For decades in a former garden, my bird-watching consisted of standing on my deck and pointing the trusty binocs at the bird houses in the wooded valley below. I can’t tell you what birds actually filled them – I’m that bad at bird recognition – but anyway, my favorites were the flying squirrels that lived in the triple-story house shown here.

I would have added some bird feeders to create a closer-up venue for avian entertainment, but my lot was hilly and there was no spot for them that I could see from inside.

Messy bird feeder

What a mess!

Then five years ago, after moving to an on-grade lot, I jumped at the chance to feed and then watch all day if it moved me. In my tiny front yard I hung a couple of feeders, added a bird bath and boy, did the flocks ever arrive. Bird meet-ups ensued.

My neighbors objected to the feeders because the flocks’ favorite meet-up spot was apparently on branches overhanging their cars, so bird poop on them was inevitable.

Another problem was the mess that the feeders created on the ground beneath, a petty concern I actually complained about right here. Excerpt: “I have to sweep the patio almost daily.” Really, who could endure that?

Something else I was doing at least daily was filling the damn things, and the suet cakes were costing me almost 2 bucks a pop.


So….I tried a hummingbird feeder instead, only to discover that I couldn’t handle the commitment of regular cleaning required to protect them from murder-by-feeder on my part. Who needs that kind of stress?

Thistle feeder with goldfinch

View from my favorite porch chair, through the screen

Just Thistle

My next attempt at bird feeding and watching – the winning one – was to provide thistle only (aka nyger), and to place the feeder just outside my screened-in porch where my cats and I live about half the year. Thistle-only works best in my small garden because:

  • Squirrels ignore them! Sure, I could protect feeders from squirrels if I had enough space to hang them out of reach of these world-class gymnasts, but I don’t.
  • No sprouting of seeds under the feeder, no resulting weedy patch.
  • No flocks! My feeder attracts 1-4 small birds at a time, usually goldfinches. So pretty, so watchable.
  • There’s still a bit of maintenance, but even following the best advice, it just amounts to shaking the feeder daily to prevent clumping and mold, and replacing the seed every 3-4 weeks if it’s not being actively eaten, which has yet to happen at mine. On the anti-mold front, I do buy the smallest bag I can find and keep it in the fridge. No biggie.


Just when you thought I was omitting the very best ways to attract birds – with plants and water – not to worry. I’ll always have purple coneflowers and leave ’em up ’til they’re crushed under snow. A water feature, however, will have to wait until my next garden – as if. We do what we can, right?

At Meadowlark Botanical Gardens in Virginia