Dec 15, 2021 | Featured in: Watching Backyard Birds, February 2021

Top 10 Hard-to-Get Feeder Birds (And How to Get Them!)

As joyful as it can be to satisfy the taste buds of "the regulars" at our feeders, attracting unusual species can result in a feeling of triumph. Try our tips for luring these "wish" birds to your yard.

Those of us who feed birds regularly are quite familiar with our everyday visitors and with those species that we see only at certain times of year. Then there are those "wish" birds that we rarely (if ever) see at feeders—vagabond northern finches, woodlands-skulking creepers, and treetop-loving warblers, orioles, and tanagers. Why won't they come to our feeders? It would be so cool if they did!

I'm going to tell you how to lure some of these species to your feeders. My advice is just that—I offer no money-back guarantee here (sorry). A bird's foraging habits depend on so many factors—past foraging success, habitat, weather, season, abundance of food, territory, predation pressure—we can't just put out an orange and expect a tanager to come to it a few minutes later—especially in winter (unless you live on the tip of Florida, the Lower Rio Grande Valley, or southeastern Arizona). But the birds are out there, and they are always looking for food, so, who knows? You might get lucky and lure a "wish" bird to your offerings.

1. Brown creepers. Peanut butter, Zick Dough, and suet or bird meal mixes have been known to attract brown creepers. The key is to offer the food on or near the tree bark that is their foraging domain. Smear the stuff on the rough bark of a tree within sight of your viewing window and keep your fingers crossed. Brown creepers can be found across the Lower 48 and even into southern Alaska in winter—wherever there are trees, except far southern Texas and Florida's peninsula.

2. Pine siskins and common and hoary redpolls. These three species are considered northern finches, although siskins are year-round residents in some western states and New England, where they can be regulars at feeders. Their presence at feeders south of the Snow Belt and at lower elevations is irregular at best. Last fall, siskins, sometimes in big flocks, irrupted at feeders throughout the Midwest and East. (An irruption is when birds show up in larger numbers than normal in a region, primarily in fall and winter.) Like goldfinches and house finches, redpolls and siskins are big fans of Nyjer (thistle) seed in thistle feeders or thistle socks. These small finches also relish hulled sunflower seeds. The calls of one siskin or redpoll that has found your feeders will alert passing flocks to join it.

3. Grosbeaks and buntings. Evening grosbeaks are much like the finches except that they prefer sunflower seed, either black-oil or striped. In the fall of 2020, they irrupted in the Midwest and Northeast in numbers not seen in 25 years! In the spring, black-headed and rose-breasted grosbeaks are attracted to sunflower seed, sunflower hearts, and mixed seed at platform and tube feeders. For the buntings, including painted, indigo, and lazuli, mixed seed is an attractive meal, especially during migration, when their energy needs are highest. (Snow bunting, a winter visitor to northern states, is actually a type of sparrow, and unlikely to visit bird feeders, since it is a flocking bird of open areas, including fields and beaches.)

4. Bluebirds. Mealworms and Zick Dough are bluebird favorites, but both should be served in moderation since bluebirds will eat themselves sick on them. Never offer more than 10 mealworms per day per bluebird, and even Zick Dough should be offered in limited amounts, too. Offer live mealworms (available at pet and bait shops) in a steepsided bowl to keep them from escaping. When natural food sources are abundant, the worms may go untouched. Freeze-dried mealworms don't crawl out of the bowl, but aren't quite as attractive to bluebirds—at least not initially. Find a recipe for Zick Dough »

5. Warblers. Yes, some warblers—especially yellow-rumped—will visit feeders—even in winter in the Midwest and Southeast—but they can be shy and avoid busy feeding stations. Try offering food in a dish hanging in a tree in which they like to forage. Among the foods they will eat are raisins (especially if the raisins have been soaked in water to make them soft), Zick Dough, suet bits, peanut bits, bird meal mixes, grapes, and slices of oranges and apples. In our yard, the warblers come in for the birdbath (moving or running water is irresistible to warblers), see the feeder activity, and often flit over to investigate.

6. Mockingbirds, robins, and varied and hermit thrushes. These birds winter at various locations across the U.S., and are all fond of fruit, including grapes, raisins, currants, apples, and oranges. If you offer fruit, try cutting it into small pieces and placing it near where you see these birds foraging. Eventually the birds may grow accustomed to finding fruit bits in a dish at a certain spot in your feeding area. Some success has also been reported with offering peanut butter, peanut bits, suet bits, and mealworms to these species.

