Help! Small birds are eating us out of house and home!

bird feeder with lesser goldfinches

So–we thought it would be a nice idea to get a bird feeder.

We had resisted up ’til now because we figured any bird feeder we got would end up a squirrel feeder. Then we discovered this particular type of feeder, which is enclosed in a fine mesh, and meant to hold tiny seeds, like thistle seeds. This sort of feeder attracts small, seed-eating song birds, like finches, but doesn’t feed the mice and rats and squirrels.*

What could possibly go wrong?

We installed the feeder about a month ago, and were delighted to see house finches and tiny lesser goldfinches come to visit. (So were our indoor kitties, I might add!)

And then more lesser goldfinches came, and more, and more… and still more.

Apparently, lesser goldfinches are “gregarious.”

At this point we are hosting a continuous goldfinch convention from dawn to dusk. They’re cute as the dickens, but they are beginning to cost some serious money, because there’s so many of them as of this week that they are now plowing through a full feeder every day. As I type this, I can hear the squabbling outside the window which starts when the seed levels are low.

Now we have guilt–as well as pocketbook pangs. Have we created a monster? Are the goldfinches now dependent on our feed? Was it wrong to feed them like this in the first place?¬†Are impressionable young goldfinches learning to live on handouts? Are we sparking a goldfinch obesity crisis?

Our yard does have more natural food sources, like native sunflowers and white sage gone to seed. Perhaps we should have left it at that? ( I suspect we’re not going to win any permaculture awards for our feeder.)

Bird people, help!

What are your thoughts on feeders?

Is it okay to leave the feeder empty sometimes? Does that encourage foraging, or is it just not very nice to be random about the filling?

Is there a cheaper alternative to Nyjer ™ seed that finches like? Perhaps something that doesn’t come from Africa? (argh!)

cat watching birds

Buck watching finches, thinking unkind thoughts.

*Seed drops, which could feed rats and mice, but sparrows are on clean-up crew

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25 Comments

  1. My theory: birds are used to food sources that get periodically exhausted, so we don’t need to refill the finch feeder every darn day. Basis: laziness, and remembering a flock of finches that descended on a past neighborhood tree enthusiastically for a few days then departed after presumably stripping it of whatever tasty seeds they were eating.

  2. Well, your question begets another. Do you leave feed permanently for all the animals you care for? Or do you allow them to forage for their own and only feed them once a day?

    If you answered yes, then why would you feel that you have to provide for all wild birds that visit your garden?

    The only “feeder” I leave permanently full is the liquid bird feeder – especially in winter.

  3. Yes, you have created a monster. The more you feed, the more you will have. I stopped feeding finches because of the cost and the HUGE piles of hulls and uneaten seed and the new weeds popping up. I still feed hummingbirds. They go through 4 cups of liquid in 8-12 hours, but I only put it out once a day. I’ve noticed that I can control the hummingbird population based on how much food I put out, so this year I am regulating them. Only one feeder, not three, regardless of how many hover about in the evening.

  4. We had a similar problem a few years ago. Seeds brought birds, that brought cats, that brought coyotes and hawks. It turned into a war zone. We stopped feeding everyone.

  5. I am in Culver City and have the exact same thing happen. My son (almost 3) gets a kick out of all the birds so we fill the feeder once every few months. The seeds are gone in a day or two.

    Do yall think attracting birds to the garden is a good thing? I have seen them eat bugs, but will they start taking out the fruits and veggies as well?

    • Attracting birds to the garden is a very good thing. This is a natural way to control the insect population — and that is what really eats your plants. Well, that and the dratted deer.

  6. I have small hummingbird feeders that are always full from April until about mid-October, and a hanging watering station that stays up until the temperatures fall below freezing. The are also 2 seed feeders and a suet feeder, which are filled probably most of the time, but not always.

    Around here (Ohio) the goldfinches mate and nest in early to mid-July, much later than our other local birds. I put out nyger mixed with a generic seed blend then, until about the middle of September. The goldfinches are under pressure from house finches and their numbers are dropping. Both kinds of finch will eat a variety of seed, but the nyger is the absolute favorite of the goldfinches. I hope this gives them a bit of an edge. For a while I got birdseed that was already shelled. It did prevent the build-up on the deck and ground beneath the feeders, but not enough to justify the extra expense.

    It crossed my mind this summer to locate the bird feeders near or over the compost piles. It’s not at the top of my garden priority list, but I think it might solve some problems and maybe provide a secondary food source via scraps and bugs.

  7. LOL! I am going through the same thing! The seed is costing me a fortune and they empty the feeder everyday. I figured the feeder cost about a buck and a half to fill as there is no place around here with seed for a decent price. I love watching the birds. My cats love watching the birds, but like others have said, I leave it empty sometimes. When it is full they come back; when it is not they eat other things like the fine grass seeds and the seeds on the crape myrtle trees. They will survive and I have to pay my bills. It’s kinda how they get you with those kitty treats. My cat loves them but they are expensive and unnecessary. And I won’t even go into how the price of cat litter keeps climbing. But I am a sucker for the animals.

