If there’s one thing that bird lovers enjoy more than feeding their local backyard birds and providing a welcoming habitat for our feathered friends, it’s visually chronicling their visits. After all, who’s going to believe you when you tell them about the Prothonotary Warbler that stopped by this weekend, out of season, without visual proof? But because bird visits can be extremely fleeting, there’s often no time to grab a camera and set up the perfect shot. An automated camera setup, then, has the potential to be the obsessive backyard birder’s best friend.
For that reason, it is now fairly common to find feeders that have been designed around built-in camera functionality. The idea of a camera feeder makes for a logical tandem with our modern era of easily accessible home surveillance—when so many people already have a Ring camera or similar product watching their front door, it only makes sense to create a bird feeder can can accommodate the same devices. The consumer is more likely to participate, after all, if they’re using a piece of technology they already own, or a brand they already trust.
Personally, my wife and I have no particular experience with home camera systems, but we are passionate backyard bird enthusiasts. And so, I happily jumped at a chance to test out the new Smart Bird Feeder from Wasserstein, a company also specializing in smart doorbells, cameras and solar panels. The feeder promised to essentially function as a small hopper feeder, with the mounted camera ready to give the viewer play-by-play (or a live feed) of whatever birds might be visiting on any given afternoon.
The unmistakable outline of a Carolina Wren.
That’s the pitch, anyway. What I actually found with the Wasserstein Smart Bird Feeder was a decidedly mixed bag. It certainly works more or less as advertised, giving you a platform to capture photos and videos of visiting birds. But the quality of those photos or videos doesn’t tend to be quite as sparkling as one would hope, and the feeder itself has some design limitations that might make it impractical for long-term use for some birders. In general, having this thing in your backyard is simply a bit more time consuming than other feeder options, which one might consider a positive or a negative.
So with that said, let’s get into the pros and cons of the Wasserstein Smart Bird Feeder.
What This Feeder Does Well
Cleverly, the Wasserstein Smart Bird Feeder was designed to be compatible with numerous security camera brands, meaning that one can easily swap in cameras from Wyze, Blink or various Ring cameras with only a few small modifications. To test the feeder, I was sent a Ring Stick Up Cam. Setting the bird feeder up was pretty simple, with a fast-charging camera battery that was ready for use in a few hours. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the battery also seemed to have pretty decent life to it—even with a hundred or more bird visits per day in our backyard (it is a high-traffic zone), the battery uses energy efficiently enough that it should take close to a week before needing to be recharged. Theoretically, that battery life can be extended indefinitely through the installation of a solar panel, but that’s another investment most users probably won’t make.
Likewise, despite having no experience with these types of smart cameras, I found the Ring app to be intuitive and simple to operate after mounting the feeder/camera, easily allowing the user to scroll through various alerts and bird sightings. Someone who doesn’t spend a lot of time watching their feeders might be shocked to see just how many birds (and just what kind of variety) visits their yard in the course of any given day. Controlled via the app, the camera can be adjusted for sensitivity, tailored to specific detection areas, and the user can set how long it should record each time it’s activated by movement.
The feeder itself has a decent capacity for whatever kind of food the user might want to use, and has wide enough openings that you can use pretty much any type of seed, nuts, fruit pieces, mealworms, etc. The top of the feeder easily comes off to allow refills, while the tray can likewise be removed for easy cleaning.
And indeed, the birds in our backyard adopted the new feeder pretty quickly. Within a few hours of it being out, Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice and Carolina Wrens had already started raiding it. Soon after, it was discovered by numerous Eastern Bluebirds that frequent our area, and they quickly became one of the most frequent visitors. Other species that have specifically visited the feeder in the last few days have included House Finches, American Robin, Song Sparrows, Goldfinches, Yellow-Rumped Warblers and pesky European Starling. Granted, that’s only a small cross-section of the variety of birds that tend to visit our yard, and we haven’t yet captured any footage of certain species we were hoping to see, such as our various resident woodpeckers. Larger birds in general haven’t shown a lot of interest in the Wasserstein Smart Bird Feeder to date, with the aforementioned Starlings being the largest species to use it.
A male bluebird looks down the barrel of the camera, while his mate (in mid-air) prepares to land next to him.
But in general, the feeder is certainly being used. And it’s definitely taking photos and videos. In that sense, you can’t fault the Wasserstein Smart Bird Feeder for fulfilling its basic function. But there are other aspects that leave something to be desired.
Where This Feeder Struggles
The overall design of the Wasserstein Smart Bird Feeder makes a lot of sense, right up to the point of actually installing or rigging it up for your birds. Whereas many hopper feeders are designed to hang, or be perched on top of a pole, this one is primarily designed to be strapped to something via fabric, be that a pole or a tree. This inherently makes it much more difficult to protect the contents of the feeder from any other animal that wants to come prowling. Planning to strap this on to a tree? Well, I promise you that the local squirrels will thank you for that decision, and they’ll empty it out overnight on a daily basis. Wanting to test that hypothesis, I strapped the bird feeder (unprotected) to a tall wooden pole in my backyard that holds up patio lights, perhaps 9 feet off the ground. It was found there within 24 hours by squirrels, and within 36 hours they had knocked off the seed tray and knocked the rest of the feeder to the ground.
I then tried to strap/tie the Wasserstein Smart Bird Feeder onto a metal shepherd’s hook that we’d already been using to hang backyard bird feeders. This worked, though it was difficult to strap on in such a way that wouldn’t result in the feeder moving freely and swaying in the breeze. Baffles on these poles are generally able to keep squirrels away if mounted high enough, but after a few days in this position the feeder drew the interest of marauding raccoons who were able to again knock the tray off the feeder for several nights in a row. The only real option was to start removing the tray from the feeder each night, which means that the user also needs to replace it and refill the feeder each day.
There’s also an option to more permanently and securely mount the Wasserstein Smart Bird Feeder to a surface with screws or nails, but that would come with one major caveat—you wouldn’t be able to access the back of the feeder to remove the camera, and thus would never be able to recharge the batter without removing the screws. It feels like designing this feeder to either hang, or be mounted on the top of a pole, would have been a much more simple way to solve these issues.
A male and female House Finch in conversation.
These are issues I would be quicker to forgive if the feeder was producing great quality video and photos of our local birds, but here the camera seems to fall a bit short. The Ring Stick Up we’re using for this purpose seems to be responsive and fully capable of triggering whenever birds are present, but what it struggles to do is to clearly focus on those birds when they’re in the foreground of the shot. This can be quite frustrating, because it renders very clear, HD images of things a foot or two away … but blurry video of the birds that are eating seed only a few inches away. No doubt, this is part of the camera’s design, as typically it’s meant to be capturing images of human beings who are standing in front of someone’s door, or prowling one’s property. It just so happens that in this case, the area where it most struggles to take clear video is the one area where you need clear video, for birds that are perched directly in front of it. Granted, passionate birders may still find these videos plenty useful, and it’s still easy to do things like identify species. But the videos don’t tend to be very visually engaging, which makes it less likely you’re going to want to say, share them on social media. I find myself wondering if perhaps the other compatible camera brands might be better suited for the up-close filming that this use of the camera demands.
Regardless, I’m left thinking that someone with a camera of this nature might ultimately be better off rigging their own feeding station, with the camera mounted or positioned a foot away or so from the feeders in order to give the clearest possible video. There are certainly ways to get value out of a setup like the Wasserstein Smart Bird Feeder, but its various drawbacks simultaneously leave some clear room for improvement.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and apparently its newest bird correspondent. You can follow him on Twitter for what is usually more drink-focused writing.