Cover Story

A Pleasant Addiction

For many people, feeding and watching birds in winter has become a major pastime, almost an addiction.


by Spike Knuth, Contributing Writer


A survey by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) in 2001 revealed that 46 million people 16 years of age and older consider themselves bird-watchers. Some 80 percent, or 40 million of them, are backyard birders. In one year alone, birders spent about $32 billion, generating $85 billion in economic output!

Much of that money is spent on feeding birds in winter. Winter can be very rough on our bird friends. Normally there is plenty of natural food for them, but occasionally harsh weather in the form of heavy snow or sleet may prevent them from getting at it. While the birds are not really dependent on handouts from us, bird feeders can give the birds a little “life insurance.” In turn, the birds give us some enjoyable hours as we watch the colorful procession to and from our feeders.

It doesn’t take much to please the birds and keep them coming back. Most birds will feed off of the ground and expensive feeders are not a necessity. Many people fashion feeders out of plastic jugs or bottles. A 2' x 2' board set up on a sawhorse and anchored by bricks works fine. If you don’t want to build your own, feeders of all kinds are readily available at farm and garden stores, or specialty stores “for the birds.” They come in a variety of shapes and sizes, from fancy enclosed structures to simple platforms, or to shelters set on the ground.

Types of Feeders

 The four main types are platform or tray-type, either open or covered; the hopper type that is gravity fed; the tube types; and suet feeders. The platform or tray types can be mounted on a post or pole, or there are types that have short legs and sit close to the ground. Make sure the hopper type has proper angles on the side panels. Hoppers are gravity fed and if the side panels are too perpendicular, the seed will not drop and disperse properly. Tube-type feeders come with either small or large openings to accommodate different seed types. Place hanging feeders where they can be seen, but try to avoid hanging them too close to large windows.

Suet feeders, which are plastic-coated wire cages, can be purchased at many stores. Suet cakes made of melted suet laced with seeds or bits of fruit can be purchased and fit nicely into the cages. You can also rig up onion sacks, or other wide-meshed materials to hold suet. Hang them six to eight feet off of the ground on limbs, tied to branches, or even nailed to a post. Suet can be purchased from meat counters at the local market. Make sure you get true suet and not just meat fat. Suet is the hard, waxy fat from around the kidneys or loins of beef, venison, and mutton. It holds up better than meat fat, which can turn rancid.

Along with suet, there are three types of seed that attract the most birds: sunflower seed; niger (thistle) seed; and white proso millet. The most highly preferred seeds are sunflower seeds, especially the black-oilseed variety, which is smaller and meatier, with thinner hulls, and high in fat and protein. The striped variety is acceptable, but is larger with a thicker hull.

Niger is a tiny wisp of a seed, much like celery seed. It is imported from Africa and Asia, and is favored by the smaller finches. This seed is best offered in the hanging, tube-type feeders. The third main attractant is white proso millet, which is favored by ground-feeding birds. Other seeds that birds like include safflower, cracked corn, and red millet. If you have to make one choice, choose the black-oil seed sunflower.

Visitors to your feeder will not be confined to seedeaters. Carolina wrens and even yellow-rumped warblers might visit your feeder to clean up pieces left by seedeaters. Mockingbirds, robins, waxwings, and bluebirds are primarily fruit eaters in winter. Raisins and sliced or quartered old apples will get their attention. Of course, scraps of bread, crackers, and doughnuts that get too old will be welcomed by many species. Beware, however, of attracting furry nocturnal creatures with wiggly noses!

Peanut butter has also proven attractive to some birds at times. It can just be dabbed on and served up in coconut or walnut shell halves or pine cones. Some people mix seeds with it. Personally I’ve always considered peanut butter to be too good of a “people food” to give to the birds! If you like to buy and eat peanuts or nuts in the shell, save the leftovers and put them out. Little tidbits of nutmeats often remain lodged in the crevices of the shells, which birds are very adept at removing.

Habits Change with the Season

Bird-feeding habits are variable not only by species, but also by season and, in many cases, the region. Some species are primarily ground feeders around the bases of trees and shrubs. Still others come mainly to elevated feeders or suet cages.

One thing to remember in winter is that birds feed heavily before a storm hits. If the weather forecast calls for a snowstorm or sleet, get the food out ahead of the storm by at least 10 or 12 hours. Birds will fill up, then find suitable shelter and sit tight to wait out the storm. They are very hesitant about leaving shelter during a cold wet storm. Occasionally they’ll disappear just before a storm. They’ll often move to wooded swamps or coniferous forests that offer protection from the wind and snow, and where food and water sources remain uncovered due to the dense stands of timber. Remember, too, to clear a spot on the ground for birds to get grit, which aids them in digestion.

What species of birds you attract and see is often dependent on your surroundings; the types of habitat close by. Woodlands, swamps, fields, and hedgerows, or a pond or stream close by, will provide more opportunities for variety. Birds need protective cover and will stay close to it.

