Feeding the birds that visit your home is one of the most rewarding ways to attract and observe wild birds. Starting a feeding hobby will take a little time, an investment in a feeder or two, and food to go in them. The trick to feeding is choosing the right combination of foods and feeders to attract the birds you want to see.
In Maryland, the most productive time to hang up bird feeders is November through April when natural foods aren’t as readily available. During breeding season, over 90% of our songbirds feed their young insects. So, while feeders may still be used by adults, birds really need insects which can be attracted by planting native species.
For a printout of commonly observed feeder birds in Maryland, please check out our PDF here.
What and How to Feed Wild Birds
Bird species have certain tastes when it comes to the food they eat
and how it is presented to them. By tailoring the foods you offer to
your favorite birds, you increase your chances of attracting them.
Seeds for birds are readily available to wild bird lovers. The best
seeds to buy are those that most birds eat. Choices of seed for
birds fall into seven main categories:
Black Oil Sunflower
Black oil sunflower seed is rich in fats and proteins needed by a
variety of birds. Chickadees, doves, finches, goldfinches,
grosbeaks, Northern Cardinals, nuthatches, Pine Siskins, titmice and
woodpeckers all enjoy black oil sunflower seed.
Common Seed Mixes
These mixes attract a variety of non-native birds including European
Starlings, House Sparrows and pigeons. Many of these mixes also
contain a substantial amount of red milo which only a few species of
bird in the southwest eat.
Also known as sunflower hearts, hulled sunflower is chopped up
pieces of sunflower seeds without the coats. Chickadees, Common
Redpolls, Dark-eyed Juncos, doves, finches, goldfinches, grosbeaks,
nuthatches, Pine Siskins, titmice and woodpeckers all like hulled
Nyjer (formerly known as thistle)
Nyjer is an imported seed that comes from African daisies, not
thistles. It is a favorite of Common Redpolls, Dark-eyed Juncos,
doves, finches, goldfinches, Indigo Buntings and Pine Siskins.
Safflower is generally found in higher end bird seed mixes. Northern
Cardinals, Doves, Purple Finches and titmice all forage on safflower
while “feeder hogs” like grackles and starlings tend to avoid it.
Striped sunflower seeds are a favorite of many birds and people.
Chickadees, doves, grosbeaks, Northern Cardinals, nuthatches,
titmice and woodpeckers all eat striped sunflower seed.
White Proso Millet
Both sunflower and millet can be found in mixes or can be fed
separately. Most sparrows prefer millet and are not particular about
where they eat. Dark-eyed Juncos, doves, Indigo Buntings and towhees
also enjoy white millet.
Commercial suet cakes or fresh suet mixed with sunflower and other
seed will make a favored treat for cardinals, woodpeckers,
nuthatches and chickadees. Most commercially available varieties
don't melt in the sun, and the best times to feed suet are in the
fall and winter months. Suet is the fat that surrounds the kidneys
of beef cattle. Many food stores will carry it, if requested. One
word of caution concerning raw suet: it can go rancid in the sun, so
only offer it on cold winter days. If you live in an area with black
bears, then it is best to only offer suet when the black bears are
Oranges, apples, grapes, and fruit cocktails can attract a variety
of bird species to your backyard, including seed eating birds like
tanagers. Only fresh fruit should be offered to birds as many dried
fruits have added sugars that are harmful to birds. Fresh fruit can
be placed on railings, nailed to trees or hung from branches. Be
sure to clean fruit feeders every few days and remove any moldy
fruit that may be left. Orange slices are an excellent attractant
for Baltimore Orioles in the spring, but be careful of ants and
wasps which might also enjoy fruit offerings.
Mealworms might not be so appetizing to us, but to many species of
birds, mealworms are a very tasty meal. Mealworms provide an
excellent source of protein, calcium and vitamins. Bluebirds, in
particular, can really benefit from mealworm supplements in the
winter and during early spring. Mealworms can be offered in special
feeders or on platforms.
Nectar, a sugar solution, is a favorite food of hummingbirds.
