Tips for Feeding Ground-feeding Birds

Wednesday, October 12, 2022
There are a number of birds you will find feeding on the ground in Ontario in all seasons. In fact, most bird species will feed on the ground when food is available even if it is not their preferred feeding area. There are, however, some birds who specialize in feeding on the ground. There are birds who have special techniques to forage through leaves and debris for seeds (think sparrows & doves), and some who specialize in searching open ground for insects (robins, some woodpecker species). Here is a list of some of the birds you may find feeding on the ground around your backyard feeding stations:
  • Sparrows - White-throated, White-crowned, Fox, Song, House, American Tree, Chipping, Dark-eyed Junco, Eastern Towhee
  • Finches - American Goldfinch, Purple, House, Pine Siskin, Redpoll
  • Northern Cardinals
  • Woodpeckers - Northern Flicker (they love ants!), Red-headed, Pileated
  • American Robin
  • Mourning Dove
  • Blue Jay
  • Common Grackle, Brown-headed Cowbird, European Starling

Dark-eyed Junco on the ground, feeding on millet

How to ground feed safely
When feeding birds on the ground you'll want to consider a couple things: 1) Is it safe for birds to feed on the ground in this area? and, 2) Can I easily clean the area of debris to avoid attracting mice, rats, etc? If you've answered no to either of these questions, then you'll need to either find a safer location to offer food, or avoid it all together. Here are a few other things to ask yourself that can help determine whether or not ground feeding is the way to go in your yard:

  • Do predators frequent this area? (Free-roaming cats, hawks)
  • Is there any cover nearby that birds can quickly retreat to if needed? Shrubs, trees, brush piles, etc?
  • Can the area the food is being offered in be cleaned easily to avoid attracting other wildlife?
  • Am I able to maintain a clean feeding area?
  • Attracting some other wildlife (squirrels, chipmunks) is inevitable no matter how stringent cleaning is.. am I willing to accept this and live harmoniously with them?

Again, if the answer is no to any of these questions you may want to reconsider offering food directly on the ground. But don't fret, even if you've decided ground feeding isn't for you, there are ways to attract ground-feeding bird species to your yard by using the right food and feeders which we'll highlight below.

Northern Cardinal dad feeding his baby on the ground

Maintaining a clean feeding area
Leftover seed can be a major attractant to other wildlife. Maintaining a clean feeding area is not only helps to minimize attracting other wildlife, but it is important for the health of the birds as bacteria can spread through dirty seed debris left on the ground. If you are offering food directly on the ground, be sure to offer small amounts at a time that the birds are likely to consume by the end of the day.  Feeding a high-quality seed blend without fillers can help limit leftovers as well. Filler-filled “wild bird mixes” contain items that backyard birds don’t eat, such as milo, wheat, oats, red millet and other grains. Our backyard birds are not interested in these ingredients, and they scratch them out of a feeder or leave them behind to search for the foods they truly enjoy. In addition to no fillers, consider offering foods without shells. When a bird drops the shell to the ground there is always a little meat left behind. These little bits of food may attract rats and mice. Seed blends such as our WBU No-Mess CD or LM blends contain no shells, reducing the debris that's left on the ground. 

Preferred foods
Most ground-feeding birds you'll have visiting your backyard this time of year (autumn) are looking for small seeds that have dropped to the ground. Naturally those seeds are from native grasses, flowers, shrubs, and trees. Our backyards (hopefully) have those seeds as well, plus any seeds that may spill from bird feeders. Foods that ground-feeders are most attracted to include:
These foods can be offered in loose form sprinkled on the ground or in feeders, and many can be offered in a convenient Seed Cylinder in a cylinder feeder.

* Tip: To attract a wide variety of bird species to your yard, plant more native plants! Native plants provide food, shelter, and a place to raise their families. More native plants = more birds!

Fox Sparrow feeding from Modern Rustic Catch-a-Seed Tray

Preferred feeders
If you've decided offering food directly on the ground is a no-go, you can still attract ground-feeding species to your yard by selecting specific feeders that are more comfortable for ground-feeders to use. While not all ground-feeding species will use feeders, some will visit elevated feeders if they feel comfortable doing so - and if the food is good enough. Choose feeders for these birds that have a wider feeding area or large perches. Ground-feeders often times have difficulty gripping small perches and can't use feeders that don't have a more open feeding area. Opt for feeder styles such as hanging trays, catch-trays, hoppers with large perching areas, cylinder feeders with substantial perches, or flythrough feeders like the one pictured below. Using a covered ground feeder such as the EcoTough Ground Flythrough Feeder not only gives the birds the opportunity to feed close to the ground, but it also helps to keep the seed fresh by lifting it off the ground while the roof offers further protection from the elements. In addition to protection from the elements, the attached roof provides the birds with protection from predators.

Eastern Cottontail feeding from EcoTough Ground Flythrough Feeder

When offering food on the ground - or close to it - it's important to remember that you will inevitably attract other hungry critters looking for an easy meal. Following our tips outlined in this blog will help minimize this, but sometimes it's unavoidable. 😉

Happy trails!
- Shayna

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