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The Best Bird Feeders

After 20 hours researching bird feeders, browsing through hundreds of different options, and talking to five experts (including the man who wrote the National Audubon Society’s guide to bird feeding in North America), we recommend the Droll Yankees 18-Inch Onyx Mixed Seed Tube Bird Feeder with Removable Base ($40) as the best all-around bird feeder for most people. Of all the models we tested, the Onyx was the sturdiest and best-built bird feeder we came across. It has tough metal components that secure tightly to the body of the feeder. The Onyx is also versatile enough to take several different feed types and comes backed by Droll Yankees with a lifetime guarantee against squirrel damage. Most importantly, with features like a removable base for easy cleaning and roomy perches, it has been designed with a bird’s health in mind.

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Last Updated: Two years ago
We've been using the Droll Yankee Onyx and Droll Yankee Finch Magnet for the past six months, and have added some observations we've made after prolonged use.
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Three years ago: We spent 20 hours researching and browsing through hundreds of different bird feeders, consulted five experts, and found that the $40 Droll Yankees 18-Inch Onyx Sunflower Tube is the sturdiest and best-built bird feeder. It’s versatile enough to handle several different feed types, and it has a lifetime guarantee against squirrel damage. Plus, it has a removable base for easy cleaning.
Our Pick
Droll Yankees Onyx
The Onyx was the sturdiest and best-built feeder we tested while still remaining easy to take apart and clean.

If the Onyx Mixed Seed Tube Feeder isn’t available, our runner-up choice is the WBU EcoClean® Large Seed Tube Feeder ($65), which also features a removable base and holds roughly the same amount of feed. It has two extra feed ports, but with a looser top and plastic quick release bottom, it doesn’t feel as sturdy and rugged as the Onyx.

Also Great
Wild Birds Unlimited EcoClean® Large Seed Tube Feeder
The EcoClean has six feed ports, but it’s not quite as sturdy as the Onyx.

In 2011, more than 50 million Americans over the age of 16 reported that they feed wild birds regularly. Because of the hobby’s growing popularity, there are hundreds of bird feeders available in many different configurations. With so many factors to take into account—bird type, feed type, squirrel-foiling options, size, time of year, region, feeder placement—it was a challenge to come up with a single recommendation that would fit everyone’s needs. Because there are a few other use cases outside of our main pick, we’ve got a couple other picks depending on the kind of birdwatching you hope to do. 

If you want to draw finches, we recommend the Droll Yankees Onyx Clever Clean Finch Magnet Feeder ($46). It’s part of the same line as our top pick, but instead of perches, it has diamond-shaped mesh for finches to grab hold of and peck through. 

For a simple nectar feeder, it’s hard to beat the Aspects 367 Hummzinger Ultra Hummingbird Feeder. It’s under $20 and it comes extremely well reviewed. A built-in ant moat keeps critters out. The Hummzinger is made of two plastic halves which come apart easily but are strong enough together to create a solid birdfeeder. The easy disassembly also makes it extremely easy to clean. Reviewers gave it high marks for it’s moat and slim feeder port design which help keep ants and wasps away from the syrup inside. In our tests, the Hummzinger was easy to fill and easy to maintain, it also comes with a lifetime warranty. 

Also Great
Wild Birds Unlimited EcoTough Tail Prop Suet Feeder
Suet cakes mix fat with berries and seeds to help keep birds well-fed in the winter. This one is made with post-consumer recycled plastic and has a tail prop for birds like woodpeckers.

For high calorie winter feeding, we recommend the $29 WBU Eco Tough Suet Feeder w/ Tail Prop. This Wild Birds Unlimited feeder is made from strong post-consumer plastic (recycled milk jugs). While there are cheaper suet feeders available, we liked the Eco Tough’s built in tail-prop, which allows birds like woodpeckers to feed in a more natural manner.

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Why you should trust us

I once spent 6 months living in a tent in a tree in Hawaii feeding birds from commercial and homemade bird feeders. On top of that, I have spent years cleaning, filling and watching my parent’s own feeders in Upstate New York. But that wouldn’t necessarily make me an expert.

