Creating Your Own Bird Sanctuary
Birds, so colorful and fascinating, have been called nature’s flying jewels. Every region of North America has dozens of bird species, so wherever you are, you can bring nature closer simply by setting up a bird feeder outside your center's window. Observing birds can be interesting and educational for all ages, and is a great way to generate enthusiasm for further natural world exploration.
Alan M. Beck, ScD, director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond, at Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana, has conducted studies involving bird feeding. He says, "Birds and their interactions with the feeder and each other are very satisfying to watch. They give us a sense of contact with nature that creates psychological joy."
Beck’s bird watching study involved families with children age 7 to 12, but younger children also became interested. Parents reported that children as young as one-and-a-half enjoyed watching birds at the feeder.
Beck’s child subjects learned to identify birds and appreciate nature, while younger children in the group learned even more than older ones; a follow-up interview after the study showed over 80% of participating families reported increased interactions between family members and that children wanted to continue feeding birds.
Observing the comings and goings of birds from a feeder promotes an appreciation of nature, a sense of nurturance, and an understanding of the needs of wild creatures. You can invite colorful feathered guests to visit you and your children by simply offering them food and water.
Locating Your Feeding Station
Choose a spot for feeders that your children can view from a window and that can be easily accessed for tending. The best spots for feeders are in sheltered areas to the south or east of your school or center, so the birds are protected from cold north winds. Birds like to perch near feeders while waiting their turn, so pick a spot near a shrub, tree, fence, or outbuilding.
To keep feathered visitors safe from predatory cats, situate your feeders at least 10 feet from places where Tabby could hide in ambush. Decorate windows near your feeders with stickers or other colorful objects, so birds will see them and avoid crashing into the glass.
What to Feed
Food preferences vary from species to species, though many birds eat mixed diets. Seed blends draw a variety of species, and black-oil sunflower seed is an all-around attractant. Suet, nuts and dried fruit are good high-energy foods appreciated by many types of birds.
The shape of a bird’s beak gives clues to its natural diet. Seed eaters, like finches, grosbeaks, towhees and cardinals, have thick, conical beaks for cracking seed husks. Good foods for these are sunflower and safflower seeds, millet and cracked corn.
Insect eaters have pointed beaks to pull bugs out of hiding. These birds include chickadees, nuthatches, warblers, bluebirds, blackbirds and woodpeckers. Preferred foods for these species are sunflower seeds, suet, shelled nuts and peanut butter.
Hummingbirds are nectar eaters with long, thin beaks for reaching deep into flowers. You can fill a special liquid dispensing feeder for hummers with commercial nectar solution, or make your own by dissolving 1 part table sugar in 4 parts boiled water. Hummingbirds are attracted to red, so a feeder with some red on it will draw them right to it. Commercial nectar is usually tinted red, but don’t add food coloring to homemade sugar solution, because it can make hummingbirds sick.
Your visiting birds will appreciate a shallow clean water source for both drinking and bathing. In freezing temperatures water is difficult for birds to find, so it’s even more important to keep some available. When water freezes, put out fresh, room-temperature water two times a day.
Feeders and Accessories
Prices of feeders vary considerably.
- Hopper Feeders – Plastic or wood, hold various amounts of seeds, which birds access through built-in feeding ports. Trays –Deep edges and screened bottoms keep seed in, but let rainwater escape. Stock with seeds, nuts, and dried fruit. $20-$50.
- Suet Baskets – Wire mesh cages built to hold commercial suet blocks. $4-$20.
- Tube Feeders—Plastic tubes hold seed and have feeding ports and perches sized for small birds. $10-$75.
- Hummingbird Feeders—Hanging jar-like containers, dispense sugar ‘nectar’ through small tubular feed ports. $5-$50.
- Bird Baths—Pedestal base or hanging types, heated or unheated. $25-$150.
