Natural Food and Shelter

Plant Native Plants

Natural plantings provide the same food and shelter which sustained birds for millennia before the arrival of Europeans in North America. To the right is a photo of a warbler hunting insects on a seed head, taken by Audubon member Pat Thomas. Pat teaches a class on Gardening for Birds through Hartley Nature Center.

Keep Brush Piles

Strategically placed brush piles create good hiding places for birds visiting your feeders, as well as for beneficial insects, toads, and frogs.  These can be disguised in summer with a cover of vines such as Clematis, Wild Cucumber, or American bittersweet.  Or they can be screened with plantings of tall grasses and/or flowers. Be aware that predators such as cats can use brush piles or dense plantings as blinds.  Locate bird feeders out of range of a lurking cat’s striking distance, about 10 feet away from hiding spots.

Don’t Remove Dead Trees

Standing dead trees (snags) provide valuable habitat for many species of birds, which use them for foraging, nesting, perching, roosting, and storing food.   Woodpeckers depend on them for insects which live in decaying wood, and will excavate nests in them. Also, chickadees, nuthatches, bluebirds, and owls often reuse the nests abandoned by woodpeckers.  If you don’t have snags, you can import them.

…dead trees are transmuted into living animals, and vice versa.
– Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

Protection from Cats

Biology and wildlife researchers estimate  that cats kill hundreds of millions of birds per year.  Please keep your cats indoors, especially if you have a bird feeding area, otherwise you are simply luring birds to their death.  If you have feral or nuisance cats visiting your feeding  area, you can live trap them humanely and bring them to any of the local shelters, or call animal control to have them picked up during normal business hours.


Birds need water regardless of the season.  Although birds can “drink” snow, it takes metabolic energy for them to convert snow to water.  You can purchase heated birdbaths, or small heating elements to put into existing bird baths, for winter use. Bird baths can be as simple as a shallow plant dish or inverted trash can lid.  They should be cleaned out weekly in winter and twice a week in summer, and the water depth should not be greater than 1 ½ inches. Non-avian species of wildlife will also appreciate a source of water. Containers placed on the ground work well. If you are planning to install a man-made pool or fountain, make sure it has gradually sloping sides so that smaller animals can use it safely.

Bird Feeders

Some birds, like fox sparrows and juncos, prefer to feed on the ground, and will be satisfied with scattered sunflower seeds (see caution note above about cats and other predators).  But to attract the greatest variety of birds, you should have different types of feeders at different heights with at least two or three types of seed. Please Note: As with bird baths, bird feeders should kept clean to avoid the spread of diseases such as conjunctivitis, which commonly strikes house finches. Information on keeping a clean birding station
To prevent window strikes:  feeders should be located 25-30 feet from a window, or else within 1 – 3 feet of a window.  Do not place feeders less than 10 feet away from an area where cats can lie in wait.  Even if feeders are elevated, birds inevitably search on the ground for fallen seed and are vulnerable to attack.
Post-Mounted Table Feeders  These are platforms which allow many birds to feed at once.  You can place table feeders on the ground, but they will quickly be commandeered by squirrels unless stocked with a seed unpalatable to squirrels such as safflower.
Hopper Feeders  These are usually post-mounted, and often resemble small houses.  They have large perches, which attracts birds such as grosbeaks and cardinals who don’t like perching on tube feeders.  They are vulnerable to marauding bears in the summer months.
Tube Feeders  These are hollow cylinders filled with seed, with several feeding windows with perches attached.  They attract smaller birds such as finches, pine siskins, chickadees, and nuthatches.  For summer use, mount them high enough so that bears cannot reach up and pull them down.
Hummingbird Feeders Fill these with a solution of one part white sugar placed in four parts boiling water and stirred to dissolve.  Do not add food coloring.  In hot weather, replace syrup mixture frequently, and clean out feeders with white vinegar to discourage the growth of mold
Window Feeders  These attach to windows with suction cups, and allow you to observe birds closely.  They come in several seed-dispensing styles, as well as suet holders. In the photo below, note the birdscreen covering the large empty space in the middle of the window.  The screens attach to the outside of the window with suction cups.  Birds hitting the window bounce off uninjured.