The world of ornithology is huge; to really understand this topic I spoke with as many experts as possible. Most notably: Dr. Stephen W Kress, Director of the Seabird Restoration Program and Vice President for the Bird Conservation of the National Audubon Society and author of several books on birding, including The National Audubon Society’s Birder’s Handbook and The National Audubon Society’s Bird Garden; Dr. Emma Greig of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Project Leader for Cornell’s massive Citizen Science FeederWatch program, which collects and studies survey data of birds that visit backyard feeders across North America; Liz Gordon, head of the Birders’ Exchange for the American Birding Association; and Nancy Castillo, lifelong birding enthusiast and writer of The Zen Birdfeeder blog as well as a Wild Birds Unlimited franchise holder.

Because the world of bird feeding is a relatively small one, the experts are also often the manufacturers themselves. In addition to the experts above, I conducted several in-depth conversations with Christen Brewer, Designer & Marketing Coordinator for Droll Yankee, and Margaret Collins, Media Manager for Wild Birds Unlimited in order to get a better understanding of the products themselves.

Who’s this for?

In truth, there is no true “need” to get a dedicated bird feeder. Most of the bells and whistles of actual bird feeding are unnecessary. Many birds can be fed just by laying a bunch of seed on the ground or spreading some homemade bark butter onto a tree and waiting to see who shows up. But if you want to at least try to avoid subsidizing the diet of other animals like squirrels with your expensive sunflower mix, or if you want to keep things a bit tidier in your yard, a bird feeder is what you’re looking for.

Bird feeders can both protect your bird feed and provide birds with an easy source of food during tough winters and long migration periods. They also give people a chance to participate in programs such as the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s FeederWatch, which brings scientists and citizens together in nationwide conservation and tracking efforts. In their recently released Climate Report, bird feeding is also listed by the Audubon Society as one of the bulwarks against bird habitat loss. Most importantly, feeding and viewing a bird can be downright beautiful and restorative, especially when done responsibly.

If you’re just using and filling a cute feeder you picked up at the thrift store, consider upgrading to one of our picks for the birds’ well-being.

How we picked and tested

There is no “best” bird feeder. But there are many ideal bird feeders for different situations and regions.

There is no “best” bird feeder. But there are many ideal bird feeders for different situations and regions. A good bird feeder should be tough enough to withstand four seasons and the tactics of other animals interested in the seed like squirrels. And a good bird feeder should be tight enough to keep seed dry, while also being easy to disassemble, clean, and refill. To attract the greatest variety of birds to your home, it’s best to offer a variety of feeder types with different high-grade feeds.

There is an overwhelming number of general bird feeders of all types and sizes on the market. We knew going into this article that we would never be able to test and look at every single model. Unfortunately, there is very little independent consumer research on bird feeders, despite the popularity of the hobby.

After talking to experts, we decided to look at feeders designed specifically for the four most common types of feed:

  • Seed Feeders – These are the most common and usually come in a tube design with large open ports for medium- to large-sized seeds, or encased in a wire mesh cage or sock for nyjer (thistle) seed. The tube shape allows the most flexibility for the type of feed, while also attracting the widest variety of birds to a single feeder. Sunflower seed tube feeders are very popular and usually come with 4-6 perches.  “Black oil sunflower seeds attract more kinds of birds than any other single food,” said Steve Kress, Vice President of Bird Conservation for the National Audubon Society and author of National Audubon Society North American Birdfeeder Guide.
  • Nectar Feeders – These feeders are often red-colored and used primarily to attract hummingbirds. The glass or plastic reservoirs have small built-in ports to provide access to simple syrup. Because sweet nectar is also attractive to bugs, it’s important to be aware of bees and ants when considering the design and placement of your nectar feeder. Some nectar feeders come with helpful ant moats and bee guards.
  • Suet Feeders – Suet is often made from rendered animal fat and can be an important source of calories for accelerated avian metabolisms. It can also be produced at home. However, most store-bought bird feed suet is perfectly suitable and often comes formulated with extra ingredients such as seeds, insects, and dry fruit. There are also melt-resistant recipes for use in summer. Suet feeders are often the simplest of all feeders, with just a metal cage for the food.
  • Fruit/Berry Feeders – These are also referred to as tray feeders. Fresh and dried fruits and berries are laid out in a covered receptacle or tray for birds such as orioles to land on and enjoy. Like the suet feeders, fruit and berry feeders require minimal maintenance but aren’t protected from precipitation.
Our experts overwhelmingly recommended the sunflower seed tube feeder for most beginners.

