I find it interesting that birds often have preferences for the level where they eat. As well as being interesting, understanding their preferences can also be really helpful in setting up feeding stations for the birds you want to feed.
* House Finches seem to like to be up off the ground as much as possible. They seem to prefer hanging feeders to ground feeders and will usually only eat on the ground below a feeder if that is the only option and even then, they’re more likely to wait in a branch for their turn at a hanging feeder.
* American Goldfinches on the other hand seem to be a little less picky. Yes, they love the nyjer tube feeders and socks but they’ll also show up in platform feeders and on the ground if that is where the food is and when the feeders are already occupied. When a really large Goldfinch flock settles into the yard, they seem to be everywhere, on every feeder, every water source and every tree, bush or flower that contains a possible seed to eat.
* Dark-Eyed Juncos and White-Throated Sparrows, on the other hand, love to eat on the ground. You could have a feeder bursting with food hanging from a tree or a pole, but they’ll be poking around on the ground looking for dropped seed below it to eat. So far, I haven’t seen either of these on any of the feeders other than the really low ground platform feeders. House Sparrows have similar preferences but show up at the tube feeders sometimes too. . . . But just when you think you’ve figured out the pattern, things change. Just today I saw a Junco try out the tube feeder and the hanging platform feeder. When you are hungry, sometimes you go where the food is, even if it isn’t your favorite dining spot right?
* Ruby Throated Hummingbirds seem to love their special hummingbird feeders, which are always hung in the air, as well as feeding from flowers in the yard. These birds will sit on a tree branch but I’ve never seen one on the ground.
* White-Breasted Nuthatches, Tufted Titmouses and Carolina Chickadees all have similar eating styles. While you’ll occasionally see them on the ground, they are more likely to make a quick stop at one of the hanging feeders, grabbing a seed and flying off to a nearby tree to eat it or cache it. They all will take a bite at a suet feeder too, which are typically placed off the ground.
* The Carolina Wrens will beebop around on the ground with the Sparrows and Juncos, poke around on brush piles and will share the ground platform feeders with the Cardinals. Every now and then, they’ll try the tube feeder or hanging platform feeder. They like suet too and seem flexible about suet feeder location, whether against a tree trunk or dangling.
* Downy Woodpeckers and Red-Bellied Woodpeckers like to sidle up to the suet or nut block feeders. They’ll usually fly over to land a few feet above the feeder on a tree trunk, often on the opposite side of the tree. Then they’ll scoot down in little hops until they are beside or just below the feeder where they’ll hunker down to eat for a few minutes. They typically won’t stay long and are easily spooked by other bird activity, but they usually come back fairly quickly too. They’ll stay a bit longer if the suet feeder is just a little removed from busy feeders. The Downy Woodpeckers are fine with suet feeders that are dangling in the air, even when they have to hang at an angle or upside down, but the Red-Bellied Woodpeckers seem to need the security and support of suet feeders that are hanging right up against a tree trunk. (They steady themselves with their stiff tails.)
* Northern Cardinals don’t seem to like the tube feeders all that much, but they love platform feeders, either hanging or standing on the ground, and will use hopper-type feeders as well. They’ll poke around on the ground too, but if there is a spot at one of the platform feeders, they’ll usually go there first.
* Blue Jays, another of the larger backyard regulars, don’t often come to the tube feeders either. They like feeding on the ground, eating peanuts in the shell off the top of the picnic table or deck railing and will sometimes stop in to see what the hanging platform feeder has to offer. When going after peanuts, they usually try to pick the biggest one on offer and take it off to a nearby tree or bush.
* Mourning Doves, being too large for tube feeders, do most of their eating on the ground, although they’ll settle in on low ground platform feeders and hanging platform feeders if that is where they find food.
* Brown-Headed Cowbirds really love white millet (as do the birds in the sparrow family, which includes the Juncos.) Spread millet on the ground and you are likely to get a flock of them, followed by their pals the European Starlings, Common Grackles and Red-Winged Blackbirds, birds that often hang out together in the winter months. These other birds will hang around for the sunflower seed when they arrive in mass. If you don’t want the cowbirds, avoid offering white millet. Cowbirds like to eat on the ground or in platform feeders but are pretty flexible and will go to tube feeders as well. The other birds in this mob have similar preferences but will go to any type of feeder when there is food for them. Starlings particularly love suet and will hunker down on the top of a suet cage feeder for long periods of time to eat and eat and eat. If you don’t want Starlings, using suet feeders that require the bird to hang upside down or at a steep slant can deter them. I’ve also had good luck with just half a block of suet in a dangling suet cage.
* The local hawks, usually a Coopers Hawk or Sharp-Shined Hawk in my yard, although we’ve also had Red-Shouldered and Red-Tailed Hawks visit, of course prefer fly-by eating. They’ll abruptly fly through the bird feeder area, hoping to grab birds that can be caught off guard while eating. They seem to particularly swoop past the hanging platform and tube feeders and the birds waiting their turn for any of the feeders in nearby trees. Birds eating at covered platform feeders or the ground platform feeder under the picnic table don’t tend to be targeted.
* There are also other local yard birds that don’t often come to the feeders but will be attracted to fresh water and to berries found in bushes or trees or that we leave out to tempt them. In my area, these include American Robins and other birds in the thrasher family, crows, warblers, Mockingbirds and Cedar Waxwings. I’ve noticed that the birds in my yard seem to prefer water on the ground to water higher up, although in the winter when most of the water is frozen, birds seem to come to warm unfrozen water, wherever it might be located.
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