Attracting these tiny, colorful birds is a highlight in any bird
lover's experience. Nectar can be bought in packages, or it can be
made at home. To make hummingbird nectar, take one part sugar and
add it to four parts water. Bring the solution to a boil to kill any
potential fungi or bacteria. Be sure to change your nectar solution
and thoroughly clean your nectar feeders every two to three days.
The fungus and bacteria that accumulate in nectar feeders can kill
In Maryland, the most common hummingbird is the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird which often spends the spring and summer here. Occasionally, juvenile ruby-throated hummingbirds and other species will overwinter in Maryland. If you have a hummingbird feeder, then don’t take it down until two weeks after the last hummingbird is seen in late fall.
Types of Feeders
Bird feeders come in lots of shapes and sizes and are fashioned to
supply foods that attract particular groups of birds. If you are a
home carpenter or craftsperson, then you can make bird feeders out
of a variety of materials from wood to old plastic soda bottles.
Hopper feeders are designed to look like houses. They typically have
4 walls and a roof to keep seeds clean and dry. Hopper feeders can
come in elaborate designs and can have squirrel-proofing features.
Hopper feeders are generally designed to hold larger seeds and feed
Platform feeders can be easily made from treated plywood with raised
edges and will draw in those birds that feed on the ground some or
all of the time. Cardinals, blue jays, juncos, sparrows and mourning
doves will flock to a mixture of millet, sunflower, cracked corn,
and peanut kernels in this type of feeder.
Platform feeders can also
be used to offer mealworms and fruit to birds. Platform feeders are
best used when mounted on poles that have predator baffles on them.
Tube feeders are especially attractive to smaller birds and are
comprised of a plastic or glass tube filled with seeds. Tube bird
feeders are designed to keep seed clean and dry. Tube feeders with
metal feeding ports are better for areas with more squirrel traffic.
Some types of tube feeders are specially designed to hold small
seeds like Nyjer seeds.
Bird Feeding Tips
To attract a variety of birds, use a variety of foods throughout
Plant native trees, shrubs and flowers for additional food and
Be sure to clean your feeders once every two weeks or
more often if seeds get wet or if sick birds visit your feeder. Dirty
feeders can spread disease, and spoiled seed can make birds sick.
To prevent raptors from eating your feeder birds, be sure to place
feeders near shrubs or cover except if the feeders are on or near
To prevent squirrels, put feeders on poles away from your house or
from trees, with guards on the poles to prevent the squirrels from
accessing the seed. If squirrels become a real problem for you, then
stop feeding the birds for awhile.
To reduce fighting among birds at your feeders, add more feeders.
Adding feeders can also help reduce the spread of disease by
dispersing, instead of concentrating, the number of birds.
Avoid feeding bread or other table scraps to birds or other
wildlife. These foods can spoil quickly and grow bacteria and mold
which can harm or even kill songbirds. Bread is also similar to
“junk food” for birds and does not provide the proper nutrition.
Salted and/or sugared foods can be dangerous for small birds.
Ground hard-boiled egg shells can provide calcium and grit
essential for birds. Make sure eggs are cooked before providing
shells or bake shells for 20 minutes at 250 degrees to sterilize
Rake up and remove old seed hulls and spilled seed at
least once a week. Select high quality seeds or no waste blends to
reduce the amount of discarded seed. If rodents become a problem, then
it may be best to remove bird feeders.
- If you live in an area that has black bears,
then only place feeders out during late fall and winter when bears are
hibernating. Remove bird feeders in the spring. If you continue to feed
birds during summer, remove seed, suet, and hummingbird feeders at
night. In the spring and summer, insects are the best food for birds,
Invite Wildlife to Your Backyard!
For Additional Information, Contact:
Wildlife and Heritage Service
580 Taylor Ave, E-1
Annapolis, MD 21401
- Blue Jay, photo by David Kazyak
- A goldfinch enjoys Nyjer seed, photo by Elizabeth Peck
- A Ruby-Throated Hummingbird rests on a branch , photo by Jeff Tome
- Blue Jays and Starlings using a platform feeder in the winter, photo by George Jett