- Feeder Poles—Metal rods with hooks to hang feeders. Install by pushing into the ground. $20-$100.
- Baffles—Metal or plastic cones or domes. Place above and below feeders to block squirrels, raccoons, hawks, and cats from accessing food or catching birds. $20 to $40.
- Binoculars—Allow more detailed views. Some may be used without removing eyeglasses. $15 and up.
- Books and Videotapes—Learn about the birds you feed, including migrations, nesting, and songs. $6-$75.
Always wash hands thoroughly after touching feeders or birdbaths.
Clean hummingbird feeders weekly and seed feeders monthly to prevent buildup of mold and bacteria.
To clean your feeders:
- Take down feeders, discard leftover food.
- Scrub with hot soapy water.
- Dip in bleach solution (one part bleach to nine parts water).
- Rinse thoroughly.
- Dry completely before refilling.
- Rinse and refill daily.
- Scrub weekly with stiff brush.
- Disinfect monthly with bleach solution (more often if you notice algae growth).
- Rinse thoroughly, then refill.
Families in Beck’s study received the following materials:
Birds -- A Golden Guide by Herbert S. Zim, Fifty Favorite Birds coloring book by Lisa Bonfort, and a folder of bird charts produced by the National Bird-Feeding Society. There are dozens of other books available on bird identification, to help learn to recognize different species by their colors, size and shape. There are also bird identification videos and audio recordings of bird songs.
Karie Ann Wallace, conservation biologist and member of Champaign County (IL) Audubon Society dispels myths about bird feeding.
Q. Will birds starve if I’m inconsistent with feeding?
A. Wallace says, no, they’ll just find another ‘restaurant.’ If the new source has tastier food than you’re feeding, they may not always promptly return to yours when you do refill.
Q. Are bread crusts, popcorn, and other people-foods good for birds?
A. Wallace suggests limiting feeding to untreated/unprocessed seeds and fruit. "That means no bread," she says, "and popcorn is iffy." Raisins are okay if not sugared. Oranges, peeled and stuck on a branch are good for orioles. Peanuts are okay, but Wallace notes they tend to attract more than birds. She says, "The more people-type the food is, the more likely you’ll get other critters instead of birds."
Q. Is it safe to feed dry, kibbled, dog food to birds?
A. Kibble can be fed, but Wallace doesn’t recommend it. She notes that kibble attracts more aggressive birds, like jays and crows, which may scare off the shyer species. Kibble also attracts rats, raccoons, opossums, coyotes, and stray dogs and cats.
- One-gallon plastic juice jug with flexible plastic handle around the neck below the cap. (Cranberry juice often comes in this type of jug.)
- 16-inch wooden dowel (1/2-inch diameter)
- Aluminum foil pie pan
- Duct Tape
- Utility knife or sharp paring knife
1. Rinse jug, remove cap and label.
2. With knife tip, puncture 1-inch "Xs" on opposite sides of the jug, approximately 2 inches above the bottom.
3. Insert dowel in through one "X" and out the other, so equal lengths extend from opposite sides of the jug.
4. Cut two openings, 3 inches wide by 4 inches high, on opposite sides of the jug about 3/4 inch above the perches.
5. Place jug’s cap in center of aluminum pie pan and trace around it. Using scissors, cut pan from rim to center and remove the traced circle.
6. Slip the cut pie pan around jug’s neck, below plastic handle, and secure with duct tape. Also tape together the cut from pan’s rim to center.
7. Screw cap on.
8. Load jug with seed to just below perches.
9. Hang feeder by its plastic handle from a branch or feeder pole and enjoy flocks of colorful feathered guests!
American Birding Association (Information about wild birds, web links)
P.O. Box 6599
Colorado Springs, CO 80934
National Audubon Society
(Preservation and education)
New York, NY 10003
National Bird-Feeding Society
(To read Dr. Beck’s 10 week bird feeding study originally published in Anthrozoos 14(1) 2001.)