Feeding Our Feathered Friends

by Dana Kester-McCabe

We may not spend much time in our garden during this time of year, but that does not mean that other folks don't hang out there. Feathered folks - that is.

There is quite a bit to learn about feeding birds in our back yard. The area that I have tended to neglect is regular cleaning of the feeder. Birding experts at Cornell University say that we should scrub them out regularly and sweep up the rotting seed hulls on the ground as these can spread disease in birds. Naturally that mostly applies to when the ground is dry and hard. Now that we have had our first significant snowfall of the season, that will have to wait.

Keeping bird feeders can bring we bird lovers a great deal of pleasure. They are probably more for us than the birds. Morning is an ideal time to watch for many feeder visitors. But really any time of day is good. You'll get to know who frequents at what time of day. Scientists at the Audubon society say that feeding the birds does not make it any harder for them to fend for themselves on their own and it does not affect their inclination to migrate.

So what should we feed the birds? As a kid my job was to fill the feeders and cut suet into small cubes, stuffing it into the holes of a slender log with branches that birds ate from. Some birds love this beef fat which is also known as tallow. It used to be that you had to get this from a butcher. Now you can buy it anywhere that bird seed is sold along with metal wire boxes so it does not have to be cut up. It comes plain or in a variety of species specific mixtures containing seeds, nuts, or fruit. Birds like downy woodpeckers, chickadees, titmice, and nuthatches love it. Fresh cut fruit is another popular item for them and orioles, tanagers, bluebirds, or waxwings. Suet also attracts mockingbirds, thrushes, and catbirds.

Commercial seed mixes usually contain buckwheat seeds, milo, millet, oats, wheat, flax, and sunflower. Finches and other songbirds tend to like the sunflower and thistle seeds the best. I have tended to avoid those mixes with "yellow seed" because the people we bought our house from advised me that was what attracted starlings and crows. Indeed after seeing their flocks invade and clean out my feeders in a matter of minutes I have followed their advice.

It is interesting how particular we are about who patronizes our little bird restaurants. I know of people who will shoo away beautiful but strident blue jays who can be predatory egg thieves during nesting season. Hawks can also use our feeders to stalk their prey. Most birds are very shy but persistent. If you see a hawk lurking about experts suggest scaring the birds you want to protect. The hawk will either take off as well or get tired of waiting for them to return - which they surely will do.

House cats can be a problem at feeders, particularly if you live in a neighborhood where you or your neighbors let pets roam or there are feral cats. I've been told by bird rescuers that if you put the feeder up high, the birds should be safe. It's the seed that drops on the ground that can prove to be the bird's demise. Some people will go to the trouble of creating a wire mesh barrier below the feeder that birds can enter to feed but which keeps predators away from them.

Traditionally people have put out stale bread and cake for birds. But this can attract pests like rats and raccoons and probably should be avoided. Some folks will go to great lengths to prevent furry competition from stealing all the feed. The most common preventative for squirrels, opossums, and raccoons is the slick metal cone which prevents them from climbing into the feeder. I have a friend who has been posting on Facebook a tally, including a mug shot, of all the squirrels he has caught in a trap. He takes the prisoners as far away as possible and releases them humanely. As of this writing he has "arrested" 82 offending squirrels and sentenced them to exile.

Another concern for people keeping feeders is the hazard of birds crashing into windows. Some people put up netting or hang things in their windows to alert the birds. Surprising what actually seems to work is to hang feeders within three feet of the window. Birds will aim for the feeder and keep their flying speed low near it. So even if they cannot avoid hitting the window they will not smash into it with such force that they are injured.

I personally could watch the birds at my feeders for hours. I love the little juncos and chickadees. I also love the colorful finches, and cardinals. Occasionally I have seen something really interesting like a downy wood pecker or a rufous sided towhee As my visitors squabble and play together they actually can provide as much entertainment as most television shows. I don't know if that says more about me or about television. Hmmm.

Here is a list of seeds and birds in our area which they attract.
* = Will Eat      ** = Preffered
Chickadees***        **  
Titmice ***        **  
Nuthatches***        **  
Finches***  *  **    
Cardinals ***            
Sparrows **  **        
Blackbirds**  **        
Jays*  **  *      
Woodpeckers*          **  
Orioles           *  **
Tanagers          *  **
Pigeons *  ****      
Doves*  ****      
Indigo Buntings*        *    
Painted Buntings**              
Robins              **
Thrushes              **
Bluebirds              **
Waxwings              **
Mockingbirds              **
Catbirds              **

Find out more about feeding birds online: