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Backyard Birding Do's & Don'ts

Diane is a lover of all things beautiful; music, art, antiques and nature. Her guides bring insight to topics she cares passionately about.

Tufted Titmouse

Tufted Titmouse

Tufted Titmouse

Do Backyard Birding Responsibly - Avoid Common Dangers and Mistakes

Backyard birding is one of America's most popular hobbies. Bird lovers fill feeders and place birdhouses in their yard, hoping to attract the winged jewels to their yard. What most people don't realize is that some of the things they are doing could actually be harming the birds they are trying to help. Learn the simple changes you can make to provide a safer, healthier environment for your backyard birds.

Brown-Headed Cowbird

Brown-Headed Cowbird

Brown-Headed Cowbird

Bird Seed

Do's and Don'ts on Feeding the Birds


Commercial wild bird seed mixes contain up to 70% fillers. Most of that filler is in the form of millet, both red and white. Millet is the single most dangerous thing you can put in your yard. It is a favorite food of predatory birds that can seriously damage the population of our native songbirds. Millet is the favorite food of Brown-Headed Cowbirds and European House Sparrows.

Brown-Headed Cowbirds are nest parasites. They lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, like finches or cardinals, and then leave the egg to be raised by the unsuspecting songbird. . The Brown-Headed Cowbird baby will hatch and then push all other eggs or baby birds out of the nest to die. The songbirds raise the Cowbird as if it were their own, never suspecting that it is actually the murderer of their own children. Brown-Headed Cowbirds have been a major source of the decline of songbirds in North America.

European House Sparrows are murderers, plain and simple. They are very aggressive and seem to have a vendetta against Bluebirds in particular. They will take over a Bluebird nest, killing the babies and the mother sitting on them, and then will build their own nest right over the top of their corpses. This has actually happened in our own backyard. We are now at war with these stupid, non-native pests. The simplest way to keep them out of your yard is to only use birdseed that does not contain millet.


Black Oil Sunflower Seed it the single best seed you can provide to your backyard birds. It is a favorite of most all of our songbirds and pest birds either don't like it, or can't open the seeds so they don't eat it. When we switched to providing all Black Oil Sunflower seeds, the Cowbirds disappeared from our property and the European Sparrow's visits to our yard were greatly reduced. Other seeds that will attract songbirds and deter pest birds are; Black Thistle (Niger) Seed for finches and Safflower Seed for other birds..

Tree Swallow in Our Next Box

Tree Swallow who regularly nests in our bird house

Tree Swallow who regularly nests in our bird house

Bird Houses

Do you have the right bird house to keep your birds safe?


Every bird has it's own style of nesting and specifications for a bird house. If you don't pay attention to the size of the entrance hole of the bird house, you could be putting your songbirds in danger. If the hole is too large, it will allow marauding birds like European Starlings and European House Sparrows access to the nest and babies of songbirds. Both of these birds will kill any birds nesting in a bird house and take over the nest.


Cavity nesting birds, like Bluebirds, Chickadees, Tree Swallows, Downy Woodpeckers and Wrens are the most vulnerable to aggressive pest birds. Make sure you either buy an approved bird house built especially to the specifications of one of these birds, or build one with the appropriately sized entrance hole. Entrance hole specifications for desired birds are as follows...

Bluebirds, Tree Swallows and Downy Woodpeckers - 1.5" to 1.75" diameter

Chickadees and Wrens - 1" to 1.5"

If you find that a pest bird is trying to enlarge the hole in order to gain entrance, glue or screw a metal washer, with the required diameter inner hole, over the entrance. That will stop the pest birds and keep them out of the nest. See "Sparrow Proofing Your Bird House" below for detailed instructions on other methods of keeping House Sparrows out of your bird houses.

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Approved Bird Houses

Use bird houses specifically designed for the birds you are trying to attract.

Our Birdhouse on the Gazebo

Our Gazebo Bird House

Our Gazebo Bird House

Birdhouse Placement

DON'T provide only ONE birdhouse, even in a small yard. This creates unhealthy competition for the nest space.

DO provide two to four birdhouses per acre of property. Place birdhouses at about 20' apart. Birds will tolerate other birds nesting nearby, as long as they are either a different species or the birdhouses far enough apart. Our Bluebirds happily nest hear our Tree Sparrows, the Wrens near the Chickadees. We have four birdhouses and all the birds happily coexist.