Our experts overwhelmingly recommended the sunflower seed tube feeder for most beginners. First invented by Droll Yankees in 1969, tube feeders are usually a plastic or acrylic tube capped on either end by either a tough plastic or metal base and lid. They’re robust and fairly easy to maintain.

Nancy Castillo, a member of the American Birding Association and longtime owner of a Wild Birds Unlimited franchise, said, “A tube feeder is compact, it keeps food safe in bad weather, and can hold different blends for different birds. And it can be easily cleaned if there is a removable base. You’re going to enjoy the hobby more if your bird feeder is easy to maintain.”

Bird feeders need to be kept tidy in order to minimize bacterial growth, so we looked for models that were easy to clean. A removable base can facilitate regular cleaning. Better models have a cone-shaped bottom that feeds the last seeds to the lowest feeder ports so that the birds can clean out a feeder themselves.

Top models will have smooth metal components lining any openings (such as the feeder ports) both to protect birds and to thwart squirrels. Likewise, a well-fitting, secure lid can keep squirrels and rodents from gnawing their way into the feeder or lifting the lid from the feeder itself.

Most agreed that the simpler a bird feeder was to clean, the better it would be to both the birds and the owners.

For our initial testing we talked to experts about cleaning habits, design considerations, and what they looked for in a good bird feeder. Most agreed that the simpler a bird feeder was to clean, the better it would be to both the birds and the owners. (The two most commonly spread diseases are salmonella, which can be spread when seed comes into contact with bird feces, and avian conjunctivitis, which is passed between birds as they rub against the same surfaces.)  The only feature universally recommended by every expert we spoke to was a removable base for easy cleaning.

To try to narrow things down a bit further, we researched the most reputable brands we could while also considering online reviews and hobby blogs. The three brands we focused on were Wild Birds Unlimited, Aspects Brand (who also manufactures some of Wild Birds Unlimited’s exclusive products), and Droll Yankees. These companies were picked for their reputation, quality, and ability to provide verifiable guarantees on their product.

After talking to the experts, we narrowed down the field to the top 10 contenders and called them in to compare build quality. An easy-to-clean bird feeder is a safer bird feeder, and to that end, we filled and cleaned our bird feeders many times each to find the rhythm and flow of that task. We found that our experts were right, having a removable bottom made a huge difference to the ease and enjoyment of this task and probably increased the likelihood that we would take our birdfeeders in from outside and clean them the recommended four times a year.

Additionally we looked at the construction of the bird feeders we tested and considered the overall strength of the components we encountered. The sturdier a bird feeder felt, the higher the marks we gave it. If you’re spending more than $20 on a bird feeder it should last you more than a season; with care, it can last decades.

We also read as many user reviews as possible from company websites to Amazon to see if there were any larger customer concerns that we had missed. We (and our local fauna) will be passively testing our top picks over the course of the year.

Our pick

Our Pick
Droll Yankees Onyx
The Onyx was the sturdiest and best-built feeder we tested while still remaining easy to take apart and clean.

If you only get one bird feeder, get the Droll Yankees 18-Inch Onyx Mixed Seed Tube Bird Feeder with Removable Base. What sets the Onyx feeder apart from the competition is its superior construction. Even compared to its nearest runner-up the WBU Eco-Clean, the Onyx’s individual pieces stood apart for both their strength and rigidity. When it’s all put together and filled with seed, the Onyx was the most solid, rattle-free, tube bird feeder we tested. It’s an important distinction for a product that is essentially a plastic tube with a removable base and cap. What you don’t want, and what we saw in much of the competition, is for these individual pieces to feel loose or flimsy. Loose construction can mean small gaps, which can collect bacteria, dirt, or give purchase for hungry squirrels.

