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Setting up bird feeders in your back yard is like creating a fast-food restaurant for your avian friends. It won’t be their only meal of the day. But it may well become a regular pit stop in their rounds, providing an additional source of protein for them and daily entertainment for you.

You don’t even need a large yard to get into bird feeding.

Dana Hall, who lives in a condominium complex in Rohnert Park, has four feeders around her unit. She first set them up as a way of entertaining her indoor cats who liked to watch through the window. But she found herself increasingly fascinated by the creatures that flocked to her feeders.

“As I saw the kitty enjoying the birds I started learning more about them, about the different kinds of seeds. And then when I would see a pretty bird, or an unusual bird, I’d want to find out what it is so I would Google and try to figure it out,” she said. “It’s kind of like watching fish. It’s relaxing.”

In order to run a popular birdie diner however, you need to understand a few basics, said Tim Stewart, the owner of Wild Birds Unlimited in Santa Rosa, which specializes in supplies to help winged wildlife.

Different birds require different types of feeders or even different seed. Knowing what kind of birds you want to attract — or what kinds frequent your neighborhood — is an important first step in deciding what feeder to buy and in making sure that you draw the customers you want.

He recommends starting out simple with one of three basic feeders. A tube feeder, a tray feeder or a hopper style that you fill and continuously drops down fresh seed as the birds eat it. All will accommodate most of the birds that might show up in your yard.

Visible to birds

It doesn’t really matter much where you place your feeders. The mainly rule of thumb is to place them in an area where they will be seen. Just like a cafe needs good signage to attract customers, your bird feeder will draw no customers if birds can’t spot it flying by.

“We do recommend that feeders and birdhouses be a minimum of 5 feet off the ground if there is a concern about neighborhood cats, because cats can jump,” Stewart said. And birds will naturally be more attracted to feeding sites where there are trees or bushes nearby to escape to when startled.

There are multiple hanging devices now available, from extension poles with crook arms that are freestanding or can be screwed into the ground, to various hooks and arms that can be attached to fences and posts or sides of buildings. There are also feeders with suction cups to attach to windows, and of course, those with simple hangers to hang in trees or from eaves.

Sunflower or millet

As far as feed goes, most birds will fall into one of two camps — sunflower eaters and millet eaters. There are specialty treats advanced backyard hobbyists can get into, like peanuts for woodpeckers and jays or the energy-packed suet.

But for the beginner, Stewart recommends sticking to sunflower or millet or a combination of both.

“Sunflower seeds would be for smaller perching birds like finches and chickadees and titmice. Millet eaters are what we call ground feeders. With a couple of exceptions, they will be bigger, like doves, pigeons and blackbirds. They want to eat either on the ground or on something flat largely because of their size and what they’re designed to do,” Stewart said.

Birds don’t eat all day. Keep that in mind if you’re missing mealtime. During the rest of the day they may be busy preening or nesting. Birds, Stewart said, will also go to other food sources. Your feeder won’t be their only stop of the day.

“The busiest time for eating is right after sunrise and right before sunset because, unlike us, they don’t have electric lights so they can sit up until midnight.

“They eat a lot of food before they go to bed to give them energy and warmth. And that gets them through the night, which in winter can be 12 hours.

“When they wake up in the morning, the first thing they do is regroup, get together and go to the food source,” Stewart said.

Tube feeder

A good basic feeder is a tube style, equipped with perches and tiny holes for the birds to insert their beaks. This is for smaller birds like finches, chickadees, nuthatches and titmice. They come in a variety of sizes from two-perch tubes to six perches for accommodating a crowd.

An even more versatile style is a tray feeder. This is basically a flat try with a fine screen so rainwater won’t collect on the bottom. This will accommodate small and larger birds, and both sunflower and the millet eaters like doves, juncos, sparrows, jays and blackbirds.

It’s OK to mix the cuisine. Birds will naturally pick out what they like, Stewart said.

There are various accessories available, like add-on trays to capture falling seed, bells to thwart squirrels from above and keep out the rain and baffles that will slide onto poles to provide a barrier to critters like rats and squirrels that might come up from the ground.

Trudi Owings, a bird lover from Santa Rosa, said she moved her birdfeeder further away from the house when a rat scoped it out.

“He would climb right up the corner of the house. He didn’t care if we were in the window looking at him,” said Owings, who was investigating baffles to thwart unwanted guests.

Hopper style

The third style of feeder is a hopper.

“They come in lots of shape and configurations. But it’s anything you fill up that flows out into a trough or dish,” Stewart said. “Those are going to cater to smaller bids that are going for sunflowers.”

To keep the birds returning and healthy, you’ll need to change the seed periodically if it hasn’t been eaten in awhile. Seeds do go bad.

It’s also important to clean your feeders, at least once a month, to control salmonella and other diseases, as well as mold, said Tribby Leveque of the Santa Rosa Bird Rescue Center.

She suggests taking the feeder apart, scrubbing with soap and water and then immersing it in water mixed with 1/10 bleach for 10 minutes. Then let it dry fully either in the air or with a hairdryer before put out again.

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5204. On Twitter @megmcconahey.

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