AttractingFeeding Bluebirds by Linda Janilla Peterson

Feeding Bluebirds by Linda Janilla Peterson

In 1991, I received a research grant from the Minnesota Bluebird Recovery Program to attempt to develop a food that would be acceptable and nutritional for Bluebirds. A secondary purpose of the study was to evaluate commercial “Bluebird Foods” that are on the market today and determine what style of feeders work for bluebirds.

Can you feed bluebirds? Do you have bluebirds nesting in your yard? Do they have a favorite perch on your house, clothesline or deck? You have a perfect situation for feeding bluebirds. With a bit of enticement and conditioning you can feed them within view of your windows.

Do you live in the states where bluebirds spend the winters? They may even have visited feeders meant for other birds. Again, this is a good situation for feeding bluebirds. You may be able to help them survive a harsh winter.

Do you live in the northern states or Canada? Unusual over wintering birds may need your help. Also, in those areas, bluebirds returning in the spring often encounter late winter storms and need food to survive.

Why feed bluebirds? Don’t they eat insects? Bluebirds do normally eat insects and wild fruits and berries. Sometimes, they eat food put out for other birds. Situations arise when natural foods are not available. Insects become inactive at and below 40 degrees. Wild fruits and berries can be covered with snow and ice. Late winter snows and storms can all make the bluebirds’ natural foods unavailable. Wild fruits and berries are stripped by starlings and other birds. Here, in Minnesota and other upper mid-west states in 1990, late spring snows stressed bluebirds who had nestlings. There were many nestling deaths and abandonments. In all these instances, feeding bluebirds an acceptable food can help the birds survive.  It is also fun to feed bluebirds! It can bring the birds closer to you for observation and enjoyment!

The food “Bluebird Banquet”. This food was developed over a period of time by combining foods that people have reported seeing bluebirds eat. It was then adjusted to the bluebirds taste and nutritional needs. The nutritional goal was values as suggested by the Bird Curator at the Minnesota Zoo. The final resulting mix has an analysis of Protein 12.7%, Carbohydrates 45.9%, Fat 32.7%, Fiber 5.9%. This mix has been taken by bluebirds at my home. In 1990 through the present, I have fed bluebirds this food. In the fall, flocks of up to 20 birds eagerly eat up to 2 cups of the food mix per day. In the spring of 1991, a nesting pair took the mix many times a day – increasing on cold days, less on warm days. During a late spring snowstorm, the pair fed every 20 minutes – documented on video tape. In July and August of 1991, the same pair fed the mix to their nestlings and when they fledged, brought the young to the food, teaching them to eat it. Insects were plentiful at that time! This was also video taped.


by Linda Janilla Peterson
Bluebird Banquet is available commercially at The Wild Bird Specialists – Audubon Workshop  [if the product does not show up, look under bluebirds on the sidebar]
1 cup peanut butter
4 cups yellow cornmeal
1 cup unbleached or whole-wheat flour
1 cup fine sunflower seed chips
1 cup peanut hearts (or finely ground nuts)
1/2 – 1 cup Zante currants (or raisins cut in halves)
1 cup rendered, melted suet

Resulting mix will be crumbly and should have bean/pea sized lumps from the drizzling of the melted suet. If too sticky after cooling, mix in a bit more flour. If too dry, drizzle in more melted suet.

Refrigerate any mix you are not using – to prevent suet from turning rancid. I use a commercial pure bird suet cake. You can render you own suet. Grind or cube butcher store suet. Melt over low heat. Watch carefully as suet is a fat and can start on fire with too high heat. A microwave can be used. Strain out the stringy bits (cracklings). Cool. Remelt a second time for the recipe.

Nutritional Analysis of Bluebird Banquet – one recipe

Analysis by Felicia Busch, RD
Calories 7663.1
Protein 189.2 G
Carbohydrates 683 G
Fiber 87.5 G
Fat total 487.3 G
saturated 142 G
mono 208 G
poly 114 G
Cholesterol 223 mg
A- carotene 258 RE
A- preformed 0.5 RE
A- total 259 RE
Thiamin B1 7.68 Mg
Riboflavin B2 2.9 Mg
Niacin B3 74.5 Mg
Vit B6 4.88 Mg
Vit B12 0.001 mcg
Folacin 763 mcg
Pantothenic 9.82 mcg
Vit C 4 Mg
Vit E 78 Mg
Calcium 463.8 Mg
Copper 6.68 Mg
Iron 51.43 Mg
Magnesium 1585 Mg
Phosphorus 3350 Mg
Potassium 5002 Mg
Selenium 134 mcg
Sodium 1973 Mg
Zinc 25.9 Mg

