Holiday Buying Guide: Bird Feeders That Make Squirrels Twirl

Holiday Buying Guide: Bird Feeders That Make Squirrels Twirl

Rene Ebersole
Published: 12/11/2009

Are you planning on buying a bird feeder for someone special this holiday season? Then you’re probably wondering which type is the best. Truth is serious bird lovers will want to put out a variety of bird feeder styles to provide a banquet for all sorts of different bird species. But you have to start somewhere. And there’s no better place than with a feeder that will be a favorite among the feathered set, rather than this furry party crasher. Straight from the pages of Audubon Magazine, ornithologist Steve Kress reveals his best advice for keeping squirrels at bay and offers how-to tips on five feeders that will help make your holiday shopping decisions a snap.

How do you keep squirrels from ransacking a bird feeder?

Steve Kress: “Avoid hanging feeders from trees and eaves. Place them on isolated poles at least five feet off the ground and as far as possible from your house and nearby trees and tall shrubs, keeping in mind that squirrels can leap as far as six feet. Attach to the feeder pole either an inverted cone with at least a 13-inch diameter, a special squirrel-deterring dish with a 15-inch diameter, or a PVC pipe or stovepipe that's 6 inches in diameter and 18 inches long. Protect feeders suspended from a horizontal wire by threading old records, compact discs, or plastic soda bottles on the wire on each side.”

The myriad of bird feeder styles can be baffling. What is the difference from one to the next?

1. Ground-feeding table
This screen-bottomed tray sits several inches off the ground and is useful for helping to keep grain and bird excrement from coming in contact with each other. Some designs have covers to prevent snow from accumulating over the seed; others are surrounded by wire mesh to keep out squirrels and large birds such as crows and grackles. Place the feeder in an open location, at least 10 feet from the nearest shrub, to give birds a chance to flee in the event of a cat attack. Ground feeders are especially favored by doves, juncos, sparrows, towhees, goldfinches, and cardinals.

2. Sunflower-Seed Tube Feeders
If you are going to put out just one bird feeder, this is the best choice. Be sure to select a model with metal ports around the seed dispensers to protect the feeder from nibbling squirrels and house sparrows. Hang the feeder at least five feet off the ground and position it near a window, where you can enjoy the visitors. These feeders are especially attractive to small birds such as chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, goldfinches, siskins, and purple and house finches.

3. Suet Feeder
Suet is readily eaten by titmice, chickadees, nuthatches, and woodpeckers. In addition to the regular suet-feeder visitors, wrens, creepers, and warblers occasionally pick at these mixes. You can hang suet chunks from a tree in an onion bag or a half-inch hardware-cloth basket, or in a more durable cage feeder like the one shown here. You can also make your own suet pudding and feeder. Suet puddings are made by grinding and melting suet and adding seeds. (There is no evidence that suet puddings are more attractive to birds than chunks of suet.) Pack peanut butter-cornmeal blends (when you mix the peanut butter with cornmeal it not only stretches the expensive peanut butter but also makes this sticky treat easier to swallow) and suet puddings into the crevices of large pinecones or into one-inch-diameter holes drilled into logs. Hang the pinecones and the logs from poles near other feeders, from trees, or from a wire stretched between trees. Avoid feeding suet when temperatures climb into the 80-degree range; it turns rancid and drippy and may damage feathers.

4. Hopper Feeder
Hopper feeders provide dry storage for several pounds of mixed seed, which tumbles forward on demand. Position hopper feeders on a pole about five feet off the ground. Hopper feeders attract all of the species tube feeders attract, as well as such larger birds as jays, grackles, red-winged blackbirds, and cardinals.

5. Thistle Feeder
Especially designed to dispense niger seed, also known as thistle seed -different from the prickly garden weed-these feeders typically have tiny holes that make the seed available only to small-beaked finches such as goldfinches, redpolls, and pine siskins. Thistle-seed-dispensing bags are not recommended, since squirrels can easily tear holes in them and waste this expensive seed. Hang your thistle feeder from a tree or place it on a five-foot pole near other feeders, taking care to protect it from squirrels with a special baffle.

Happy shopping. For more of Steve Kress’s bird feeding tips, read “The Winter Banquet” in Audubon Magazine.