7. Hawks. If you have busy bird feeders, chances are you're already indirectly feeding a hawk or two. But feeding hawks directly requires a bit more effort. We had a roadkilled groundhog at the end of our driveway a few years ago, and a red-shouldered hawk was on the carcass eating away before the vultures showed up to take over. It gave me an idea. That winter, we acquired some bones and scrap meat from a local slaughterhouse and made a feeding pile in the snow-covered meadow 100 yards or so from the house. Rough-legged hawks, red-tailed hawks, and a northern harrier all stopped to eat. It takes a strong stomach and some extra space and effort, but it was really cool to see these raptors filling up on a cold winter's day.

8. Orioles and tanagers. These types of birds are unlikely to stick around when the temperatures drop, but it is possible to attract them as they head north in a few months. When hours of daylight increase and temperatures start to warm, stick a halved orange on the end of a tree branch stub or on a nail pounded into a fencepost. These tropical species are used to eating fruit, especially oranges, grapefruits, apples, and any of the tropical fruits (which can be a bit expensive to offer to birds). You can also use specialized fruit feeders, designed with these birds in mind. Nectar feeders designed for orioles are also commercially available. Like mealworms for bluebirds, grape jelly for orioles should be offered only in limited quantities. Jelly has a much higher sugar content than any natural food source for birds. Grape halves are a healthier option. Melon rinds, too, are attractive to these fruit eaters as they head north.

9. Flycatchers. I've never made this work, but lots of other folks have. The trick is to get a protein-rich food into a feeder and get the feeder up in a tree where the flycatchers forage. I've heard of success using a mixture of fruit flies and pecan bits made into a paste. It fed phainopeplas, great crested flycatchers, and other insect eaters. How? Smear the foodonto a small wooden feeder and, using heavy string slung over a tree branch, haul the feeder up to the flycatcher-feeding zone. If you try this and have success, let us know! We'd especially like to see a photo!

10. Swallows and martins. Let's face it: Martins and swallows have an eat-on-the-fly foraging strategy. One food item they relish, however, is probably in your refrigerator right now: eggshells. Martins and swallows are especially fond of eggshells during the summer months, when egg production increases their calcium needs. Wash the eggshells thoroughly and bake them in the oven for 30 minutes at 250 degrees F, or until they turnslightly brown. Remove them and crush them into small pieces. Scatter them on your driveway, sidewalk, deck rail, or an open patch of ground. Many birds will eat shell bits, including finches, jays, sparrows, warblers,and gnatcatchers.

As joyful as it can be to satisfy the tastebuds of "the regulars" at our feeders, attracting unusual species can result in a feeling of triumph! Don't bet the farm on success, but it's worth a try.

About Bill Thompson, III

Bill Thompson, III, was the team captain for Watching Backyard Birds from its inception 23 years ago through his death on March 25, 2019. So much of what he wrote is timeless and remains informative, helpful, and inspiring.

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The Latest Comments

  • I am excited to have my daughter’s tree this year, since my landlord has removed the lovely yew next to my patio, which was the only shelter for birds at my feeder.
    by pmalcpoet, Mon, 20 Dec 2021
  • Goldfinches will continue as long as Swiss chard is available. I'm watching one eating chard right now (mid-November in Vermont).
    by Brian Tremback, Sun, 14 Nov 2021
  • Birds are on the decline though sunflowers are rarely touched and for weeks hardly .eaten. I'll try a few sparing nuts on the table and a fat ball broken for jackdaws and tits but mealworms were a summer favourite being my go to choice
    by Paul Harabaras, Thu, 04 Nov 2021
  • I’ve been enjoying goldfinches eating coneflower/ echinacea seeds in my new pollinator garden! I will leave the plants out all winter for them if the seeds keep that long? Or should I deadhead and put them in a dry area? Im in CT and thought they migrated, but didn’t know they put in winter coats! What do they eat in winter without bird feeders?
    by Anne Sheffield, Sat, 04 Sep 2021
  • Hi Gary, I will pass your question along to Birdsquatch next time I see him. He knows infinitely more about nocturnal wildlife than I do. Where do you live? That's pretty important in figuring out the answer. But the thief could be raccoons, deer, or flying squirrels. Do you live in the woods? Are there trees near your feeder, or must the culprit climb a shepherd's hook or pole? Dawn Hewitt, Watching Backyard Birds
    by Dawn Hewitt, Mon, 30 Aug 2021