The food mix is meant to be a dietary supplement to a healthy, free ranging bird. The food is NOT sufficient to be a complete diet. It is also not meant to be a food for abandoned nestlings. The food will not harm such a bird, but would require additional protein (ground dry catfood, dog biscuits, or monkey biscuits), additional calcium (finely powdered egg shell or oyster shell), and vitamin supplement (bird vitamins from vet or pet shop). Please consult an expert in the care of injured or abandoned nestlings. Remember, nursing or caring for young or injured wild birds requires a Federal/State permit and special training. A healthy, free ranging bird will balance it’s own diet.


Bluebirds are not normally attracted to a feeder. After being “conditioned” the bluebirds will accept food from various styles of feeders. The feeder can be as simple as a pie plate, cake pan, or plastic planter drainage dish. It can be a stationary or hanging wood tray or screen tray feeder. It can be a small log with holes – hung vertically or sideways. It can be a muffin cup on a simple platform or a microwave tray on a deck railing! My bluebirds also come to window feeders (attached to the glass with suction cups). A more complicated idea is the “enclosed feeder” – a basic feeder shape (straight sides-sloped roof with glass or screen sides with entrance holes on the ends. Many commercial companies offer these enclosed “bluebird feeders”. CAUTION: bluebirds have been confused by glass sides and become trapped inside, some even dying – I suggest that the glass sides be replaced with screen or smeared with mud or suet to fog up the glass. A bluebird house can be converted into a “feeder house” by placing a jar lid inside – raising the floor with something so the food is just below the entrance hole.


Place the feeder in the open – within the bluebird’s clear view from one of their favorite perches. Once discovered and the birds are taking the food, you can move it gradually to a more desired location. I started by placing the feeder (a cake pan) on the ground in front of the bird’s chosen nesting box. When they were eating the food, I moved it 5-6 feet per day, finally hanging it off a deck post. Do not mount the feeder on an occupied birdhouse, this may attract unwanted birds and critters to the birdhouse – risking problems.


Because bluebirds are not used to being at feeders, it usually requires a bit of work on your part to train or condition them. I put small amounts(1/2-1/2 cup) of the food mix out a couple times a day – usually at the same times. My birds are used to this and are sometimes waiting for their treat. Even though I may sound silly. I “call” my birds and they know this means feeding time. (what you call is up to you – a whistle or tap-tap on the feeding dish or word…but remember, someone may hear you!). Again, in the beginning, make sure the feeder is in their view. You can move it later to a more convenient spot. Use a light color or contrasting color pan or dish so the food is visible. Live food such as meal worms, grubs, or waxworms can be used to attract the bird’s attention. You can get these at a bait shop or mail-order from a company such as GRUBCO (1-800-222-3563). Sprinkle a few on top of the food mix so they are visible wriggling around. Make sure the feeding dish has sides 1 1/2 – 2 inches high so the worms don’t crawl out. The live food will attract the birds and encourage the sampling of the food mix. Once discovered and the birds are eating, you may discontinue the live food – or keep it up…bluebirds love meal worms! This conditioning or training only takes about a week to 10 days, after which they eagerly come without hesitation or any special effort on your part. Some more intensive methods may be required with the restrictive-enclosed feeders. They require a little extra training. Because the birds have to enter to feed, they seem hesitant. Although in the spring, the natural urge to investigate cavities may encourage them to check out the feeder. One can dismantle the feeder, adding the parts back on as the birds learn to eat from it. It can be just a simple matter of removing one glass or screen side and leaving the top (roof) flipped open – again replacing them as the birds come to eat. Another idea is to replace one of the two glass sides with a piece of Masonite that has two more 1 1/2 inch entrance holes drilled in it.


Other birds are eating the food! What should I do? That’s OK. My bluebirds eat in the company of other birds: woodpeckers, finches, orioles. I find that putting out the food at certain times helps. Also, by bringing the feeding tray close to the house (6 ft from the patio doors), I found that the more wary birds like the bluejay hung back. If you find that the bigger birds are gobbling the food, try the restrictive enclosed feeder idea. What about squirrels, opossums and raccoons? Yes, they will eat the mix. If you have these critters, put the food tray or dish on a predator guarded pole. With opossums and raccoons, just bring the food in at night.

 What about rain?  Drainage holes should be in whatever feeder you use. Rain makes the mix become the consistency of porridge. I found the birds still eat it, if it is not totally liquid. You may want to use a roofed platform. Or hang the tray under a roof soffit. Or just replace the food with fresh after a rain.

