TECHNIQUE | The photographer's bird feeder
There's nothing like shooting at a feeder for obtaining quality bird portrait photos. Most feeders, however, don't offer great opportunities for photography. Controlling where the bird goes is key for good bird images, and ease of changing perches makes set design a snap. In this blog post, I'm going to share with you my (patent pending?) design for a simple but effective bird feeder that works well for any bird that will perch on a branch. It's the design I use in my own yard here in the highlands of Costa Rica, and it's the same design concept that I've started from when working with the numerous lodges where my photo tour company Foto Verde Tours has developed bird feeder stations. (Have you seen great shots of keel-billed toucans from Costa Rica? Yep, that's at the feeder we designed and installed at one of my favorite lodges!) We're in the process of doing two new setups at some exciting destinations -- stay tuned!
The design is certainly not rocket science but it fulfilled the four requirements I think any good photography bird feeding station should have -- it doesn't look ugly on its own, it allows you to control where the birds go, it makes perch changes easy, and it doesn't cost much. My little design is geared toward the fruit-eating birds typical of many tropical areas. In my front yard, I put out bananas and papaya and get the following birds at any one time at my feeders: Baltimore Oriole, Summer Tanager, Clay-colored Thrush, White-eared Ground Sparrow, Orange-billed Nightingale Thrush, Blue-crowned Motmot, Blue-gray Tanager, Flame-colored Tanager, Passerini's Tanager, Hoffman's Woodpecker, Montezuma Oropendola, Grayish Saltator, Buff-throated Saltator, and once in a while even the Emerald Toucanet!
For temperate areas where the food mix might be different, I'm sure that clever minds can easily modify my design to suit the local species. If you take the design and work it for your front yard, please be sure to hit me up on Facebook with pictures!
what you'll need
A quick trip to my local hardware store and a nearby plastic container shop netted everything I needed in just a few minutes. Here's what I bought:
- one plastic cafeteria-type tray (for one of the feeders)
- 3 treated 3" diameter Chilean pine posts measuring 3 m in length
- 2 aluminim tubes of the cheap curtain rod variety (1" and 5/8" diameter)
- 2 sacks of pre-mixed concrete
- 16 1" drywall screws
- 2 cans of spray paint (pine green and brown)
- 1 quart of Lanco siliconized base paint
- Paint thinne
The total cost was 35,000 colones, which works out to about $65. That's not bad for two feeders that look pretty nice and are built to last. The project took one day with the help of my Dad, who works with Habitat for Humanity in the US and is quite handy!
You'll need the following common tools:
- A hammer
- Some 2" nails with regular heads
- A cordless drill
- 2 paddle drill bits, say 1" and 1/2"
- A hacksaw
- A shovel
- A wheelbarrel
step by step
Here's what we're going for as the final product. So, let's start putting it together!
Above is pretty much everything you need. I don't remember if the machete was necessary but you can't do a project in Costa Rica without a machete. It's the law. Plus it always makes you feel macho! Actually I did use it to cut branches to put on the feeder when everything was finished.
The first step was to paint the posts with this siliconized paint to deter rot in the humid cloud forest. Depending on where you live, this step may not be necessary.
A quick stir with any old stick and two coats of the siliconized paint with any old brush, and you're ready.
Next it's on to making the holes. These are where the branches will be inserted. I chose to make the holes at two heights according to the backgrounds my yard would afford. I left a couple of feet or so between the sets of holes so I could do two levels but not have the branches interfere with each other. The best strategy is to make the holes so that the branches will be parallel to your shooting location. If you might be able to shoot from different angles, consider making 4 holes at each height. Drill the holes at a 45 degree angle downward. This will help the perches to stay upright and will also give you a slight diagonal when you shoot. Drill to a depth of about 1 to 1.5". I drilled some holes with the smaller paddle bit and some with the larger. Don't open up the hole too much with the drill. You'll want a tight fit for the aluminum tubes (see below).
Next, take your aluminum tubing and, using the hacksaws, cut a number or 3 inch long sections. These are the collars that will help to hold the branches and will make perch changes easier. Note that I have sections with two different diamaters so that I can use thinner or thicker perches depending on the size of the bird and what I want for my picture.
Using a hammer, pound the aluminum tubing collars into the holes. You'll want to leave 1 to 2" sticking out to hold your perches.
This is what it should look like.
Next, use a drill bit and make a hole in the underside of each aluminum perch collar. This is where we'll insert the drywall screws.
Not every perch will fit exactly into our collar. By placing your branch and then tightening the drywall screw, you'll create pressure on the branch so it won't move too much when your birds land.
The next step is to nail 2 nails a couple of inches above each of the perch collars. This is where you'll place your chunks of fruit. There is no set distance between perch collar and nails here. Just think about what would be a comfortable height for the birds to eat the food while sitting on the perch.
You can see this starting to come together here with the two levels of perches.
And here our post is ready to go. We've got adjustable collars for our perches and nails for our fruit.
Now it's time to sink the posts. Simply dig a hole to size, fill it with pre-mixed concrete, use a bubble level to check straightness and let the concrete dry. I used two posts for this feeder because I wanted to place a tray on top to attract seed-eating birds.
And here's the single post feeder next to our bird bath.
Next, get some free underage labor. My son Josh and my niece Valeria were kind enough to do some camo designs using spray paint. Does it matter to the birds? Probably not. Does it look better? Indeed. Was it fun for the workers? Apparently. Did it make me feel like the owner of an evil multinational conglomerate? Yes it did!
Note in the above picture that the tray is where I'll place the food. But below the tray are the same perch collars described above. This would not be my chosen design but it was an attempt to attract shy seed eating birds.
The better way I've found for birds that will come to fruit is as shown above.
The birds are forced to land on your chosen perch if they want to feed.
Sometimes they'll hug close to the center post while they feed, and that's fine.
Your shot is when the birds land initially or when they wait their turn in line. I've found that letting the birds get a good meal keeps them coming back and still gives me plenty of good shots.
get out and take some photos!
With good technique, good perches, and some patience, you can take great photos of cool birds right in your yard! Here are just a few examples of what I've done in my front yard using the feeder design featured in this blog post.
take this and modify it
I hope this post has been helpful to you in thinking about how you might be able to design an attractive and photographically productive bird feeder for your yard. Please use the share links below if you enjoyed this post, and don't forget to like my Facebook page, Deep Green Photography. Facebook me with pictures of how you've modified or improved this design for your own yard!
Want to learn more? Check out my blog post describing how I took the pictures above.