Fun with feeders: setting out a backyard buffet
(published 5-6-04)

Sometimes I look around my garage and basement and wonder: Where did all these feeders and birdbaths and squirrel baffles and poles come from? My dust-gathering “inventory” is a birder’s garage sale just waiting to happen.

If you’re a backyard bird feeder like me, you understand—there’s a trial and error factor that goes with the hobby. We’ve been in our present home for almost seven years, feeding the birds from day one, and only now do I feel like we have all the right pieces in place. Since I enjoy hearing about how other birders entertain their feathered guests, I thought maybe you’d like to hear about my own backyard tactics.

I keep things pretty simple on our tiny plot—three tube-style feeders and one birdbath with a dripper. The feeders are filled with black oil sunflower seeds, shelled peanuts and thistle seed. I think of the sunflower seed feeder as the main course and the other two feeders as side dishes. In my view, if you only have one feeder, it should be filled with black oil sunflower seeds. This will satisfy a wide variety of birds, and cardinals especially.

My peanut feeder is always busy. Yes, the nuts are a little pricey, and far too many of them end up in the bellies of starlings and house sparrows. But without the feeder, I’d miss watching one of my favorite backyard birds, the red-breasted nuthatch. Two kinds of woodpeckers—downy and red-bellied—also enjoy the peanuts and I like having them around, too.

The thistle was discovered by some pine siskins last December and, amazingly, they stayed until the end of April before finally departing for their summer homes in Canada. Now the bright yellow American goldfinches have the feeder all to themselves. For years I’ve been hoping that a common redpoll will stop by for a thistle snack, too. Not yet. Of course, birds come and go during the week and I never see them. I really appreciate when uncommon birds have the good sense to visit my yard on weekends.

One of the nice things about the thistle tube is that squirrels don’t bother it. Not so with the other two feeders, of course. Currently I have the sunflower seed and peanut feeders hanging side by side on a double shepherd’s hook. A metal, cone-shaped baffle is attached to the pole about four feet up from the ground. Only a couple of squirrels have ever defeated it, and both are in the rodent hall of fame.

From early May through September I maintain at least one hummingbird feeder. We don’t see a lot of hummers in the yard but it’s always a treat when we do.

This month there’s a fancy new “specialty” feeder on the Reiter estate. Thinking warm thoughts, I sent away for an oriole feeder in the dead of winter. It’s made of wood and features two spikes for holding orange halves and a built-in cupholder for grape jelly. I’m optimistic that it will attract a few of those flashy Baltimore orioles as advertised. However, part of me knows this was an unnecessary purchase. Here’s why: Last May, in a classic case of beginner’s luck, I had an oriole stop by just four hours after I’d put out some orange halves. It was the first time I’d ever put out oranges, which I attached to the tops of a couple fence posts. Two nails, one orange, one oriole. Simple can be good.

Reiter is a Glen Ellyn, Illinois, resident who became hooked on birding about 10 years ago. He can be reached at

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