Vol. 11 Issue 4, Winter 2006
By Bonnie Eaton
A well-stocked feeder is an excellent way to invite birds into your yard, especially in winter. Establish a regular feeding program in early fall when birds are choosing their winter territories. Many birds develop routines in their search for food, and you want to be on that route.
Choose a location for the feeder which offers birds a place to find cover, such as near a grouping of evergreens. If you are fashioning a homemade feeder, be sure to provide a roof and drainage to keep moisture away from the food.
You can also make perches for them out of old branches. Just be sure that marauding cats do not have an easy shot at them, and that you can see the feeder from a window. The arrival of a bright red cardinal at the feeder in the dead of winter is a cheery note for anyone with cabin fever.
It is best to buy high quality bird seed from a reliable pet or hardware store. Some mixes contain fillers or seed that is of no interest to your wild birds. Good mixed seed has a large amount of sunflower seed, cracked corn, white proso millet, and perhaps some peanut hearts. You can also buy ingredients separately and mix the seeds yourself.
Before you refill them, give your feeders a shake to dislodge any compacted seed. It’s also best not to tempt other wildlife with your bird seed over night, so only put in enough seed for the day.
If your feeder is overrun with House Sparrows, stop offering mixed seed on the ground or on platform feeders. Feed only black-oil sunflower seed (thin-shelled with a large nutmeat) in tube or hopper feeders until the problem is alleviated.
Do not offer so-called wild bird mixes in tube feeders. These are better presented on platforms or out of hopper feeders. Birds that prefer sunflower seed, and most do, will just empty the feeder to get at the sunflower seeds. Offer the thick-shelled, gray-striped sunflower seed to cardinals, jays, chickadees, titmice, and nuthatches. Cardinals will also enjoy safflower seeds.
Peanuts, out of the shell, roasted and unsalted, are popular now for feeding. Jays, nuthatches, chickadees, and titmice love this high-protein, high-energy food. Even cardinals and finches will eat peanuts. If you offer peanut butter, be sure to mix in some suet or corn meal to prevent choking.
Small finches will eat thistle seeds. You need to feed thistle in a thistle feeder of some kind. You can purchase a tube feeder with small thistle-seed-sized holes or a thistle sock. A thistle sock is a fine-mesh synthetic bag filled with thistle seed. Small finches will cling to the bag and pull seeds out through the bag’s mesh.
Suet (a saturated fat from beef or mutton) is a welcome gift to birds in winter. If you can’t find it at your bird store, ask your butcher. If you don’t have a suet feeder, you can make one out of an old mesh onion bag. Woodpeckers, juncos, cardinals, jays, bluebirds, Goldfinches and starlings all love suet. As a special treat, melt some suet in your microwave and pour it into an ice-cube tray to harden. Before it solidifies, add peanut bits, fruit bits, or other bird foods. You can keep the tray in your freezer for future use.
Mealworms are available at bait stores or by mail order. They aren’t really worms; they are the larval stage of a beetle (Tenebrio molitor). Your bluebirds will love them.
Also, set out some fruit such as grapes and apple, banana, and citrus slices. Encourage children to help. Little hands can take grapes off stems or peel orange slices apart.
Store seed in a clean, dry, air-tight container, such as a metal or plastic garbage can.
Fresh, unfrozen water is critical to bird health in the winter, so don’t forget to put out some water from time to time.
After chowing down, your birds may want to bathe. If you have a bird bath, keep it away from the feeding station to avoid soiling the water with shells and uneaten food. If you don’t have a standard bird bath, put out your kid’s plastic pool and fill it with an inch of water and a few rocks so the birds can land on them to dip their beaks.