Now that we have all stuffed ourselves over the Thanksgiving holiday, it’s time to help the birds stuff themselves as well!
It’s not critical that we feed birds. They can survive just fine on their own. But it definitely helps them, especially in winter.
Offering seed helps birds stay energized when it’s cold — especially during extreme cold and toward the end of winter, when stores of natural food are depleted. And many birds need to consume much more food in the winter than in warmer months.
The feeding of wild birds by many people increases substantially in the colder months. And birds rely on seeds (from grasses, trees, plants, etc.) more in the winter because there are far fewer insects available.
I usually feed birds year round, because I like to study and observe them. Not only to gain knowledge, but it can be fun as well.
If you watch adult cardinals eat sunflower seed, you will see that they are experts at opening them. They can retrieve the kernels inside in no time at all.
But it’s a different story with the young cardinals. In summer, when they first show up at feeders, they fumble around with sunflower seeds, and it is hilarious!
It reminds me of someone who’s been to the dentist and has no feeling in their mouth. Sometimes the seed just falls out, and they must try again. But with help from the parents, they always learn.
Offering seed is also a good way to attract birds to your yard!
Good or bad?
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, more than 50 million North Americans feed birds. That’s more than a million tons of seed provided to birds every year in what scientists call “supplementary feeding.”
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology conducted some research into the matter of whether or not feeding birds helps them, or harms them. The Lab compared the populations of birds that visited feeders at least a moderate amount and published the findings to its website.
“We found that species that use bird feeders the most tended to be doing just as well as, or better than, species that use feeders more sporadically.”
The feeder species that showed declines seem to be faced with non-feeder-related pressures, such as habitat loss, the Lab reported.
Can feeding birds be a bad thing? Yes. When people feed birds bread and table scraps, it’s bad. It’s not good for their digestive tracts. Especially white bread, and especially bread that has lactose in it. However, I’ve read that healthier bread — which is organic and/or minimally processed — can be OK to feed to them. But to err on the side of caution, I do not do it.
Now, many of you have probably been feeding wild birds for quite some time, so some of this may be old news. However, you might find some useful information in this column.
The seed they need
I am not an expert at feeding birds, but I have a lot of experience and a good knowledge of the subject.
Let’s get right to the best seeds.
• Black oil sunflower seed: Without a doubt, black oil sunflower seed is what I offer most. It is loved by many birds including cardinals, chickadees and titmice.
• Millet: Millet is also very popular, especially white proso millet. It also attracts many birds and is a favorite of juncos, buntings and siskins, just to name a few. While not as popular, red millet is also consumed by these birds.
• Nyjer (thistle seed): Nyjer is a favorite of American goldfinches, house finches and purple finches.
• Cracked corn: I also purchase cracked corn, which is eaten by larger birds such as doves and crows.
And I tend to scatter cracked corn on the outskirts of a feeding area to keep larger birds from scaring away the smaller ones.
• Peanut hearts: This is best placed on platform feeders and often attracts chickadees, titmice, nuthatches and jays.
• Milo: Let me say something about milo. It is my least favorite seed (and the birds’ least favorite seed) and is often used as a filler in bags of birdseed. It is especially used as a filler in cheap bags of birdseed.
There are birds that will eat milo: crows, doves, jays, grackles, house sparrows, etc. But often people don’t want all or some of these birds at their feeders, as they can scare away smaller, more desirable birds.
However, milo often just goes to waste.
When I purchase seed, I go directly to the good stuff. However, that doesn’t mean the expensive stuff.
The biggest mistake most people make when purchasing bird seed is looking for a large bag of mixed seed for the cheapest price. Although it may seem you are getting the biggest bang for your buck, you are actually spending more money for the seed you actually need and wasting money on cheap fillers — like milo.
I generally buy most seed separately.
I will go to a local department store and buy black oil sunflower seed in 40-pound bags (about $17 or so each). Black oil sunflower seed is beloved by nearly all backyard birds — even the small ones. And watching a tufted titmouse hammer away to get to the delicious kernel inside is quite a funny sight!