    • I read elsewhere that a great alternative kitty litter is wood pellets. A 40 lb bag costs under $10 and takes away the smell. It’s just sawdust, but works great. I don’t have cats, but I’ve used it for those emergencies when I have to go in a bucket out in the greenhouse far from facilities. With just #1 it’s completely compostable…

  8. I’ve been the route of birdfeeders, especially when my kids were little. Cost too much, made too much mess, brought mice, cats, etc. Finally decided to grow plants that we’d enjoy and if left to go to seed the birds would too. They liked sunflowers & we liked the acrobatics they performed to get them. The liked the allium seed heads, grasses, poppy seedheads and we loved how they worked to get the pea tendrils.
    A neighbor here in SW FL would throw out a couple of handfuls of in the shell peanuts for the scrub jays, an endangered species that are usually banded for tracking. They became excessively aggressive – landing on her head, flying into the garage when the door opened, squawking for extended periods when there were no more peanuts. She thought it was quite cute until she read that feeding the birds, especially peanuts, disrupted their lifecycle making them dependent on humans and thus less likely to recover and get off the endangered list. Thankfully she quit feeding them.
    I won’t have bird feeders but will provide plants for coverage and food and a water source for the birds. I think they must fend for themselves.

    • Just like all species…if you continue to provide for them when they can do for themselves they will stay dependent and loose the ability and motivation to take care of themselves. Look at any species, especially humans and see if this holds true.
      We stopped feeding our birds when they spread the word about free food and their population at our feeder grew beyond what we could manage. Its nice to be helpful, but its certainly a slippery-slope.

  9. Bird feeders definitely have a big impact on bird population dynamics and migration (and, eventually, bird evolution – this has been documented!). I find it all interesting to consider in addition to thinking over the practical, day-to-day aspects of keeping a bird feeder full. I personally find it way more fun and satisfying to develop habitats (aka gardens, water sources, etc.) than to try and keep feeders full. You should have seen the amazing array of critters I found in my compost heap last week!

  10. Definitely “no” to bird feeders. I’ve even given up the hummingbird feeder, especially when there’s lots of stuff in the garden to slurp on. I’m a lazy gardener and the birds love the all the brassica seeds (kale, broccoli, etc.). My mom’s bird feeder was always a mess, not just birds, but rats, mice, gophers, and weeds everywhere. Since being a homeowner I’ve always had a bird bath and enjoy watching just as many antics with that water source and a lot less mess and rodent involvement (with the water, not the garden, unfortunately, but I live in the country…)

  11. That noise all day would drive me nuts. I have a birdfeeder that I love. When I got my hens, I decided I could not support hens and birds. Hens won because they do give me eggs.

    Since I have heard feeders draw rodents and I have had two rats and apparently at least one mouse, I lost all interest in feeding birds.

    Even when I had a bird feeder and tended it, it got emptied sometimes when I did not notice. I did not rush to refill it. That said, I would do anything to draw cardinals in the winter.

  12. We feed the birds, but only in the winter.We usually buy 2 50lb bags of seed for the season. Last year we went through 3 as it was so cold. I also save the fat drippings all year in the freezer and the birds get that along with any leftover dry cat food.
    Yes I get squirrels and the occasional hawk but I figure it helps more that it hurts…..and it keeps Fergus and Simon(the kitties) entertained and out of trouble

  13. Perhaps if the feeder is going to be empty for a while, remove it. That way the birds won’t spend time checking out an empty feeder. I have a suet feeder that attracts woodpeckers, chickadees, cardinals, sparrows, blue jays, and others. I love watching their antics, and the suet blocks last a long time. I suspended the feeder from our clothesline so that squirrels can’t access it; works well (so far). Our nyjer seed feeder attracts primarily (solely?) goldfinches, but I love them, so it’s okay; I buy a pound of nyjer seed for about $1.80 (CAD) at the local bulk store. Also, our bergamot (monarda) attracts hummingbirds–they (the birds) are amazing to watch!

  14. We only feed in the winter (late fall thru early spring), when there’s not really anything else to eat. We have a mostly empty thistle feeder that the finches pick at occasionally, but there’s plenty for them to eat right now, so we don’t worry about it.

    We feed thistle, suet and (new to us) safflower seed instead of black oil sunflower seed. It took a bit to ‘change’ over the feeders adding in the safflower, but the squirrels, starlings and house sparrows don’t care for it (and we have those in SPADES), so we don’t get cleaned out ASAP when we fill up the feeders over winter.

  15. My husband and I live in Virginia. Needless to say it’s very lush out here. We have fed the birds off and on for years and are rethinking it at this time due to the same problem you are having. My thought is as we garden and fill our yard with natural wildlife edible plants there will be balance. Thus we have decided this year we would stop feeding the birds with the feeders and just plant all kinds of plants that help feed birds as well as other wildlife. Nature is the best solution and we can help wildlife by planting the right plants that help feed wildlife as well as ourselves.

  16. I use a flat feeder stand on a pole. I pour 1 cup of seed into it in the morning and they usually have it cleaned out by 10:00AM. They still fly to it in the afternoons wondering where the seed is, but they can forage elsewhere. Birds won’t starve even if fed their whole lives from a feeder. They will move on to better pickings if you stop feeding them. Wish welfare recipients would do the same.

  17. Thanks to all of you!

    Being bird feeder newbies, I think we expected we’d put up the feeder and a few birds would stop by now and then, and we’d refill it every week or so. We were naive!

    But you know, we already do provide food and habitat for birds in our yard, and we have two bird baths, one front and one in back, so maybe we were doing the right thing all along and shouldn’t have messed with the balance.

    Still, we have the feeder now, and the kitties do love it, so I think I’ll fill the feeder once a week and see what comes of it.

  18. We feed them but I let them go “dry” frequently, too. I filled it the other day and no birds have found them yet. I did, however, observe some finches eating the seeds on some sort of wild fennel-like plant (maybe wild carrot?) and I wondered if those types of plants would be an alternative?

  19. Our finches and chickadees are feeding on the sunflower heads in our gardens. They also like the Echinacea/Coneflower seeds. We enjoy watching the parents bring the young’uns over to teach them how to hang upside down and eat.

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