Bird Watcher's General Store

“A Cape Cod Destination Icon For 40 Years”

When Bad Things Happen With Pretty Feeders

Dear Bird Folks,

A really sad thing happened with one of my bird feeders. When I returned home, after being away for a few days, I went out to feed the birds and found a dead titmouse stuck in my favorite feeder. It’s a pretty ceramic feeder that I bought at a craft fair years ago and the birds love it. There has never been a problem until now. I really like this feeder and would hate to throw it away, but I can’t bare the thought of hurting my birds. Any advice? And please don’t yell at me.

– Susan, Bowling Green, KY


Well Susan,

Isn’t this a happy topic? You know, it’s hard to write a fun column about birding when there is a fatality in the opening paragraph. But I won’t yell at you. In football they say that nobody feels worse when a game winning field goal is missed than the kicker. Yelling won’t change the outcome of the game or bring back a dead titmouse. On the other hand, if the thought of being yelled at makes the kicker practice harder, perhaps the next kick won’t be missed. And maybe, if we all take better care of our feeders, then the birds that we attract will be safer. There, that’s the loudest I can yell, in print anyway.

I’ve never been to Bowling Green, so I don’t know what it’s like, but here on Cape Cod a lot of second-home owners come for the weekend. Many of these people fill their bird feeders on Saturday morning, watch the birds for two days, and then leave them until the following weekend. No matter how many times I stress that bird feeders should never be left unattended for long periods, people still do it. Sometimes the weekenders return to a sad scene that is much like the one you found, Susan. Then they come in to yell at me (see, I get yelled at too) and to tell me that the feeder I sold them (which I probably didn’t) killed one of their birds, while they were “away.” I know it sounds odd to think that something as basic as a bird feeder needs to have supervision, but it does.

Feeding birds for entertainment is a fairly new hobby for many of us. My grandparents fed birds on a simple open tray. They would spread food on a tray, the birds came and not a single one ever got stuck. The problem with trays is that the seed wasn’t protected from the weather and, more importantly, there was no money to be made by selling them, because everyone made their own.

So the glass and wooden house-shaped feeders were developed and sold. I think we all remember those attractive, but dysfunctional things. They were impossible to clean. The damp seed would rot, the squirrels chewed huge holes in the wood and if one of those feeders ever fell, the ground would be littered with shards of broken glass, causing serious problems for pets, barefoot children and hippies. The trouble was there were no bird feeder standards. There were no bird feeder Good Housekeeping seals of approval, no Consumer Reports reviews, no product recalls if a feeder fails. Any bonehead could crank out any untested product with little concern for the birds they were attracting.

Then a guy from Rhode Island, Peter Kilham, the founder of Droll Yankees, designed a revolutionary new feeder. It was the tube style feeder that we all know today. The feeder protected the seed from weather. The metal parts kept the squirrels from chewing it and it would come apart for cleaning. New ones come with a plastic baffle inside to keep the seed from going to the bottom where the birds cannot reach it. Peter’s feeder was a huge hit. It not only benefited the birds and the bird feeding industry, but Peter Kilham became one of the first Rhode Islanders to have a major accomplishment and not serve any time in jail.

Today, most feeders are made with the bird’s safety in mind. Unfortunately, some feeders that we find at craft fairs, and many other places, have problems in their design. One of the biggest flaws is that the feeders allow a few seeds to remain at the bottom that the birds can’t reach. Occasionally a bird will try to reach the last little seed and become stuck. The solution of course, if you have such a feeder, is to make sure it is always filled. That way no bird will ever have to stretch for the last bit of food, and people like me will sell more birdseed. I really like that solution.

I wouldn’t dump your feeder just yet. Since you’ve had the feeder for “years” it may have only been a freak accident. Or, perhaps the bird was going through some emotional problems and it entered the feeder knowing it would never leave again. Did you look around for a note? Whatever you decide to do, Susan, please remember to take your feeders in when you go away. Don’t worry, the birds won’t starve or desert you. They won’t even yell at you. That’s my job.