The Onyx’s base is simple to remove, with a secure, half-turn locking mechanism. All the components except for the tube itself are made of metal, and the lid sits very snugly on top of the tube. 18 inches is a great height, allowing the Onyx to hold about 5 cups of seed, which is about a pound more than the step-down 15-inch model can hold.

01birdfeeders

Depending on the type of feed used, the Onyx can attract and support a wide variety of avian species including “cardinals, chickadees, finches, flickers, goldfinches, grackles, grosbeaks, jays, juncos, kinglets, nuthatches, redpolls, siskins, sparrows, starlings, titmice, towhees, woodpeckers and wrens,” according to Droll Yankees. Though this would be true of any tube feeder and depends largely on your area and the type of feed you use. Though it is possible (we’re waiting on further testing) that the the Onyx’s wider perches could be more attractive to medium-sized species like jays and woodpeckers.

If you don’t want to use sunflower seeds, the Onyx is flexible enough to hold different types of feed. The ports of the Onyx are large enough for a mix with small sunflower kernels or larger peanut chunks.

Unique to the Onyx are its four atypical feeder perches, set on two tiers on opposite sides of each other. These perches are not built the way your would customarily imagine, as a stem jutting perpendicularly from the tube feeder itself. Instead, they are aligned horizontally to the feeder port like large soda can tabs. What this does is offer more surface area for larger birds to perch and feed from.

Droll Yankees claims that a parallel perch enables a more natural position. According to their research and observation, the wider flat surface of the horizontal feeding perch allows some larger birds like such as cardinals, sparrows, and doves, to perch head on and eat as they would from the ground. This alignment allows for a more natural feeding movement for groundfeeding bird species, which generally feed in a forward bobbing motion rather than with their head turned at a 90° angle, a position they’re forced into by the traditional perpendicular feeding perch (though they can also feed from that direction as well).

However, one of our experts, Emma Grieg, project leader of the Cornell Ornithology Lab Feeder Watch Program, said that she was, “unaware of any research that quantifies the stress level of forward vs. sideways feeding positions. In the wild, birds feed at all sorts of angles (imagine being on a branch and eating a berry that is on the tip of the branch… imagine hanging onto a thistle stalk and feeding from the seeds at the top of the stalk), so I don’t see any reason to presume that one angle is more ‘stressful’ or more ‘natural’ than another.” 

Okay. So the wider perches may have questionable avian-ergonomic benefits. But the soda-tab design does offer a wider variety of feeding positions for both small and medium sized birds. It’s a bit of a wash in the end. The unique perches aren’t exactly a feature we would use to sell the Onyx without further testing or evidence but they don’t detract from the overall quality either.

Small design considerations make the feeder feel more secure than similar models we brought in. For instance, the lid of the Onyx is has a slightly longer rim, and a small inner ridge helps secure the top snugly to the feeder tube. The bailing wire hanging loop is fixed through the body of the feeder rather than cinched around a through-bar as with other models. And the removable base twists into a locked position, requiring fewer moving parts than the WBU EcoClean.

The Onyx, like almost all Droll Yankee tube feeders, comes equipped with two mounting options: a stainless steel bail wire loop at the top for hanging from a pole-arm or a threaded base mount at the bottom, which can be attached to the Droll Yankee Threaded Pole Adapter. Droll Yankee also makes pole systems that can be configured in a variety of ways.

According to the Droll Yankees website, all of Droll Yankees’s products come with a lifetime warranty against squirrel damage and even against some bear and raccoon damage. However, there are many caveats: “Droll Yankees Lifetime Warranty does not extend to damage through improper use, improper cleaning, weather, neglect, abuse, modification, disassembly, or falls.”

On Amazon, Droll Yankees products are almost overwhelmingly highly reviewed for their strength and longevity. This model gets 4.8 stars from a small sampling of 18 reviews.