DON'T mount birdhouses too low to the ground.

DO place birdhouses at least 6 feet high. Most songbirds like their nests at that height. Some birds prefer them a little higher.

DON'T mount birdhouses near low shrubs and bushes. This provides cover for predators that can pounce on the unsuspecting birds.

DO mount the birdhouse near trees or outbuildings. Birds like to have a high perch near their nests so they can survey the area for hunting and watching for predators.

DO use metal poles for mounting. They are the best protection against predators trying to get at the nest inside.

A Word on Bird Mites

,Bird mites are tiny pests commonly found on birds. They are orgish-red in color after a blood meal, and have eight legs, being part of the arachnid family.

Birdhouses can become infested with them during nesting season, and can migrate into homes and affect people. They can be a real health problem, causing itching, swelling, and possible secondary infections from scratching. To help prevent a home infestation, keep birdhouses away from your house. Discourage nesting under eaves or on walls or under roof tiles.

If you suspect you have an infestation, contact professional extermination services.

Baby Tree Sparrows in Our Birdhouse

7 Baby Tree Sparrows in our Birdhouse. Can you see them all?

7 Baby Tree Sparrows in our Birdhouse. Can you see them all?

Birdhouse Maintenance

To Clean or Not to Clean, That is the Question?

A common misconception is that once you place a birdhouse in your yard, all you have to do is leave it alone and the birds will come.


A dirty birdhouse can become infested with mites, ants and other pests that can put the baby birds health at risk. Birdhouses need to be maintained in order to ensure a healthy environment for the birds. Here is a list of things that we do on a regular basis to keep our birdhouses clean and free of vermin.


1 - Clean out anything that has accumulated over the winter. Birds and other animals often use birdhouses left up for the winter as winter shelter. I have found our birdhouses full of feathers and sometimes a mouse has completely filled the box with milkweed down, creating a warm wintertime apartment. Remove all of this and wipe the inside of the box with a diluted solution of 1 part bleach to 10 parts water.

2 - Inspect the condition of the birdhouse. Check joints to make sure they are tight. Make sure there are no cracks or rot forming in the wood. If there is, you may need to repair it or get a new birdhouse.


Inspect the birdhouse at least once a week. Regular visits to the birdhouse will not disturb the birds or their babies. In fact, your vigilance can save them from insect invasions, health issues or marauding pest birds.

1 - Make sure the babies look healthy and well-fed (full crops, fat tummies). If you find any dead birds (as happens sometimes, sadly) remove the body to keep the nesting environment clean. If the babies look under fed and sickly, there may not be enough food in the area. The parents may abandon the nest. Try offering meal worms to bluebirds or tree swallows. Provide plenty of food for seed eating birds. Don't let the feeder run dry.

2 - Count the babies each time you inspect the box. If any are missing, you may have a nest robber on your hands. If birdhouses are too shallow, crows raccoons, and squirrels (yes squirrels) can get at the babies. You may need to watch the birdhouse for a while to see who is accessing the box. Take measures to protect the babies. If the problem is a pest bird, like a crow, you may need to either modify the entrance so that only a small bird can get near it or adjust the floor of the birdhouse (if adjustable) so that the nest sits deeper in the box. If you don't have a birdhouse with an adjustable bottom, you may need to buy a deeper designed birdhouse, like the Peterson's, or Audubon. If the problem is racoons or squirrels, install a squirrel baffle on the pole, and or move the pole so that the birdhouse cannot be reached from the trees. Squirrels can jump up to 15 feet, so a good distance is 20 feet from the nearest tree..


There is a debate about whether or not to leave the birdhouses up over the winter. Some people (like my husband) feel that the birds don't need them anymore, and the winter will age them faster, so he likes to take them down. I, on the other hand, like to leave them up. I know for a fact that birds in our area use them sometimes for shelter on cold nights during the winter. I've seen bluebirds hopping in and out of them in the dead of winter with snow all around. Even if the birds don't use them, other critters will. I don't begrudge a field mouse a warm place to hole up for the winter.I have won this debate, so now we leave the birdhouses up all winter. Just give it a good cleaning and let it sit from fall until before the first Robins return in spring.