I also buy finch blend seed in 10-pound bags. The finch blend is mostly white proso millet, and many backyard birds will eat it. The kind of finch blend I buy is a mix of white proso millet, red millet, canary grass seed and nyjer.
I sometimes mix it all together as an all-around seed. However, since I have many feeding platforms, I often keep seed separate in each platform. That way, little birds that prefer millet don’t have to be near birds that prefer sunflower seed. Cardinals can be quite selfish about space at feeders!
Also, when purchasing seed, check the expiration dates! A couple of months ago, I visited a local store which had a large variety of bird seed. Upon inspecting the bags of cracked corn, I noticed all of them were well past the expiration date. One even had mold in it! And mold is bad for birds.
Offering suet is a great way to feed and attract birds. However, there are some things to know first.
Suet is raw, hard fat from beef or mutton. For bird feeding purposes, the fat is rendered and often mixed with other ingredients. Some suet cakes are made from lard or vegetable shortening and mixed with other ingredients.
I mostly offer suet cakes, which I purchase from a store. And it’s very often the year-round variety, which won’t spoil as quickly.
The suet cakes fit conveniently into suet cages, which can also be purchased from a store. The wire cages are coated in plastic to prevent rust, and it makes them easy to clean. And they should be cleaned because bacteria can grow.
And suet should be placed in the shade. Otherwise, direct sunlight will melt it and make it go rancid.
It should also be placed where varmints can’t reach it. My first time offering suet was in suet cages attached to trees. The raccoons loved it.
I now have my suet cages placed where only birds can get to them.
Also, use small pieces of wire to keep cages closed. The wire will help keep pests from opening the cage and making off with an entire suet cake.
Also concerning suet cage placement, I once read that placing a suet cage under something, such as an awning, will deter many undesirable birds, such as starlings, from visiting. They don’t like not being able to see above the feeder. That was the gist, anyway.
I previously fed birds on the north side of my house and had suet cages attached to the exterior walls near the windows, so I could see them.
This attracted many birds. The problem was, it also attracted starlings. And it takes no time at all for starlings to devour suet.
Currently, my suet cages are set up under a platform. The platform is about 18 inches by 18 inches.
Recently, I observed a curious, but wary, crow heading for a suet feeder under the platform. It kept moving in, and then it would back out. I could certainly see that it was nervous about being below the platform.
It finally began to eat some suet; however, it would retrieve a small piece off the suet block, then sidestep from under the platform to eat it. Because of this, it did not eat much. This was the goal. I don’t mind if these species of birds get some food, I just don’t want them to eat it all up before other birds can have a chance.
As for starlings, they have yet to discover my feeding stations where they are currently. We’ll see what the future holds.
I’m also experimenting with a homemade suet of equal parts lard, natural crunchy peanut butter and cornmeal. I will update you later on how the birds feel about it!
The post on which my platform feeders are mounted has aluminum wrapped around it to deter mammals. Does this stop the squirrels? Not much. They are very determined and sometimes find a way to get up there. However, they don’t do it very often, and I just shoo them down when they do.
Odds and ends
• Having a water source — such as a bird bath — is a good way to attract birds. Experts say having moving water, or water dripping into water, seems to attract more birds.
• Make sure to clean and disinfect feeders. And always remove old seed and hulls. Each week, check for mold at feeders and on suet.
• Keep birdseed — when stored — cool and dry.
• Keep cats inside if feeding birds. Perhaps it is better not to feed birds if you have a cat(s).
• I also feed dried mealworms in the winter. Many birds love them; however, they should be placed where they won’t get wet from the rain. And they are not cheap. I only offer a certain amount each day, as it is quickly consumed.
Did I miss something? I don’t have unlimited space, so some things get left out. If you have bird-feeding tips or just want to comment, feel free to send me an email.
Randy Mitchell is a freelance writer and photographer. He has been an avid birdwatcher, nature enthusiast and photographer for 40 years. Reach him at email@example.com.