Flaws but not dealbreakers

The only specific flaw we can see right now is that the perches of the Onyx are not joined together through the body of the tube feeder, as they are with the The Droll Yankees 15-Inch New Generation Sunflower Tube Feeder.

This reduces the profile of the feeding ports and allows for more access when cleaning the inside of the bird feeder. However, it also reduces the overall feeling of rigidity for the model. The effect is that the feeding ports of their cheaper New Generation model feel more secure and stable than the feeding ports of their more expensive model.

It’s a minor detail, and one we’re willing to overlook because of the Onyx’s overall durability and practical design.

Long-term test notes

Since making my initial picks, I’ve had the Droll Yankee Onyx and the Droll Yankee Finch Magnet hanging for most of the California summer now and they’re both doing well.  Both feeders remained sturdy and strong despite being washed and refilled quite a few times.

One thing to note isn’t so much about the the feeders themselves as it is the birds that feed from them. I’ve grown to really enjoy the sound of birds waking me up in the morning. It’s a simple but brilliant pleasure.

But if your feeders hang over a deck or patio, as mine do, then you should know that birds tend to make an incredible mess as they eat. This probably isn’t a concern if the birds are feeding over lawns. Still, the extra time cleaning the patio is, to me, worth the effort for a chirpy and chipper morning.

Runner-up

Also Great
Wild Birds Unlimited EcoClean® Large Seed Tube Feeder
The EcoClean has six feed ports, but it’s not quite as sturdy as the Onyx.

If the Droll Yankees Onyx is sold out, we’d get the WBU EcoClean® Large Seed Tube Feeder. Online, it costs $20 more than the Onyx, though we’re told that it can often be found for less in store at Wild Birds Unlimited franchises. Like the Onyx, the EcoClean’s seed ports are lined in protective metal and the feeder hopper holds roughly the same amount of seed. It also has a removable base for easy cleaning.

This feeder also has six feed ports, two more than the Onyx, though the extra two are located fairly high up the tube and quickly become useless as birds eat their way through the seed. It’s important to note that the perches on this model are orientated in the traditional perpendicular manner and are not covered by the product warranty.

03birdfeeders

The EcoClean feeders incorporate Agion, a silver-based antimicrobial solution, into the material of the feeder. On their site, WBU says it “inhibits the surface growth of damaging bacteria, mold and other microbes.” However, keep in mind that there’s no substitute for regular cleaning. 

Wild Birds Unlimited is a well-respected brand known for selling and producing good-quality bird feeding products. They do have a parts warranty for this product, provided through the product manufacturer, Aspects Brand. Wild Birds Unlimited also extends its own warranty against squirrel damage.

Despite all this, it was the small details that keeps this product a runner-up. Both the lid and the quick-release bottom of the EcoClean felt too insecure when compared the Onyx.

One other thing to consider: This specific model of bird feeder is produced by Aspects Brand for Wild Birds Unlimited and is itself designed around their own model, the Aspects 393 Large Quick-Clean Seed Tube Feeder. For all intents and purposes, they are largely the same product, but the Aspects version doesn’t have embedded Agion material or the extended guarantee against squirrel damage.

The budget pick

If $40 seems like too much of a financial commitment for a single bird feeder, Droll Yankees also makes a nice entry-level model for half the price. The Droll Yankees 15-Inch New Generation Sunflower Tube Feeder still comes with the same lifetime guarantee and sturdy metal ports (though without the horizontal alignment) but lacks a removable base and holds about 1½ cups less seed than our top pick.

04birdfeeders

It’s a well-made feeder, but with a smaller diameter and overall seed capacity than the 18” Onyx, the New Generation will require far more refills every week. And without a removable base, regular maintenance becomes quickly annoying and difficult to do well.

