Fine, I’ll admit it: I have a bunch of bird feeders in my yard. It’s not quite at bird-hoarding level behavior yet, but there’s my old-before-my-time confession. I like starting my days with a cup of coffee and a nice long gaze at the feeders, and I wear out the family with my constant, “Oooh guys check out the size of that blue jay!” interruptions.
So when SPY asked me if I knew anybody who wanted to test out the Bird Buddy AI-powered camera bird feeder, I wondered if they’d been stalking my Instagram feed. I wondered for about two milliseconds before I said, yes, please, have them send the Bird Buddy here post-haste.
I have literally dozens of potential models from the Great Lakes-area bird species who are regular visitors to my feeders — cardinals, blue jays, orioles, woodpeckers, nuthatches — and now I get to see and virtually capture them automatically instead of sitting on the patio with my iPhone camera at the ready. (Not that I’ve ever done that. Because that would be kind of sad. Nope, not me. Ooh! Woodpecker!)
The Story of the Bird Buddy
So who’s brilliant idea was this, anyway? The Bird Buddy was born as a Kickstarter in November 2020. The lure of getting in on the ground floor of the world’s first AI-based smart bird feeder was great enough that the Bird Buddy ended up in the top 1% of most-funded products on Kickstarter and Indiegogo. That’s some serious nest-lining.
“The idea came about after we had seen the viral image of a gull who had stolen a GoPro with the camera taking up-close photos of the bird,” said Franci Zidar, CEO & Co-Founder at Bird Buddy. “It was such a cool and interesting visual that we thought about putting a camera in a bird feeder to capture similar images, and from that Bird Buddy was born.”
Even if you’re not a closet birdwatcher, the appeal of the Bird Buddy is pretty clear. It’s kind of impossible to get up close and personal with wild birds, much less capture them looking positively goofy and adorable while they’re grabbing a quick meal. Moreover, the Bird Buddy’s hi-resolution 5-megapixel wide dynamic range camera (with 720p video) is backed by their AI facial recognition and even song recognition via the built-in microphone. The Bird Buddy’s AI recognizes over 1,000 bird species, so you have a pretty great chance of knowing exactly who’s dropped by for a snack.
Not AI is perfect, of course, and wild birds aren’t exactly great at giving a nice steady front-facing pose and saying cheese for the camera. So Mystery Guests can be sent to Bird Buddy’s in-house experts for identification. Turnaround time? A surprisingly fast 48 hours for me each time.
The other half of how the Bird Buddy makes birdwatching better? Notifications are sent to your phone whenever you have a new visitor, or “postcards,” as Bird Buddy calls them. You get to review the pics and videos (often several from each visit), keep the ones you like, and discard the others. The Bird Buddy app automatically sorts them by species in your album, tells you fun facts about them, and allows you to share them with the Bird Buddy community, pinpointed on a map. The images are also easily downloaded from the app to your camera roll.
The novelty and ease of use of the Bird Buddy has sent it soaring from Kickstarter darling to mainstream success. To date, there have been 55 million Bird Buddy views on Facebook and Instagram, 51 million on Reddit, and 6 million on TikTok, all from the roughly 100,000 (and rising) members of the Bird Buddy online community.
What’s New With the Bird Buddy?
The original Bird Buddy offerings included a solar roof for charging the camera, a wall mount, fence mount, suet-ball holder, and water bottle attachment. But now, fresh from CES 2023, they’ve unveiled a new AI feeder for hummingbirds (due late 2023), along with perch extenders and a pole-mount system as accessories.
The model I tested was the original, without accessories. The perch extender will be a very welcome add-on because big birds like blue jays and larger woodpecker species are too big to perch on the feeder and eat. The pole-mount system will have its pros — the provided pole-mounting hardware that came with my Bird Buddy claimed to be compatible with 1-inch PVC or another pipe but was too small for that and too large for 3/4-inch pipes. I had to jury-rig a wooden stake. But it will also have its cons — any squirrel worth its bushy tail will quickly climb that pole and loot your feeder several times a day.
My feeding pole, however, has a built-in baffle that the menacing hordes of neighborhood squirrels have not been able to conquer. So the backyard hanger was the logical first location for my test.
What’s Included With the Bird Buddy
Unboxing the Bird Buddy was promising in that there were very few moving parts and virtually no assembly required. The box contained the study hard-plastic housing, the camera unit with a USB-A to USB-C charging cable and an adapter to make it USB-C on both ends, a mounting base, and screws for pole mounting, a (very) long string for hanging, and a pour cup for adding seed.
The Bird Buddy instructions are short, sweet, and easily understood, but the very good website has video instructions in case you get stuck, as I did when trying to figure out how to run the hanging string through the feeder. A quick visit to the website easily solved any issue.
Installing the App and Connecting the Camera
After charging the camera overnight, it was time to give the Bird Buddy a test flight. Downloading the app via the QR code inside the box and creating a Bird Buddy account was a snap.
Pairing the Bird Buddy to my Wi-Fi took about 4 minutes, as the app estimated. Once paired, it was time to take it to its desired location outside. Another great feature kicked in here — the next step of the setup was the app measuring the strength of the Wi-Fi signal to let you know if your location will work.
