How Often Should You Refill Bird Feeders?

Empty Feeders Aren't Always Bad

Empty Bird Feeder With Chickadee
Ada Be / Flickr / CC by 2.0

Keeping feeders full and offering a reliable supply of birdseed is an important part of feeding backyard birds, but how often should feeders be refilled, and what happens to birds if feeders go empty?

How Quickly Feeders Empty

Many factors affect how quickly a bird feeder will be emptied, including:

  • Feeder size and capacity
  • Type of food offered
  • Number of birds feeding
  • Feeder style
  • Backyard safety that affects feeding birds
  • Weather patterns and feeding times
  • Spills or accidents that waste seed
  • Visits from other wildlife, including squirrels or raccoons

A bird feeder may go empty in a day, or it may even take just a few hours for a feeder to be emptied if it is smaller, filled with popular food like hulled sunflower seed, accessible to many birds, and is filled right when birds really need the meal, such as before a storm or during a busy breeding season. On the other hand, if a higher capacity feeder is a very selective style offering a more specialized food, such as a mesh sock offering Nyjer, and is refilled during a quiet time of day, it could be several days or even a week or more before it is empty. As birders discover their flock's feeding styles and preferences, they will learn which feeders are empty first and need more frequent refills, and which feeders can accommodate birds for a longer period without more seed.

When to Refill Feeders

Ideally, it is best to refill feeders right away, but not just to feed the birds. By refilling feeders quickly, backyard birders can realize many benefits.

  • Reliably full feeders keep birds visiting frequently because they recognize the feeder as a good food source. A feeder that is irregularly filled will not get as many loyal visitors.
  • Seed will stay fresh if it is eaten more quickly so it does not spoil. Birds typically avoid spoiled seed, which could be toxic if ingested.
  • A lively, active feeding station with full feeders will attract more birds. Birds are naturally curious and will investigate feeding flocks, and a larger, more engaged flock will attract passing visitors.

Keeping Feeders Full

It can be frustrating to refill a feeder only to have it completely empty within a few hours, particularly if the seed is expensive and the birder has to watch their budget. In order to better meet the hungry demands of a flock, backyard birders can use several tricks to keep feeders full without denying birds a meal.

  • Choose larger feeders or put up several feeders to offer a more diverse, larger feeding station. As birds spread their efforts to different feeders, a single feeder will not be emptied as quickly. Larger capacities will also sate more birds' appetites before needing refills.
  • Opt for no-waste birdseed to minimize seed tossed onto the ground as birds pick out their preferred tidbits. While no-waste seeds may be more expensive, the per-weight unit cost is often a better value because there are no hulls, fillers, or unwanted seeds to pay for, and birds will eat every morsel.
  • Take steps to discourage squirrels and other backyard pests such as mice, chipmunks, rats, deer, and raccoons. When a feeder is emptied very quickly, it isn't always birds enjoying the easy meals.
  • Add seed blocks or similar feeders such as sunflower seed wreaths or edible birdhouses to the feeding station. These sturdy edible feeders make birds work a bit harder for each bite so it will take longer for the seed to disappear. You can even make birdseed ornaments from your own birdseed to help it last longer.
  • Plant natural bird foods in the yard, such as berry bushes, nectar-rich flowers, fruit trees, or seed-bearing flowers so birds have other feeding options instead of just feeders. Not only will this attract more birds, but the natural foods will replenish themselves year after year for free.
  • Stagger when feeders are refilled so while there may be an empty feeder or two in the yard, other feeders are recently filled. This will keep birds interested in the feeding station without needing to refill every feeder every time.

Why You Might Not Refill Feeders

It isn't always necessary to refill bird feeders as soon as they are emptied, and it can occasionally be beneficial to allow feeders to remain empty for a day or two. When feeders are empty:

  • Birds will feed on the ground below feeders, cleaning up spilled seed and helping keep the ground underneath feeders cleaner.
  • Large flocks will disperse to other food sources, lessening the spread of wild bird diseases such as house finch eye disease or avian pox.
  • Hawks will move on to other hunting grounds because the area's prey population is more widespread and less easily hunted.
  • Feeder pests such as mice, squirrels, deer, and chipmunks will move on to other, more reliable food sources.
  • Backyard birders will have the time to clean, disinfect, and repair bird feeders, keeping them in top shape for feeding birds.
  • The bird-feeding budget will stretch a little further so birders can buy a new feeder, upgrade a field guide, or otherwise invest in their feathered passion.

When Feeders Go Empty

The biggest concern many birders have is that when feeders are empty, birds will starve. While it is true that birds can rely on feeders and will visit regularly, only 20-30 percent of a bird's daily food comes from supplemental feeders. No matter how many feeders birds visit, the rest of their diet comes from natural sources that are available whether feeders are filled or not. Birds are savvy foragers and will find new foods regardless of feeder availability, and an occasional empty feeder is no cause for concern. After the feeder is refilled, birds will find it again, and the backyard flock will soon be enjoying another hearty buffet.

Are birds still not finding your feeders? Take steps to get birds to use a new feeder, including placing the new feeder in the same general area as the old feeders, and you'll soon be making more frequent refills and enjoying many more birds with hearty appetites in your yard.