardening sites and learning about suet, mealworms, seed mixtures, evil squirrels, and feeder architectures, I gave up. If birds have lived their entire existence perfectly well without any human intervention, why should a well-meaning gardener have to obtain a certificate from the local county extension office just to put up a feeder???

Having given up on making sense of bird feeders, I decided to put on my scientist hat and try experimenting to determine whether birds would come on the deck to have a meal. I had leftover raw sunflower seeds and macadamia nuts that I liked to munch on with raisins. So, one day, standing in the kitchen looking out the door, I decided to put a few nuts on the deck railing to see what would happen. I arranged them so I could quickly tell when they had been disturbed. Nothing happened for a couple of days. And then, one day, as I was passing by the kitchen door, a cardinal was picking away at a macadamia nut. It chipped away at it, breaking it into smaller pieces, ate a few, they flew away with the rest. As you might guess, a squirrel ate the sunflower seeds in one sitting.

Chopped walnuts, provided courtesy of my wife, were the next test item. Both the cardinals and the squirrels loved them, and the squirrels quickly became a problem. Oddly, at first, the squirrels would smell the macadamia nuts and move on. But, after maybe a week, they started eating those as well. Now, having decided the birds would show up, I went back to looking at feeders—with the same result—frustration.

Fortunately, in slogging through feeder reviews, I read a review that said something to the effect that squirrels will defeat any feeder design. Hence, the best strategy is to put seeds in feeders that squirrels will not eat, such as safflower seeds. Many reviews had said birds love safflower seeds, especially cardinals. Well, that seemed simple enough, and I knew cardinals would visit. With a simple solution at hand, I bought 10 pounds of safflower seed.

House Finch

Since I had given up on buying the “right” feeder, I still had nothing to hold the seeds. After a bit of thought (almost none, actually), I wiped off a small side table that always stays on the deck. It was going to be my feeding test site. I placed a palm-full of safflower seed on one side and an unused Arlo camera on the other to see what would happen. Success!

Happily, my little piles of safflower seeds get plenty of visitors. So far, there is a family of cardinals: an adult male, an immature male, and a female. After the cardinals, titmice, chickadees, doves, and houses finches discovered the buffet. Every morning and afternoon, there is a steady stream of visitors getting their pictures taken. And as the reviews said, the squirrels sniff the safflower seeds and move on.

Now, I’m trying to figure out how to set up a film camera to get portraits of my guests—which is more challenging than imagined. The squirrels that come on the deck are bold enough to look at me through the kitchen door and keep eating—even when I tap loudly on the window. I suppose they know that I’m no threat as long as the door is closed. The doves are also more laid back. They come in pairs and linger–sometimes napping. They look at me through the door and go back to whatever they are doing. I suppose they are used to seeing my wife and me through the window close to their nest.

Aside from the doves, the other birds are very skittish.  For a while, they would stay just long enough to grab a seed, then leave. However, over the last month, cardinals, chickadees, and house finches have begun to eat leisurely, and only the titmice eat and run.  Even so,  the slightest movement on my part still frightens all of them away. But, ever the scientist, I keep moving the table closer to the door, so they get used to seeing me. It seems to be working–a chickadee paused and checked me out through the door. Sweet!!!


  1. In order to attract birds you need to place the feeder in a location that has a quick escape to a tree as you have learned birds are skittish. I have three in my backyard. One for seed and two for suet and there is a tree within 8 feet of them. The suet attracts the most species as compared to the seed. Birds zip in for a bite of suet and then zip right out to the tree to clean their beak. Seed get three types while my woodpecker suet gets 8 types.

    1. Author

      Hi,thanks for the comment!

      Perhaps one day I will put up a feeder somewhere in the yard. But, as it is, the birds eat all the seed put out everyday from the table. Plus, I want them to get used to seeing me.

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