Our Backyard Gazebo

Our gazebo birdhouse

Our gazebo birdhouse

I would love to know if you do or not. Please leave a comment too. If you have birdhouses, are they successful? Do birds use them? What kinds of things to you do to attract the birds to your yard?

My Husband's Gentle Hands

Don't be afraid to handle the babies to check on their health.

Don't be afraid to handle the babies to check on their health.


Common myths about birds

Myth #1 Don't touch the baby birds or the parents will abandon them.

This is a complete falsehood. Birds do not have a strong sense of smell. They can't "smell" your scent of their babies. If a baby falls out of the nest, go ahead and put it back.

Myth #2 Throw away seeds that get bugs in them.

No, no, no! Birds LIKE bug snacks. Let them have buggy seeds. They will love you for it.

Myth #3 Hummingbirds need red nectar or they won't drink at your feeder.

False! Make your own nectar out of plain sugar and water (4 parts water, 1 part sugar) . NEVER use red food color dye, honey, brown sugar or jello.

More Ideas for Backyard Birding

Tips for attracting birds with food plants and easy decorations for your birdhouses.

Have you ever heard of these birding dangers? Did you know about millet or murderous Sparrows?

What do you think?

Diane Cass (author) from New York on April 03, 2015:

Love that story! I'm sure that last one would have died without your intervention. Good job!

Delia on April 03, 2015:

Great subject! Before our feral cat came to live with us we had many wonderful experiences with birds nesting. We came back from a long trip in Europe to find a Robin nested in my potted plant right in front of the patio door. Four eggs started to hatch, three made it out, the fourth struggled to open the egg, so I peeled the shell was stuck to the shell. Being a day late the chick was small and ignored by mom. I moved the chick up in front to be fed to no luck. I found a huge worm and it swallowed it whole, thought it would die...well they all made it. Named them Mattew, Mark, Luck and John ;-)

Jennifer P Tanabe from Red Hook, NY on October 07, 2014:

Didn't know that millet is such a problem - just noticed that our song birds don't eat it! We try to get the better quality bird seed, with a lot of sunflower seeds, and thistle seeds for the finches.

annmackiemiller on October 07, 2014:

I didn't know that about black sunflower seeds, great tip for discouraging the pest birds.

anonymous on May 03, 2013:

Yes but until you experience it you really need the info you provide. I cleared my yard of the wrong seed. These bad birds will bully what u really want away ! Thanks for the info and more on the quality seed helps !

anonymous on July 28, 2012:

I just started a backyard feeding station and this morning our back yard was full of cowbirds and sparrows. It looked like an Alfred Hitchcock movie! I just googled feeders and cowbirds wondering why there were so many and found this article. Had no idea, thanks!

Diane Cass (author) from New York on June 12, 2012:

@anonymous: Those are likely mites. They can be a problem for humans. There is a fact sheet about it put out by the government about it. I will put a link to it on the article.

anonymous on June 12, 2012:

hi, i just rescued a baby bird that fell out of his nest, he looked pretty beat up compared to his siblings. I placed him back in his nest as i was doing that i noticed he had a lot of tiny bugs on him, they were tiny and orange in color. Does any one know if that is normal or is that dangerous to him or me?

livingfrontiers on May 16, 2012:

Yes, we had sparrows with the millet...thanks for informing and sharing!

Diane Cass (author) from New York on May 04, 2012:

@anonymous: It's okay to place a feeder near your birdhouse. We have one only a few feet from our birdhouse and it has never stopped the Bluebirds or the Tree Swallows from nesting there. The cavity nesters tend to be insect eating birds. Since they don't compete with the seed eaters for either food or nest sites, they ignore each other.

anonymous on May 01, 2012:

I just purchased a blue bird house and was wondering if I could hang it up next to my bird feeders. I currently fill the feeders with wild bird seed. Should I start filling the feeders with sunflower seeds or take the feeders down all together. Any feedback will be appreciated. Thanks!

Little Linda Pinda from Florida on April 30, 2012:

I love watching the birds in our backyard. The ducks come up most days looking for food.

anonymous on April 21, 2012:

I live on a lake and we have abundant wildlife. I found useful info here. Will definitely use the feeding tips!

golfspice on April 11, 2012:

Useful and interesting lens. Two nests in the garden at present built by wrens and blackbirds. I can now put off cutting one hedge even longer!