The camera and the feeder are a snug fit via the magnet on the housing. My unit withstood two fairly stiff windstorms without dislodging. And the app will not give you images unless the camera is in the feeder. But before you install the camera, find your location, hang or mount the feeder, and then fill it with seed. (Any seed will do, but if you want to look up what kinds work best for the birds in your area, Bird Buddy’s website can help you there too.) If you fill it first, you’ll be spilling more seed than Nick Cannon.
How Did the Bird Buddy Perform?
- Great picture and video quality
- App is fun, easy to navigate, and fact-filled
- “Ask the Bird Buddy Experts” feature is a great idea and responds rapidly
- The online community
- Would be a perfectly good and durable bird feeder even without the camera
- Bird selfies are goofy and hilarious
- Reconnecting with the app after charging is maddening
- Battery life is very short (in winter, without the solar roof charger)
- Pole mount hardware difficult to pair with an actual pole
As is common with new feeders, the birds don’t automatically flock to it. Being inherently distrusting of humans and always on the lookout for predators — hawks and housecats are the biggest local culprits here — they tend to stick with known food sources until they feel safe enough to indulge in a new feeder. Plus, I started my test in November, not exactly peak birding season.
I got my first postcard about halfway through the second day — white-breasted nuthatch, come on down! The quality of the images were great: six in all, four worth keeping as the first additions to my album.
From there, the postcards were dropping fast and furious. American goldfinches, black-capped chickadees, and house sparrows all came and posed for their meal. The AI was really helpful here, as I’ve never been able to tell a sparrow from a finch, and I darn sure was not pulling “black-capped chickadee” out of my hat.
The common thread of the first-day visitors, which would stay consistent throughout weeks of testing? Small birds. As stated above, the feeder is too small for a large bird like a blue jay or red-headed woodpecker to use, and we have both of those birds in abundance here. I was tempted to buy a perch extender on Etsy — the fact that they exist at all on Etsy is a testament to the growing popularity of the Bird Buddy — but the CES announcement of new accessories, including perch extenders, has me waiting until I can buy one from the company itself.
Another thing I will be buying for my Bird Buddy? The solar roof because the unit’s battery life is not great. I was having to bring the camera unit inside for a charge every third day. Granted, it’s cold out, and rechargeable batteries do not fare well in sub-freezing temps, but since I want to use my Bird Buddy year-round, I’ll be making that investment.
However, therein lies another rub — recharging the camera. The recharging itself via the provided USB cable is uneventful. But reconnecting the unit to the app after charging has been problematic each time.
The only button on the unit used to turn it off and on and also to put it into pairing mode sits at the end of the small stem above the camera, and it’s slightly recessed and somewhat hard to click down. The LED indicator light just above the button gives out 12 different signals in six different colors to show what’s happening with the unit (pairing, updating firmware, low battery, etc.), and none of them are easy to detect because the light is very dim.
More than once, I had to delete the camera from my app and start the pairing process from the beginning. Fortunately, you don’t lose your albums or pictures when you do that. It’s an annoyance for sure, but hardly fatal because the overall performance of the camera (when paired) and the fun aspects of the app and the community vastly outweigh the tech glitches. And tech glitches can be fixed. (Right, Bird Buddy peeps reading this?)
Attack of the Seed Weasels
After a few weeks of heavy traffic on the backyard feeder pole, it was time to switch things up and go with the pole mount in a new location where it would be the only feeder. As stated above, the provided mounting hardware really doesn’t align with any pole I could find in three hardware stores, so I rigged it onto a 5-foot wooden garden stake. It sat firmly enough, and the bird traffic returned quickly.
But a 5-foot wooden pole without a baffle was easy pickin’ for the local seed weasels — the eastern gray squirrel.
Right. “Mystery visitor” my ass. I know what you are….
Some fairly hilarious videos on my Bird Buddy app look like gray fur tornadoes, and at least 50 pictures of….fur. Squirrels, as foul and annoying as they are when you’re trying to feed birds, are not stupid. Once they find an easily accessible food source, they never leave it alone. The birds still came, but the feeder was emptied on a daily basis by these evil rodents, sometimes twice.
Bird Buddy’s website states plainly that there really is no foolproof method for keeping squirrels out. However, there are hundreds of YouTube videos of hilarious and sometimes borderline-homicidal methods being tested. I would beg to differ, as my feeder pole with the built-in baffle has not been breached once in three years, and the Bird Buddy is easily hung from it. Word to the wise — buy the baffle.
But if you do end up fighting the ultimately futile battle with the squirrels, rest assured that the Bird Buddy feeder is exceptionally durable. While a squirrel will easily empty it, it won’t destroy it. Squirrels will make quick and violent work of a wooden feeder — I’ve had more than one literally torn to pieces — but the hard-plastic housing of the Bird Buddy is impervious to their chomping teeth.
Should You Buy the Bird Buddy?
Yes, there are some tech glitches I would like to see solved. And yes, I’m curious to see how the battery performance will be better once the weather warms up. But I’ve been testing the Bird Buddy for two months now, and I still can’t get enough of those postcards and videos. So should you buy the Bird Buddy? Absolutely yes, and I can’t wait to get my hands on the hummingbird version later this year.