Also great

If you want to see the fullest variety of birds in your outdoor space, you need a few different feeders. If I could have a full quiver of birdfeeders to ensure the widest avian population in my garden, I’d also include these three:

 

The Finch Feeder – The $42 Droll Yankees Onyx Clever Clean Finch Magnet Feeder is part of the same line as our top recommended pick and is very similar. It has the same heavy metal lid and secure twist lock base. The major difference is that the cylinder is made from a diamond-shaped metal mesh cage instead of plastic. This small mesh pattern is meant to mimic the shape of finch beaks, making it easier to feed from. There are many other nyjer seed feeders on the market, but the other typical models usually have small feeder ports and perches. Nyjer feed socks are also another popular and cheap option, but they will need to be replaced far more frequently than an actual feeder, which seems a waste.

Also Great
Wild Birds Unlimited EcoTough Tail Prop Suet Feeder
Suet cakes mix fat with berries and seeds to help keep birds well-fed in the winter. This one is made with post-consumer recycled plastic and has a tail prop for birds like woodpeckers.

The Suet Feeder – The WBU Eco Tough Suet Feeder w/ Tail Prop is sold by the Wild Birds Unlimited brand and is made from recycled milk jugs. The lid doesn’t lock down, so it is easy to take apart and maintain. Unlike this suet cage, the suet feeder also comes with a tail prop for larger birds like woodpeckers, which allows them to brace themselves with their tails as they eat. There are other imitations of this product on the market, but Wild Birds Unlimited has a strong reputation and a lifetime guarantee if their recycled plastic products warp, fade, or crack. They will also offer part replacements if a feeder becomes non-functional due to squirrel damage.

06birdfeeders

The Hummingbird Feeder – The Aspects 367 Hummzinger Ultra Hummingbird Feeder is great. It’s cheap. It comes extremely well reviewed, and according to our own tests, it’s easy to take care of. There is an ant moat, and the feeder ports are small enough to protect the simple syrup feed from bees. Also the perches are spaced properly to allow a hummingbird to feed while resting. The one complaint we’ve read is that in some areas, orioles can overwhelm these nectar feeders.

05birdfeeders

Other models we looked at all seemed very similar in design to Hummzinger, though many online comments suggested that their perches weren’t designed well enough for hummingbirds to both land and eat.

Competition

We called in a few other feeders that we didn’t like as much as our picks.

The Wild Birds Unlimited Ecoclean Mesh Finch Feeder ($55) is part of the same product line as the WBU EcoClean® Large Seed Tube Feeder and the Aspects 393 Large Quick-Clean Seed Tube Feeder, which means it comes with the same issues as both those models. They’re good birdfeeders but slightly less well-built than the Droll Yankees.

The Droll Yankees Finch Feeder ($20) is made of a plastic tube with perches. For finches, a wire cage feeder that allows the birds to feed from any spot is better. This model also lacked a removable base.

The cheap, $10 Perky Pet Window Feeder is well-reviewed on Amazon, but we’re not sure why. We had trouble getting the suction cups to stick well to our window, and the all-plastic construction and open access seemed ripe for squirrel attack.

The $16 Kaytee Finch Station package was probably the best of all “permanent” finch feeding sock stations. However, we preferred the durability of a metal mesh feeder over buying and refilling disposable socks every few weeks.

As we explained earlier, there are hundreds of models from dozens of brands. We focused on a handful of brands recommended by the experts we spoke to for their focus on creating a healthy environment for the birds. Here are a couple of other brands we dismissed:

Brome is the company of choice for squirrelproof bird feeders. They also produce the Eliminator and Fundamentals squirrel-proof models of bird feeders for Wild Birds Unlimited. The experts we talked to all agreed that nothing could be 100% squirrelproof, though, and we couldn’t justify spending extra money on a squirrelproof feeder without guarantee that it will work. Brome products are in a similar price range as Droll Yankees products; for instance this model holds roughly the same amount of seed and also comes with wide perches, but the focus on squirrel protection also prohibits features all recommended by our experts, such as a quick remove base and simple designs built for easy cleaning.

Perky Pet has three other brands under its umbrella, Birdscapes, Avant Garden, and Garden Song, that more or less fit the same profile. These bird feeders seem to be designed with the consumer in mind first and a bird’s health second. Bird feeders like the Perky-Pet Copper Panorama while cheap in price are also cheap in quality without any of the features recommended to us by our experts. Perky Pet products also do not come with the same lifetime guarantees offered by most of their competitors. In the case of bird feeders, the willingness (or unwillingness) to stand behind your product speaks volumes.