Bird Food

Store seed in a cool dry place to avoid the growth of mold, which can be fatal to birds.  To prevent mold in bird feeders, check periodically, especially after rain, to make sure there is no build up of damp seed in them.  Clean them with a long-handled bottle brush and dish detergent, rinsing well. Protect seed from rodents and squirrels by storing it in a metal garbage can with a tight-fitting lid.
Black Oil Sunflower Seeds Buy these if you want to store only one type of seed, since the greatest number of bird species favor this variety.  Offer it in both in feeders and scattered on the ground.
Sunflower Seed Hearts  These are shelled sunflower seeds, and are vital to siskins, goldfinches, redpolls, and other birds who have trouble shelling the seeds.
White Proso Millet  A staple for many native sparrows and juncos, it is also eaten by doves, cardinals, goldfinches, purple finches, and pine siskins. Scatter it on the ground and offer it in feeders. (Red proso millet is favored more by birds who reside in our western states.)
Cracked corn  It’s cheap and appeals to doves, sparrows, and juncos, but also to invasive birds such as cowbirds, grackles, and house sparrows.  Thus you may want to limit the quantities you put out if you find too many “undesirable types” at your buffet.
Safflower  Attractive to cardinals, chickadees, nuthatches, and grosbeaks, and detestable to squirrels.  Do not use it in tube feeders, which cardinals can’t use.
Nyjer Thistle Seed Imported from Africa and Asia, this seed is sterilized to prevent germination. It attracts goldfinches, house finches, purple finches, redpolls, and pine siskins.  It must be offered in special tube or “sock” feeders with small openings through which the seed can be extracted.
Mixes Black oil sunflower, White Proso Millet, and Cracked corn often make up standard seed mixes, since birds favor these seeds.   Birds who feed on sunflower seeds will toss the corn and millet to the ground, where the ground feeders will find it.
Suet and Unsalted Peanuts These high-fat foods will attract a wide variety of birds in winter. (Do not feed suet in summer, as it can quickly turn rancid.) Peanuts can be raw or roasted.  Special peanut “chips” can be bought in bulk from seed and feed stores; these are broken rejects from the food industry.  There are special suet and peanut feeders available; also, you can toss peanuts on the ground or make peanut feeders out of mesh onion bags. As a substitute for suet during summer months, you can provide one part peanut butter mixed with five parts corn meal.  Stuff the mixture into holes drilled into a hanging log or the crevices of a pine cone.
Mealworms Many bird species love these; offer them in an escape-proof feeder, such as the bluebird feeder to the left. Mealworms can be purchased and kept for several weeks at temperatures between 40 and 50 degrees. For more information visit Wild Birds Unlimited’s mealworm page.
Fruit Some birds favor fruit over seeds; these include waxwings, bluebirds, robins, and northern mockingbirds.  You can attract them by serving raisins and currants that have been soaked overnight in water on a tray feeder.  Orioles will appreciate halved oranges skewered onto a spike. Many of these birds will appreciate raspberries and fruit left on crabapple trees, as well as berries provided by native shrubs such as blueberries, serviceberries, viburnums, dogwoods, and prunus species.

Urban Birding

Most of us think of birding as an activity we do in forests, fields, marshes, and other natural areas. However, there is plenty of bird life right in front of us in the middle of the city. Urban birding is important, not just because it gets city dwellers connected with wild things, but also because it can motivate people to make their cities more bird- and nature-friendly.


Wild Birds Unlimited, 1709 Mall Dr., Duluth, MN  218-722-5658.  Feeders, baths, food and houses, books and other outdoor nature products, and friendly, knowledgeable sales people.
Wild Birds Unlimited Educational Resource Page. Extensive online information on bird feeders, bird food, and bird houses.
Duluth Feed Seed and Supply, 5092 Howard Gnesen Road, Duluth, MN
218-522-4994. A one-stop place for all of your birding needs plus more!
Links on the art and science of brush piles for birds:
North American Birdfeeder Guide.  Robert Burton and Stephen Kress.  Dorling Kindersley, New York, 2005.
Woodworking for Wildlife: Homes for Birds and Animals. Carrol L. Henderson. Third edition, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, 2010. An excellent guide to building feeders and houses by an award winning wildlife conservationist and native Minnesotan.
Birds at Your Feeder  Erica H. Dunn and Diane L. Tessaglia-Hymes. W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., New York, 1999.
The Audubon Society Guide to Attracting Birds by Stephen W. Kress.  Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY, 2006.
Enjoying Bird Feeding More, by Julie Zickefoose, 1995, Bird Watcher’s Digest Press.  Available from Bird Watcher’s Digest Nature Shop
Much of the information on this page comes from Julie Zickefoose’s booklet, and the Audubon pamphlet Bird Feeding Basics by Stephen W. Kress., Ph.D.