What else can I feed bluebirds? Live food – meal worms, wax worms, grubs. Wild fruits and berries. I have harvested sumac and dogwood. You can pick the whole berry bunch and hang to dry in an unheated shed or garage. Or use a food dehydrator. Wild berries can also be frozen. Harvest when ripe, discard spoiled fruits, spread single layer on a tray and freeze. When frozen, repack into airtight containers and you will have food ready for the next spring. Be sure of your identification of wild fruits, for both your safety and the health of the birds. Bluebirds have also been known to eat :cottage cheese, American cheese, shelled sunflower, nuts, raisins.

I’ve tried all the ideas and the bluebirds are still not eating the food. It may well be that the bluebirds have an abundance of natural foods and are just not interested in your offering. I’ve found the best time to introduce feeding here in Minnesota, is in the spring when there is a lack of food. Once conditioned to the food, they then eat it all season. Try again when natural foods are not available.


In order to develop the bluebird food and test various homemade mixes and the commercially available bluebird foods, I used a hanging platform and a stationary platform, both with 3 individual trays. The hanging platform hung from cords and rotated in the wind. The inside trays were removable. I also used a stationary platform with 3 removable trays, mounted on a deck post . These trays were rearranged every feeding period, so the birds were not just eating from the same spot. If they wanted to eat a particular mixture, they had to find it. It would not be in the same place each time. The birds were enticed to the feeding area with meal worms in the spring. During the feeding tests, no meal worms were given out – only the food mixes. The homemade mix was arrived at by adding and subtracting ingredients, noting which mixture the birds ate from in a feeding period. A feeding period was considered from the time food was put out in the trays – counting each bird’s single partaking/eating of a particular tray’s contents as a “hit” , during one 10 minute period of an hour, every hour from 9 am to 9 pm. When the 10 minute observation period ended, the food was removed until the next hour. With the homemade mix, the final resulting recipe was the one with the most “hits” in a one week’s time of testing. The trays were labeled with numbers that corresponded to a particular recipe. (Please note that I had a basic recipe that bluebirds had eaten the previous year when research was not being done. This recipe is a fairly common one among bird feeding, variations of which there are many.)  The rest of summer, I tested various commercial mixes against the homemade mix. Commercial mixes tested were :C & S “Bluebird Delight”, C & S “Bluebird Treat”, C & S “Raisin Delight” (a cake), Cokerum Oregon Insect Corporation (COICOR) “Blue Robin Crumbles”. Again, foods were put in trays differently each feeding period and the hanging feeder swung around – the birds had to find the food they wanted. This was put out 3 – 4 times a day with a 10 minute observation period.  Homemade recipe and instructions were sent to people in various parts of the U.S. for testing in other areas.


Bluebirds preferred the homemade mix over all the commercial products. The top ranking two commercial products were 1st choice – “Blue Robin Crumbles” and 2nd choice – “Bluebird Delight”. An average of the 10 minute feeding observation periods was : Homemade Bluebird Banquet recipe – 11 hits, Blue Robin Crumbles – 6 hits, Bluebird Delight- 3 hits. COICOR Blue Robin Crumbles is a mix of corn flour, wheat flour, beef kidney suet and dried insects. Comments: nice crumbly texture, no unpleasant odor. Product taken twice as often as the other commercial product (Marketed by ZBird Products) C & S Bluebird Delight is mixture of large pellets comprised of grains (unspecified), suet and peanuts mixed with raisins. Comments: product is dry, product has a grainy odor, pellets are too big – bluebirds would not eat these until crumbled into smaller bits, bluebirds left the large raisins. C & S company took the idea further and made a new product Bluebird Treat – the same ingredients, but raisins now ground into the mix and the extruded pellets are now smaller. Bluebirds picked at the new Bluebird Treat pellets, with no improvement in feeding rates. C & S Raisin Delight Suet Cakes are a cake formed of the same mixture of grains, suet, peanuts and raisins. Bluebirds did not readily take to the cakes, no matter how they were presented – until crumbled into a tray, at that point they picked at it rarely. (C & S makes many other suet cake “flavors”, I tested Suet Dough, and various fruit flavored cakes – bluebirds rarely even sampled these.  In every observation period, when the bluebirds landed on the platform -they tasted a food and if it was one of the commercial foods, they hopped to the next tray, until they got to the homemade mix. They frequently appeared to visually look at the food and move on without tasting. Hits on the commercial products were all at the first taste after landing, the birds always proceeded to the homemade mix and continued to eat at the homemade food for several hits. When the bluebird parents picked up a piece of food and flew with it to their birdhouse to feed their nestlings – it was never with a piece of commercial mix, but always the homemade product. The bluebird parents then brought the fledglings to the feeding platforms. The adults would taste a food, again if it were the commercial products, they moved on to the homemade mix. They then would pick up pieces and feed the young from the homemade. When the fledglings were beginning to feed themselves, they tended to gulp which ever food they landed near. At the end of the summer, they were behaving as the adults – picking and tasting till arriving at the homemade mix. A comment regarding “pellet” shaped food in general. This form of food for birds is being questioned by some in the cage bird feeding trade. Studies of how a bird’s eye works reveals that the smoother surface of the pellet reflects back to the bird’s eye and the surface does not indicate to the bird that this is food. Rougher, crumbly shapes appear to attract the bird more readily.  In testing of the homemade recipe in other areas of the country, there were 28 requests for the bluebird feeding information. Of the 28, 17 reported back. 3 did not try to feed for various reasons. 14 reported trying the food and methods. Of the 14 who tried the food, 9 were successful and 5 were not successful in feeding bluebirds. Of those that attempted to feed, there were those that just put the food out and those who worked more at conditioning the birds. Success was more frequent with those that did the conditioning.


