Nothing adds pleasure to your outside spaces like birds. You can easily attract wild birds to your garden with the right food and feeders. If you have room for a bird bath, you'll be able to attract wild birds like a ninja!
If want more feathery action but you’re not sure how to attract wild birds to your garden, read on.
It’s especially easy to attract wild birds to your yard in winter when natural food and water are unpredictable.
With a good field guide in hand and a bit of strategy, it won’t be long before you’ve got plenty of feathered friends and know them all by name!
Related: How to Use a Bird Identification Guide
Related: Best birdwatching tips
See also: Shocking bird loss since 1970
Which birds will you see?
You’ll only be able to attract wild birds that actually live or pass through your area. Why? Because birds are highly specialized creatures that can usually live only in areas that suit their needs very closely. That’s why you won’t find parrots in the high north or puffins in the hot south – there’s just too big a mismatch between local conditions and those birds’ specific needs.
So the first thing you need to do is find out what kind of birds are available for backyard birding.
Bird hunting on the Web
Wikipedia has an extensive browsable List of Birds by Region that can help you figure out what birds to look for in your area. Scroll down the List page to find your region, then click for an excellent list of birds that can be found in various habitats near you.
The list is organized by categories created by the American Ornithological Society and includes only birds with with self-maintaining wild native populations.
Thus, if you live in the San Francisco area, you won’t find a page for the famous wild parrots of Telegraph Hill because those birds are not native to northern California.
The List of Birds by Region includes many different kinds of birds such as water and shore birds, predatory birds, owls, pigeons and more. But to attract wild birds to your backyard you’ll want to look mainly for the “Passeriformes” or perching birds as these are the ones that come to bird feeders.
Each category, such as “Jays, crows, magpies and ravens” features a sample photo with brief general information, followed by a list of individual birds. Common names are followed by scientific name and an abbreviation for Conservation Status – “endangered” etc. (Abbreviations are explained at the top of the page.)
Click on the individual bird species and you’ll be taken to a page with more detailed information. Since Wikipedia is created entirely by volunteers, the amount of information may be quite varied. For some birds, like the black capped chickadee, you’ll find extensive notes on habitat, diet, breeding, sounds and even pecking order. For other birds, like Cassin’s vireo, you may find only a couple of paragraphs of basic information plus links to authoritative resources.
Project FeederWatch (PFW) is a winter survey of feeder birds operated by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada.
Although its main purpose is to count “birds that visit feeders at backyards, nature centers, community areas, and other feeding areas in North America,” PFW has compiled a wonderful directory of detailed information on around 100 common feeder birds. I especially like specific information on the types of feed and feeders that will attract each wild bird. The sample image here shows the basic page for the Black-capped Chickadee.
For even more information about these birds, there's a text link shown at the bottom left of the image. In this case, you'd be sent here.
This resource gives you all you need to know to attract wild birds.
Best foods to attract wild birds
Now that you know which birds you can attract, it's time to think about wild bird food and bird feeders.
We don't recommend buying generic wild bird seed at the supermarket because it is often heavy on seeds that feeder birds just don't eat, such as oats and red millet.
According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the best-loved backyard bird feeder seed is the high-energy black oil sunflower seed. In fact many birds will flick other seeds out of the bird feeder to get at the sunflower seeds! (This not only wastes your money but could attract rats, mice and other pests.)
Inexpensive millet or white proso millet is another good choice, especially if you want to attract ground feeding birds like towhees, juncos, buntings, thrushes and more.
Nyjer seed, often called thistle seed, is a great choice for attracting finches and goldfinches, but don't buy it in large quantities because they're picky eaters and nyjer goes stale pretty quickly.
And if you love watching the antics of jays and crow, toss out a few peanuts (shelled or unshelled) and watch as the circus rolls in!
Best feeders to attract wild birds
Different birds have different feeding habits and preferred foods, so you'll want a variety of feeder types to attract the most wild birds. Here's a quick rundown of the most common types, along with links to more information here on Joy of Birdwatching and also on Amazon.com. (We may receive a small commission if you purchase something through one of our links.)
Hummingbird feeders – these are glass or plastic tubes with ports on the bottom for hummingbirds (and some orioles, woodpeckers and warblers) to sip liquid “nectar” from.
It's best to make your own nectar from sugar and water (easy!) because the red dye in commercial nectar is toxic to these tiny birds. Here's an easy nectar recipe from the Smithsonian's National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute.
Hopper feeders – these may be house shaped and can be made of either wood or plastic. They usually have clear sides and large openings that allow seed to flow out the bottom onto a small tray. Chickadees, finches, jays, titmice, buntings, cardinals and grackles like hopper-type feeders. (Squirrels too.)
Hopper feeders should be cleaned and sanitized monthly and checked often to ensure the contents are still unspoiled.
The ugly truth about squirrel-proof bird feeders
Tube feeders – these are, you guessed it, hanging tubes that offer seeds through feeding ports or the openings in a mesh. Port type feeders usually have small perches for the birds to sit on while feeding.
Mesh or screen feeders are usually used for nyjer (“thistle”) seeds which are very small, thin black seeds that many birds, especially finches and pine siskins, go crazy for!
Large tube feeders will attract wild birds such as sparrows, goldfinches, titmice, chickadees, bushtits, wrens, redpolls, starlings, warblers and gray cardinal-like birds called “Pyrrhuloxia”.
Trays and platforms – these are flat, open surfaces, sometimes roofed, with perhaps a rim for birds to stand on. They attract all kinds of wild birds but also expose the feed to the elements, making spoilage easier.
The best platform bird feeders have mesh bottoms to let water and bird droppings fall through. In addition to crows, chickadees, blue jays, thrushes, towhees, sparrows, starlings, blackbirds and cardinals, this type of feeder may also attract squirrels, deer and other wildlife.
Suet feeders – “suet” bird food is usually a cake of rendered beef fat mixed with various seeds and grains. Suet bird feeders hold the cakes in a wire cage so birds can reach into the enclosure to eat.
Suet attracts wild birds like wrens, chickadees, titmice, jays, nuthatches, jays, woodpeckers and starlings. To discourage starlings and other bully birds, choose suet bird feeders that require the birds to feed upside down.
You can buy suet cakes online, but you can also easily make your own - here are a few easy suet recipes from Almanac.com.
Window bird feeders – these are small plastic cups you can attach to window glass and platform bird feeders that can be hooked onto window frames. These bird feeders will attract smaller birds such as sparrows, chickadees and titmice.
Place them somewhere you can easily reach, as these should be cleaned every day. (Birds usually have to eat while standing on the seeds and may poop on the food.)
Now that you know all about bird feeders and food, adding a birdbath will make your space irresistible to all kinds of birds - even those that don't use bird feeders. Owls, anyone?
Be sure to check out our section on birdbaths!