Duncraft both sells under license and produces itself a huge variety of bird feeders. In fact, covering this huge variety could almost be an article in itself. They seem to specialize though in producing metal enclosed exclusionary feeders and suet feeders of every variety. The Duncraft Metal Haven Feeder, for instance, holds roughly the same amount of seed as our top pick but is nearly $20 more expensive and designed more specifically to exclude certain birds than it is to be an all around convenient feeder. Admittedly, there are situations when these kind of exclusionary features become important to buyer. But in the end, the products which are sold exclusively by Duncraft seemed too advanced for your average first time buyers or lacked specific features, like the removable bottoms, which we were looking for in our top picks.

A bit about birdfeed

The second most important consideration after buying a bird feeder is what is going to go inside of it. The most recommended feed for bird feeding is overwhelmingly sunflower seed, specifically black oil sunflower seed. Sunflower seeds generally attract the widest variety of birds, and black oil seeds have thin shells, which are easy for all birds to crack open. The kernels of black oil seeds also have a high fat content, which makes them a good winter feed. A striped sunflower seed has a slightly harder shell, which can make them difficult for birds like house sparrows and blackbirds to eat.

Sunflower seeds are also packed both shelled and unshelled. Shelled seeds can be more economical per pound, since you aren’t paying for discarded shell weight, and any scraps on the ground will quickly get eaten. However, without their shells, sunflower seeds can quickly degrade outdoors and breed dangerous bacteria and mold. It’s recommended that if you’re using shelled sunflower seeds that you clear the feed out once every two days, which is a lot of turnover.

“Besides having a feeder that’s simple and easy to clean. Fresh seeds are very important,” said Emma Greig, project leader of the FeederWatch program from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “Old seed and dirty feeders can lead to mold and spread diseases to bird populations, which can become a problem very quickly.”

You’re best off buying a pure seed bag without filler if you can. Inexpensive mixtures can be loaded with filler like golden millet, red millet seed, oats, cracked corn, and flax which if they are ignored by the birds in your area (a very likely outcome with golden and red millet seed) can sit in feeders for too long and become ripe for bacteria growth.

A bit about squirrels and what to do about them (if you can)

Squirrels are the adversaries of bird feeders everywhere. They are inventive and generally as cunning as they are tenacious. If given a chance and enough time they will eat through, shake loose, take apart, or otherwise destroy your birdfeeder while trying to eat the feed inside. There are two meaningful strategies to defend against this perennial menace: appeasement or isolation.

Appeasement comes in the form of feeding the squirrels yourself with something cheaper than bird feed. Ears of corn are common. So are peanuts. As opportunistic feeders, squirrels will eat what food is most easily available. This all works because squirrels are highly territorial. A well-fed squirrel will end up protecting your garden from other squirrels. It’s basically a protection racket.

Isolating your bird feeders is all about good tactics. Squirrels can jump horizontally as high as 8’ from the ground and can leap horizontally approximately 5’ in any direction. So a bird feeder needs to positioned with this in mind. Usually the best setup involves a multi-hook bird feeder pole similar to this, which is located 30’ from your house, keeps your feeders more than 8’ off the ground and is farther than 5’ from any tree limbs (adjusting for the height of the tree limbs as required).

Additionally, if your bird feeder stand isn’t equipped with one, a good squirrel baffle will help protect from squirrels running up the pole from the ground.

Is it right to feed birds at all?

According to the experts we spoke to, it is. They said the benefits of the hobby far outweighed the negatives. But feeding birds is not without controversy. In 2002, James Sterba of The Wall Street Journal wrote a controversial (controversial in the bird feeding world anyway) article which called into question whether feeding birds was the right thing to do at all. He argues that bird feeding has become a $3 billion industry (the most current estimates value it at closer to $4.5 billion), and it might be doing more harm to the environment than it is good.