The homemade food was preferred by the bluebirds. The big difference in the ingredients between homemade and commercial is the peanut butter. The homemade mixture is fresh. The commercial products were of drier consistency. Crumbled texture was preferred over pelleted forms. Small Zante currants were eaten, large raisins were not. Smaller pelleted food was preferred over large pellets. The cost of the commercial products are much higher than homemade mixes. My cost for a recipe was about $6 – one recipe filled about 1/2 to 3/4 of a plastic ice cream bucket and cost broke down to $0.93 per pound. (Cost reflects using generic ingredients) Commercial product costs vary depending on the retailer, and range from $2-5 for 8 to 16 ounces to $19-25 for 5 to 9 pounds.


If you want to feed bluebirds, you can do so at lower cost and more success with a homemade mix. If you can make cookie dough, you can make homemade bluebird food. Commercial products are acceptable but not preferred by bluebirds, and you pay for the convenience of ready-made. The real element of success depends on an a few days of training the birds in the beginning.


Bluebirds will accept a feeding program and if we start one, we can help the bluebird survive adverse conditions and increase our enjoyment of this special bird.

Thanks to:

  • Minnesota Bluebird Recovery Program
  • Dorene Scriven, Minnesota
  • Dick and Vi Peterson, Minnesota (who suggested the original idea of feeding bluebirds)
  • Ted Tempest, Minnesota
  • Boz Metzdorf, Bird’s Eye View, Videos, Wisconsin
  • Barry, Alyssa and Colin Janilla
  • Field Testers-
    Roger Thompson, Oregon (Western Bluebirds)
  • Howard(Lefty) and Ina Kaler, Minnesota
  • Janet Hartman, Minnesota
  • Janice Castner, Ohio
  • Bud Castor, Minnesota
  • Mr. & Mrs. George Nalisnik, Pennsylvania (includes photograph)
  • Carol Daughrity, Ohio
  • Dorothy Hall, Virginia
  • Steve Parrett, Oklahoma
  • Eleanor Walsh, Pennsylvania
  • Lynn Hoyt, North Carolina
  • Carol and Jim Nabor, Minnesota
  • Barbara Sonnek, Minnesota
  • Rita Snyder, Oregon
  • Wendy and Fred Martin, Virginia

Product Suppliers

  • Cockerum Oregon Insects Corp, Tillamook, Oregon phone (503) 842-5988
  • ZBIRD Products, Portland, Oregon phone (503) 230-9612
  • C & S Products Co. Inc, Fort Dodge, Iowa phone 1-800-373-2425
  • Dave Ahlgren, Ahlgren Construction (feeders), Stillwater, Minnesota phone (612) 430-0031
  • John Barnum, The Bird House, Stillwater, Minnesota phone (612) 439-1923

Professional Assistance

  • Bud Tordoff, ornithologist
  • Felicia Busch, Registered Dietician, nutritional analysis
  • Jim Pichner, Curator of Birds, Minnesota Zoo
  • Lakes for McCaws, Lakes Unlimited, Forest Lake, Minnesota

Spritual Inspiration

    • The late Gerhard Alexis and family

Please direct questions and comments concerning this article to Linda Janilla Peterson.  Retrieved from The Bluebird Box with permission.


Latest Articles