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All about feeding birds

Feeding birds can be a rewarding and enjoyable hobby. Even more important, you'll be providing much needed nourishment during the cold winter months when natural food sources can be hard to find. But before you rush out and buy a feeder, here are a few hints and tips to make bird feeding safer for the birds and more fun for you. We've also included a few recipes that are strictly for the birds. Be warned, however, bird feeding can become addictive and, before you know it, you'll find yourself just having to buy "one more feeder."

BIRD FEEDING TIPS

October is the time to start putting feeders out (if you haven`t been feeding birds year-round). Natural food sources are becoming depleted and any nuts or fruit left on shrubs will be used up throughout the winter.

Take time to find the right location for your feeders. Put them near shrubs or trees that will provide protective cover for easy escape from predation. Don`t put feeders on or near windows. The glass reflects the foliage beyond and confuses birds, causing them to fly into windows with often fatal results. Hawk decals and dangling objects help but don't entirely prevent such tragedies.

Black-capped chickadee at our Backyard Garden feederOnce you start feeding birds, keep it up until spring comes. Birds will depend on the food you supply and may have a hard time finding other food if you stop feeding them. This is particularly true if yours is the only feeder in the neighbourhood. It's especially important to keep feeders filled during very cold spells. Equally important — make sure the feeders are full at daybreak (you can fill them the night before) because birds need nourishment after a long cold night.

Keep your feeders clean. Wet seeds spoil quickly and can become poisonous. Every so often empty, dry, and air out feeders. Never use commercial cleansers to disinfect feeders; they are very toxic to birds. Use hot water and scrub well.

Metal can become stuck to birds' feet during cold weather causing the flesh to tear. Avoid metal on seed and suet feeders, using plastic-coated products instead. If you make a feeder from a hard plastic container, make sure you bind the edges with tape.

Birds don't have teeth to chew their food, instead their powerful gizzard grinds seeds, nuts, and berries. But they need grit to help them with digestion. You can supply it by putting out packaged canary grit, finely ground egg shells, very fine gravel, or clean sand.

Limit the use of bakery products (bread, muffins, etc.). They are low in nutrient value and can cause malnutrition in birds who eat them too often.

Peanut butter warning. Many books list peanut butter as an appropriate food for birds. However, because it is so sticky they can choke on it. If you use it (and we do not recommend it), mix it half and half with wheat germ or melted beef fat. Too much peanut butter can also cause health problems for birds.

KINDS OF FOOD

Seed: There are many types of seed available, and certain birds prefer specific seeds. A list of birds and their seed preferences is provided below. The most popular seed is sunflower, both striped and black-oil type. Mixed seeds are also popular with feeder enthusiasts, but depending on the type of seed mix, much of it may be wasted. It's best to buy a good quality mix from a store specializing in bird feeding. Thistle or niger seeds are favourites of finches, especially goldfinches and redpolls, and white proso millet is also highly palatable to many birds.

Fruit: If you put out soaked dried fruit and fresh fruit such as currants, cranberries, oranges, and berries, you'll attract birds that don't often come to feeders — like robins.

Hairy (left) and downy woodpeckers eating suetSuet: This attracts many insect-eating birds who are forced to change their diet to fruit and seeds during the winter. Avoid bacon fat, which contains too many harmful chemicals and use beef suet instead. You can buy commercially prepared packages of suet, some with seeds, or you can make your own from suet obtained from a butcher. Melting the suet helps remove impurities. Place the suet in a plastic-coated suet-holder, or smear it into the holes of a suet log. Don't tie it with string; birds feet may become tangled in it. Here are a few recipes and "serving" suggestions.

  • Mix melted suet with seeds and press it into a clean cardboard milk or juice container with the top removed or a plastic flower pot. Insert a long stick along one side. When the suet is hard, mount the container sideways outside (a birdbox with the front removed is a good site). Birds will perch on the stick while feeding on the suet.
  • Heat to boiling: 1 part suet and 6 parts water. Add 2 parts cornmeal, half part flour, 1 part brown sugar. Cool, pour into a cupcake pan and allow to harden.
  • Melt half a pound of fresh ground suet in a saucepan. Meanwhile, in a large bowl, mix together 1/8 cup of canary seed, chopped peanuts, cooked oatmeal, and cooked rice, and 1/4 cup of raisins or currants, sunflower seeds, and fine cracked corn. Cool the suet until it starts to thicken, then add the dry mix and stir until evenly distributed. Pour the whole thing into a pie pan or pack it into suet feeders. NOTE: you can also use millet, other birdseed, dried fruit or chopped berries. (From: How to Attract Birds. Ortho Books, 1983.) food, excavate holes or cavities, which become nesting sites for other birds and small mammals.

TYPES OF FEEDERS

Many different types of feeders are available, but most fall into several basic types.

  • Hopper feeders are the most common and can store a lot of seed which is released as it is used. They can be mounted on poles or platforms or hung from branches.
  • Tube feeders are cylindrical in shape and have several feeding outlets with perches. They can be hung from clotheslines, poles or branches and are best for chickadees, finches, and other small birds. Thistle or niger feeders are similar but the feeder openings are mere slits allowing one tiny seed to be taken at a time.
  • Platform feeders attract larger birds such as jays, and can also be used to hold fruit and nuts. They can be mounted on poles at varying heights. Their base may be solid wood or, better still, plastic-coated mesh which lets rain fall through keeping seed dryer.
  • Suet feeders are discussed above.

PREFERRED FOODS OF SOME COMMON BIRDS

  • Mourning Dove — black-oil sunflower seeds, white and red proso millet
  • Blue Jay — peanut kernels, sunflower, seeds of all types
  • Chickadee — black-oil and striped sunflower seeds, peanut kernels
  • White-breasted Nuthatch — striped sunflower seeds
  • Red-breasted Nuthatch — striped and black-oil sunflower seeds
  • Starling — peanut hearts, cracked corn
  • House Sparrow — millet, canary seed
  • Red-winged Blackbird — white and red proso millet
  • Common Grackle — striped and hulled sunflower seeds, and cracked corn
  • Cardinal — sunflower seeds of all types
  • Evening Grosbeak — sunflower seeds of all types
  • House Finch — black-oil and striped sunflower seeds, niger
  • Dark-eyed Junco — white and red proso millet, fine cracked corn
  • White-throated Sparrow — black-oil and striped sunflower seeds, white and red proso millet, peanut kernels
  • Song Sparrow — white and red proso millet

REFERENCES

  • Penland, S. and D. Gleisner. 1990. Winter bird feeding. Washington State Department of Wildlife.
  • Feeding the birds. Wildlife Rescue Association of British Columbia, 1991.
  • How to attract birds. Ortho Books, 1983.

This page was revised 29 October 2014
© Fletcher Wildlife Garden
Text and photos: Christine Hanrahan
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