“Attracting wild birds to feeders spreads disease, aids predators such as house cats, and lures the birds close to houses and roads where tens of millions of them fly into windows and cars,” wrote Sterba. “House cats and hawks treat feeders as fast-food outlets, snatching birds from perches or the ground below.”

His most compelling argument was that bird feeding is promoted for the profit of an industry and inevitably favors one avian population over another.

In letters to The Wall Street Journal, the scientific community pushed back. John W. Fitzpatrick, Ph. D, director of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and president-emeritus of the American Ornithologists’ Union wrote, “Although he quoted figures from the Cornell studies of backyard bird mortality, Mr. Sterba missed two crucial point[s] repeatedly emphasized by the principal author of those studies (Dr. Erica Dunn, now at the Canadian Wildlife Service, and widely considered to be among North America’s leading experts on bird population biology): ‘…bird feeding is not having a broad-scale negative impact on bird populations’ and ‘…bird feeding does not cause mortality to rise above natural levels through exposing birds to unusual danger from window collisions, disease, or predation.’”

Feeding birds does have an effect, though. A study by T. E. Martin in the Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics from 1987 and an article by G. N. Robb, R. A. McDonald, D. E. Chamberlain, and S. Bearhop in the Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment published in 2008 both say that birds supplied with extra food had a greatly enhanced chance for survival in winter, and that this supplementation very often led to improved reproduction rates for laying, hatching, and re-nesting.

Of course, feeding doesn’t have to come from a hanging bird feeder. “As these papers point out, there is much yet to learn about supplemental feeding and its effect on birds,” said Steve Kress, vice president of bird conservation for the National Audubon Society. He notes that plenty of water, migratory, or insect-eating birds won’t come to feeders, but that “the value of feeding should be qualified and seen as a part of a more comprehensive backyard plan that involves planting native plants in ways that mimic natural habitats.”

Emma Grieg, project leader of the Cornell Ornithology Lab Feeder Watch Program, told us, “Most of the studies aren’t really assessing the consequences of large scale winter seed feeding, so it isn’t accurate to say that such feeding practices often enhance reproduction (there aren’t enough studies to say “often”). Honestly, there is no single or simple answer to how winter bird feeding impacts populations: it has the potential to impact different species in different ways, and have both direct or indirect effects on populations.

One important benefit to consider is that feeding birds does bring them into view, and allows us to keep track of their changing populations.  So even if feeding doesn’t affect bird populations, it does allow us to see what is happening to their populations through programs like Project FeederWatch, which can have tremendous benefit. 

“Overall,” concluded Greig, “if you were to list all the pros and potential cons, I would say that our current state of knowledge would lead us to conclude that feeding birds in most locations and in most situations is more beneficial than it is harmful.”

Care and maintenance

Old seed can become a breeding ground for mold and bacteria. “Clean your feeders about once every two weeks, and more often during times of heavy use or wet weather. Wash each feeder thoroughly in hot, soapy water,” says the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.” When refilling the bird feeder, always empty out the seed at the bottom of the tube first. Clean feeders thoroughly with a solution of nine parts water to one part chlorine bleach or a 50/50 solution of white vinegar and water four times a year can reduce the risk of their spreading diseases any further.

As a rule, for the wellbeing of birds, bird feeders should be placed either within three feet of a window, ideally directly on a windowsill, or 30 feet away from a window to avoid window strikes.

While accurately measuring the number of window strikes a year across the country is admittedly difficult, in a study reported on by the Washington Post, ornithologists have estimated that window strikes kill anywhere from 365 million to 988 million birds in the United States every year. This measure puts windows somewhere just behind domesticated cats, who reportedly kill between a 1.3 billion to 4 billion birds a year.

For more on problems and solutions with bird feeding, check out the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s excellent Problems and Solutions site.

Wrapping it up

The solidly built Onyx Mixed Seed Tube Bird Feeder is the best starter bird feeder for most. With some black oil sunflower seeds, it will attract a wide variety of birds to your yard while also being simple enough to clean with ease, which is good for you and for the birds around you. We’ll be long-term testing the Onyx over the course of the next year.

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