Bird Watcher's General Store

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Window Feeders Are Fun

Dear Bird Folks,

I’m hoping to buy a gift for my grandchildren. I’d like to get them something that would spark an interest in birds. Do you have any suggestions?

– Warren, Kingston, RI


Of course, I do, Warren,

I’m a retailer. Asking a retailer if he or she has gift suggestions is like asking a dog if he or she wants to go for a walk; the answer is always going to be “yes.” It’s what we do. For the sake of this discussion, I’m going to assume your grandchildren are fairly young, perhaps in elementary school. If they’re teenagers, however, it’s a little trickier. Understanding a teenager’s needs is not easy, even for us. We are retailers, not miracle workers.

My suggestion is to get your grandchildren a bird feeder, specifically a window bird feeder. Nothing grabs a kid’s attention more than seeing wildlife up close. To be sure, there is nothing wrong with having a feeder out in the backyard, but it’s hard for little kids to really appreciate birds at a distance. And to make things even better for you, window feeders are typically cheaper than those other kinds. (Yes, I actually suggested that you spend less money for a gift. It must be the eggnog talking.)

Most window feeders are made of lightweight polycarbonate (clear, tough, plastic) and will easily attach to any window via suction cups. Because birds have a problem with glass (they are prone to hitting it), some folks cringe at the thought of encouraging birds to venture near windows. But in my experience, window feeders actually help prevent window strikes. The feeders break up those deadly mirrored reflections. Speaking of mirrors, some window feeders are coated in a special film, which gives the feeder a “one-way mirror” effect. In theory, this allows us to watch the birds without them seeing us, like in a police lineup. This sounds like a good idea, but it’s not. The film actually fogs our view of the birds, defeating the purpose of having them so close in the first place. Oh sure, a child’s sudden movement may cause the birds to fly away, but eventually he or she will learn how to sneak up to the feeder without spooking the birds. And if there is one thing kids are good at, it’s being sneaky.

When it comes to deciding what to fill the new feeder with, the answer is easy. Sunflower seed is the number one seed to use. I know it’s tempting to buy a mixture of seeds, and you can do it if you want, but just be prepared to find a lot of wasted seeds on the ground below. While choosing the food is easy, deciding where to put this feeder can be a challenge. The obvious choice might be the child’s bedroom, but what if the kid sleeps on the second floor? I can tell you right now, dad won’t want to drag out a ladder every few days, just to fill a birdfeeder. Climbing a ladder to clean the gutters is about all he can handle, and if he’s like me, that only happens every year, or two…or ten. Place the feeder where it can be filled with a minimum amount of effort, but also where it can be seen. Sticking it on a window of the forgotten guest room defeats the purpose of having it in the first place. Finally, the window should have some habitat (trees, bushes, etc.) nearby. A window that overlooks an asphalt parking lot isn’t likely to appeal to many birds, except maybe Thunderbirds or Firebirds.

Window feeders are a great way to see birds, but they have one drawback and that’s squirrels. (Big surprise, right?) The little suction cups can easily hold the birds, but not a chubby squirrel. Sometimes the furry critters will not only eat the seeds, but they’ll also knock the feeder off the window. But there is a workaround. With the aid of a bracket or plant hanger, you can forget the suction cups and hang a more traditional feeder in front of the window. Now the kids can watch both the birds and the squirrels. Your grandchildren might be too young to learn about the birds and bees, but they are never too young to learn about the real facts of life…squirrels.

While I’m a big fan of window feeders, there is one window product that I don’t recommend. A few years ago we were bombarded by TV commercials advertising stick-on-the-window birdhouses. This is a lame product, even by TV standards. Right now you might be thinking: why is a window feeder a good idea, but a window birdhouse a bad one? It’s because eating in public is one thing, but laying eggs is another. When it comes to giving birth, a certain amount of privacy is required, which is why maternity wards aren’t in restaurants. Keep in mind that it can take a while for birds to discover a new feeder. Unlike mammals, most birds don’t locate food by smell; they need to see it. I suggest you toss a bit of seed on the ground below the feeder. This will present a visual target and help draw them in. And yes, doing this will also attract squirrels, but you’ll have to get over that.

I think a window feeder would make a great gift for your grandchildren, Warren. Nothing gets kids more excited than seeing nature up close. If, for whatever reason, you would rather hang a feeder farther out in the yard, that would be okay as well. But in this case, if the kids want to really get a good look at the birds, you’ll also have to buy them a pair of binoculars…and that‘s fine with me, too.