Tips on feeding birds

By Claire Curry | Published Thursday, February 3, 2011

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Many types of seed occupy the bird-feeding shelves in stores. If you want to start feeding birds, or scale up your current endeavors, how should you start?

The most low-tech way is just to scatter seed on the ground. To get a larger variety of seed-eaters, put the seed on a raised platform (some birds will be shy about sitting on the ground). Another popular feeder is a tube with perches for several birds to feed at the same time.

What seeds are best to feed? The greatest variety of birds will come to black-oil sunflower seed. Everything from big-beaked cardinals to tiny goldfinches will eat it. Woodpeckers will crack them open. Titmice will stash them in hiding places for later use.

You can get a little bag from the grocery store or 50-pound bags if you are using a lot of it. The mixed-seed bags advertised for birds are usually not so effective with a lot of millet and milo that often only a few species such as doves and house sparrows like.

Cracked corn could get some turkeys if you are in the right habitat. Striped sunflower (which you can grow in your garden) is a bit big for most species, but cardinals can handle it. I’ve seen safflower seed recommended for cardinals as well, but I’ve not used it much nor seen many birds eat it.

Of course, not all birds eat seeds. Suet can get some insect-eating birds to visit your yard. It is a mixture of fat and other foods that birds love, even those that are coming for the seeds. It seems weird to want to eat a bunch of fat, but birds are looking for high-energy foods to help them keep warm during the winter and fuel their daily activities.

You can buy suet cakes that fit conveniently into wire cages (which can be bought usually near the other seed-dispensing feeders) or you can make your own.

Making your own is a bit messy but probably cheaper. We use a mix of equal parts lard, peanut butter and corn meal (then keep adding corn meal until there is enough to make it clump together without becoming crumbly). You can then add your own “bird treats” to this basic mixture, such as raisins and pre-shelled sunflower seeds.

We stuff this in holes drilled in a small log that we hang. Everything eats it, from woodpeckers to kinglets to sparrows to winter warblers (such as those rare pine and orange-crowned warblers) to meadowlarks (if you are in the right habitat).

Keep in mind that your bird-feeding is not going to get your local birds dependent on your handouts to survive. There will be many more birds than you can detect visiting the feeder over the day. When people have banded birds at feeders (so they are individually identifiable), they are usually surprised to find out their “regular chickadee” and “regular flock of finches” are actually quite a few chickadees and finches!

The only time when feeding may make a difference between life and death for local birds is during an episode of severe winter weather, such as a layer of ice or sleet covering their normal food sources. Even then, bird populations have survived for generations on what nature alone provides.

As you stock those bird feeders this winter and enjoy the feeding flocks, keep your eyes peeled for unusual visitors, your old familiar favorites and the unique behaviors that even our most common of species exhibit. All of our birds are amazing, and you never know what wonders you may observe!

The next monthly field trips to the Lyndon B. Johnson National Grasslands will be Feb. 2 and March 2. We will depart at 9 a.m. from the Forest Service District Office in Decatur. Contact Mary Curry (see below) or the Forest Service District Office, (940) 627-5475.

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