Bird Watcher's General Store

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Bird Feeder Placement

Dear Bird Folks,

My brother sent me this bird feeder (see photo) for Christmas. I’ve hung it just around the corner from my other feeders and filled it with the same seed that I’ve always used, but the birds aren’t coming to it. Can you tell from my photo if there is something wrong with my new feeder?

–Ted, Marion, MA


Darn it, Ted,

Because your brother didn’t buy your new feeder from me, I wanted to tell you that it was no good and that you should take it on a one-way trip to the nearest recycling center. But after looking at your photo I have to begrudgingly admit that your new feeder looks perfectly fine. I see no reason why it shouldn’t attract plenty of birds. Darn it. It’s not unusual for birds to take a while to warm up to a new feeder. But unlike you, some folks don’t have the patience to wait. They expect instantaneous gratification and are upset when birds don’t arrive immediately. They’re adamant that the feeder is defective and insist I call the company and tell them to redesign their faulty feeder. Of course, I call the company right away…not. Sometimes I think manufacturers should include a small bottle of Valium with each new feeder. Valium would not only chill out these demanding people, but it would undoubtedly help sell more feeders.

Here is why I think birds aren’t coming to your feeder and what you can do about it. Placing your new feeder “just around the corner” from all of your others is problem number one. Why is that, you ask? I’ve never eaten dinner at your house (and you are wise not to have invited me), but I’d bet you always sit in the same seat for dinner. Like us, birds are creatures of habit; they don’t feel a need to look around the corner when they already know where the food is. Birds also like to eat where the action is, and so do we. Let’s say you’re on a road trip, for example, and decide to stop for lunch. You come across two restaurants; one restaurant is filled with people while the other is nearly empty. Which do you choose? Even birds think there is something fishy about a restaurant/feeder without customers.

This leads us to one more hypothetical situation. After lunch you stop at a convenience store for a snack and come across a package of Oreos. Next to the Oreos is something called “Andy’s Cream Filled Cookies.’ Andy might be a swell guy and his cookies may look normal, but why take a chance? You are probably going to go with the Oreos because you know that Oreos are safe to eat and are delicious…as long as there is milk nearby. By placing your new feeder around the corner you are asking the birds to break their feeding habits (eat at a different seat at the dinner table), to eat away from the other birds (the empty restaurant) and to trust a feeder they aren’t familiar with (Andy’s Cookies). Don’t get me wrong; I’m not suggesting you throw away your feeder. (Well, unless you want to buy a new one from me.) Your new feeder is fine, but you’ll need to take a few steps to entice the birds to use it. The first thing to do is to hang this feeder with all of your others (where the action is). Then, stop filling all of your feeders, except the new one. This will force your birds to leave their comfort zone and try something new (or go hungry). Eventually, one brave bird, usually a chickadee, will grab a seed from your new feeder and after that the other birds will surely follow. (And don’t call me Shirley.)

While we are on the topic of feeder placement, here are a few other things to keep in mind. Feeders seem to do better when they are close to shelter (trees and bushes) and not totally out in the open. I also suggest that feeders be placed near the house, where the birds can be seen and appreciated. Last week I waited on a couple who wanted to buy an expensive spotting scope. They needed the scope so they could watch the birds on their feeder, which was on the other side of their yard. I told them to forget the scope and simply move the feeder closer to the house. That was something they hadn’t thought of and suddenly no longer had the need to buy a new spotting scope. (I’m the worst salesperson, ever.)

Here’s one more thought about attracting birds to a feeder. For years customers have complained that noisy Blue Jays and giant crows scare away all of the “good birds.” However, I have a theory that the opposite is true. Based on nothing but my own experiences, I find that if I attract big birds to my yard, the “good birds” will also come. Whenever my feeders have gotten quiet (usually because a hawk has been buzzing the area), I toss out a handful of peanuts (in the shell) and some whole kernel corn. Blue Jays are obsessed with peanuts and crows can’t pass up a meal of whole corn. The smaller birds seem to know that if the area is safe for the wary crows and jays, it’s going to be safe for them as well.

No, Ted, there is nothing wrong with the feeder your brother gave you (even though it was purchased someplace else). By letting your other feeders go empty it will encourage your birds to explore other options (i.e., your new feeder). Now, I have a question for you. Could you send me your brother’s phone number? I’d like to have a discussion with him about his shopping habits.