Much to be Learned at Lunch

A lot can be learned about individual species of birds by just observing them at the feeders. Each has its habits, mannerisms and methods. Cardinals seem to be very “picky and choosy” about what individual seeds they eat. They begin their visits to the feeders early, and are usually the last to visit them as night falls. Blue jays come to the feeder boldly and quickly, pick up a seed, then take it to a tree branch and crack them open with their bills by means of a hammering action. Sometimes the jays will gobble up three or four seeds at a time and carry them to a more private place, regurgitate them and then hammer them open. Chickadees and titmice also make quick visits, grabbing a seed and going to a private place to crack it open. Nuthatches will carry seeds off and stash them in crevices of bark for later use.

Frequently the question is asked, “Will birds become reliant on my feeding?” According to the Laboratory of Ornithology, Cornell University, “no evidence exists that birds depend on bird feeders for their survival. Therefore, don’t worry if you must stop feeding them for awhile.”

However, during those severe storms we certainly can make things easier for them.

Try It, You’ll Like It!

If you haven’t tried attracting and feeding birds in winter, you’re in for a real treat. Keep it simple to start. Just put out one platform or one hopper-type, hanging feeder, fill it with black oilseed sunflower seeds, and keep track of what you see. By keeping a log of what species visit your feeder and when, you’ll build anticipation, waiting for that “new” bird to visit your feeders. Feeding winter birds is a pleasant addiction.


Winter Bird Foods

The Best  Black-Oilseed Sunflower:  A small, thin-shelled seed that is meatier and rich in fat and protein than the striped kind. Almost all species will eat it, including cardinals, grosbeaks, titmice, chickadees, blue jays, nuthatches, finches, pine siskins, white-throated sparrows, juncos, song sparrows, red-bellied woodpeckers, downy woodpeckers, towhees, doves, and others. Carolina wrens and yellow-rumped warblers will pick up scraps left by others.

Striped Sunflower: Larger, thicker shells than black oilseed. Cardinals, grosbeaks, red-bellied woodpeckers, blue jays, titmice, chickadees, nuthatches, white-throated sparrows, pine siskin, finches, and others will eat it.

Niger (thistle): A small but high-calorie food. Expensive. Absolute best food to attract goldfinch, but also eaten by other finches at the feeder. White-throated sparrows, juncos, doves, and song sparrows will clean up spilled seeds from under the tube feeders.

White Proso Millet: Most preferred of the millets. Has a hard seed coat, which deters spoilage, but birds can crack it. Liked especially by the ground feeders such as cardinals, towhees, white-throated sparrows, song sparrows, juncos, doves, and others.

Suet: Beef kidney fat is the best. Suet cakes mixed with seeds or cut-up fruits are available in ready-to-use form. Favored by chickadees, nuthatches, brown creepers, kinglets, Carolina wrens, downy woodpeckers, red-bellied woodpeckers, and yellow-rumped warblers.

Hulled Sunflower Seeds:  Easy for all birds to eat, but is expensive and spoils quickly in wet weather.

Safflower: Can spoil quicker in wet weather. Eaten by cardinals, grosbeaks, doves, titmice, and finches.

Cracked corn: Spoils quickly when wet, and attracts some species considered undesirable by many. Eaten by doves, blue jays, red-bellied woodpeckers, and some sparrows.

Whole corn: Eaten by red-bellied woodpeckers, blue jays, and doves.

Red Millet: Eaten by many types of sparrows and juncos.

Milo: Hard shelled. Used as filler in birdseed mixes. Eaten by doves, blue jays and sparrows.

Peanuts (in the shell): A good source of protein. Used by blue jays, titmice, nuthatches, and red-bellied woodpeckers.

Peanuts (unsalted-shelled): Attracts even more species. Eaten by blue jays, titmice, white-throated sparrows, and others.

Peanut Butter: A people food but is eaten by nuthatches, titmice, and others.

Nutmeats: A natural and nutritious high-energy food. Pecans, hickory, walnut and acorns can all be collected and cracked open for the birds. Eaten by woodpeckers, blue jays, chickadees, nuthatches, and titmice. Will attract squirrels and chipmunks.

Melon, Squash and Pumpkin Seeds: Not available commercially at a reasonable price. A lot of work to collect and dry but are very attractive to cardinals and doves in particular.

Fruit: Raisins, grapes, currants, sliced apples, etc. Will attract robins, bluebirds, mockingbirds, brown thrashers, cedar waxwings, Carolina wrens, house finches, and woodpeckers.

Insect Larvae: Mealworms, a beetle larvae, and waxworms, a bee moth larvae, can be purchased at fishing bait shops, pet stores or by mail, and will attract bluebirds, robins, chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, Carolina wrens, red-bellied and downy woodpeckers, cardinals and finches. Can get expensive.

Other Tips    Beware of bags of mixed seeds sold in grocery stores and discount department stores. While inexpensive they are loaded with seeds and fillers that birds won’t eat.

Providing water throughout the winter will be a plus in attracting birds. Freeze-proof birdbaths of different types are available at garden and bird specialty stores.



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