Joan4 on April 03, 2012:

I learned some new important facts about birding - Thank you! We will do better now!

dmboyce on March 11, 2012:

Great lens and very informative. I hate the "pest" birds. Starlings in particular.

anonymous on February 29, 2012:

Great information for caring for birds in the backyard.

Its wonderful to have these residents to cheer our days.

Showpup LM on January 17, 2012:

I learned a lot from this lens. I had been feeding millet in my seed for years. We have an overabundance of cowbirds and bluebirds galore but the bluebird numbers have declined as the cowbirds increased. I knew they were nest parasites but didn't know about the food. Thanks! Gorgeous photos, btw!

NYtoSCimjustme on November 19, 2011:

No, I didn't know this and your page was very enlightening on the subject. Great Job and Thank You from my backyard visitors! :)

gottaloveit2 on June 21, 2011:

I created a birdwatching window for my mom. She loves it. Will apply some of your tips to the feeder.

anonymous on June 21, 2011:

This is a great lens! Well done!

Diane Cass (author) from New York on June 14, 2011:

@whispersoftly: LOL! Doves make one of the most haphazard nests of the bird kingdom. It astounds me that they manage to procreate at all with their messy nests. I love them though. They are so sweet. They are good parents too.

whispersoftly on June 14, 2011:

Nice lens Diane, I have a dove in the Desert Orchid tree on a nest. It is a flat nest and with the wind I don't know how the thing stays there. Looks a lot like a life raft made out of toothpicks. I hope a baby can survive in it. The ravens like to raid the nests around here.

Diane Cass (author) from New York on June 14, 2011:

@KarenHC: You were already doing it right. : ) Good birding to you. : )

Anthony Altorenna from Connecticut on June 14, 2011:

Great tips and good advice for responsible birding.

Tracy Smith from Maryville, TN on June 14, 2011:

Great tips for backyard birds. I have some wonderful birds but had no clue what to feed them.

Karen from U.S. on June 14, 2011:

Great information! We do get house sparrows, but more during some times of the year than others. I haven't been seeing them hanging around recently. We use both the black oiled sunflower seeds and niger, and also peanuts. I had heard that millet is more of a "filler" bird food and that most songbirds don't like it. I didn't know that it attracted the more pesky birds.

Diane Cass (author) from New York on June 13, 2011:

@Frischy: Hooray! A convert! I told myself that if this lens helped one person make changes in the way they manage their backyard birds that it was a success. Yeah! It's a success.

Ann Hinds from So Cal on June 13, 2011:

There is so much more than I thought. Great tips for future reference. Thanks for the lesson.

Frischy from Kentucky, USA on June 13, 2011:

I've been birding for many years and did not know about the millet. It makes perfect sense, and I do have the house sparrows in my yard, so I will take heed. I do not usually buy the mixes because there is a lot of waste, but I do buy suet cakes in winter that might contain that. Thank you for an enlightening lens!

jseven lm on June 13, 2011:

Nice job on this lens about birds. I appreciate the tips about pest birds and all the great pics you posted.

hsschulte on June 13, 2011:

Great tips for taking care of those beautiful birds.

bossypants on June 10, 2011:

Terrific lens! I wish we still had lensrolling capability so I could hook it up with my bird lens! But, I will put in a link module -- just for you!

Diane Cass (author) from New York on June 10, 2011:

@annieangel1: Wow, thank you for the feature and the blessing. Yes, nearly all of the photos are mine. a couple are used by permission. I took up photography a while back and have been busy trying to document the birds in my yard.

annieangel1 on June 10, 2011:

well done, I love the photos are they yours? Angel blessed and featured on my Top Bird Lenses Published in June

Diane Cass (author) from New York on June 09, 2011:

@Virginia Allain: Yes, overheating can be an issue. Things you can do to help are what you already did (drill some holes in the top to ventilate the box. The other is to paint the birdhouse white or off-white.

Virginia Allain from Central Florida on June 09, 2011:

Great photos. We're thrilled that the chickadees returned to the birdhouse after a 2 year absence. I noticed that they swoop right into the opening without landing on the perch. Three years ago, the birdhouse was too hot for them and they were panting at the doorway. We made some small ventilation holes under the overhang of the roof. Hope it works better for them.

Great photos that you've taken for this page.

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