Buying a Bird Feeder

Shown above is a metal bird feeder, made in England, designed to frustrate squirrels. The cage works well to keep out large (that is, adult Eastern gray) squirrels, but the holes are too large to frustrate young gray squirrels, red squirrels, or most large birds. Cover, our celebrity spokesduck, is a little too big, however.

AT ONE TIME, I HAD 17 BIRD FEEDERS. What can I say? Once I also had 10 cats. I used to believe in the principle that if something is worth doing, it's worth doing to excess.

Now that my watchword is moderation, however, at least I do know quite a bit about bird feeders (and cats). Fall is a time when people often start feeding birds (and with good reason, as studies show that access to well-stocked feeders does help birds survive the winter). So here is my advice on how to choose a bird feeder:

1. Get a bird feeder made of heavy-duty plastic and metal. Yes, I know, you love the rustic look of wood. So do I. But, in my reluctant opinion, wooden feeders are often not the most practical choice. First, they can easily be destroyed by squirrels, which can chew right through wood in search of birdseed. Second, in wet weather wood tends to get damp and stay damp. Dampness means mold, and moldy seed is not good for birds. Finally, wooden feeders are hard to clean. In contrast, a good-quality bird feeder made of heavy plastic and metal will resist squirrels, help to keep your seed dry, and be easy to clean.

Among my favorite feeders are the ones made by the well-known company called Droll Yankees. As far as I know they are easy to find all over North America. These tube-shaped feeders are made of high-impact plastic with metal at the top and bottom and around the holes from which the birds get the seeds. They come with a guarantee. They are relatively watertight. You can take them apart for cleaning and even put them through a dishwasher. And they are very reasonably priced, given the quality of the feeders.

2. Buy a feeder that will hold about a pound or two of seed. That amount doesn't have to be precise. The point is that you want to get a feeder big enough so that you don't have to refill it every day, but not so big that the seed will go moldy before the birds have a chance to eat it. For most people, that means a feeder holding a pound or two of seed, like the Droll Yankees' classic A-6 model, the first tube-shaped feeder ever introduced (in 1969) and still the one to beat.

3. Plan to feed squirrels. Most parts of North America today are abundantly supplied with the large, gray, fuzzy-tailed rodents most people think of when they hear the word squirrel. Actually, chances are that what you're seeing is just one type of squirrel--the Eastern gray squirrel, a species that is doing very well, perhaps too well, in many areas where it is not native. If you are lucky enough to have small red squirrels coming to your feeder, consider feeding them, as they are most likely native and may be threatened in your area.

Eastern gray squirrels, on the other hand, are far from threatened; some people even blame them for driving out the smaller red squirrels, although other people think they are being unfairly blamed for changes caused by humans. One thing is certain: Grey squirrels make a full-time job of emptying bird feeders. This infuriates some people, who then spend a lot of time and/or money fighting off the furry marauders. (Often unsuccessfully, I might add.) If you want to keep your bird feeding simple, plan on sharing. If you can't fight 'em ... feed 'em.

4. If you don't want to feed squirrels ... plan on spending extra money. There are good reasons to try not to feed grey squirrels, including the possible impact on native red squirrels, and there are a variety of devices designed to frustrate grey squirrels. But they do tend to be expensive.

Many anti-squirrel devices, called baffles, are designed to prevent squirrels from reaching a bird feeder. These include covers designed to prevent squirrels from reaching bird feeders from above and plates, cones, or drums designed to prevent squirrels from reaching bird feeders from the sides or from below. (Here are various such devices made by Duncraft.) In my experience, sooner or later squirrels usually manage to find a way to get around these devices. (Remember: They are clever, agile animals, and getting into your bird feeder is the only thing they have to do ... all day.)

I think squirrel-resistant feeders usually work better, although not perfectly. (Note that I said squirrel resistant, not squirrel proof.) One of the simpler and more economical versions is a bird feeder in a cage, shown above. The one shown work fairly well on adult grey squirrels, much less well on the young 'uns, who can slip through the bars. For more protection, look for a cage with smaller openings.

Another option is a feeder that is designed to close if a heavy animal such as a squirrel sits on it; these often can be set so that they will frustrate not only squirrels but also larger birds such as blue jays and doves. The best of these models are built like tanks (the better to frustrate the powerful jaws of professional rodents), and priced to match. After getting over sticker shock, I've had good luck with a feeder similar to the Heritage Farms Absolute II Squirrel Proof Feeder, for example.

But there are quite a few different styles, as you can see at the Duncraft website. And (no doubt this is a testimony to the inventiveness of squirrels) new styles are being introduced all the time. The "Yankee Flipper" from Droll Yankees is one such new entry, for example.

Coming soon: Where to put a feeder, and what to put in it.

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