I’ve always enjoyed tending a bird feeder – reveling in the feathery beauty, satisfied I have provided a hearty meal.
As a wildlife gardener, however, I have to concede that there is a more bird-centric approach to feeding that can bring the same joy along with a more substantial boost to avian health.
As temperatures plummet, November brings a surge of customers to the Outdoor Bird Co. in Durham, a change of pace following late summer’s sales lull, said Casey Eckhoff, store manager. Closer to winter, nature’s buffet dwindles and birds once look to their human companions for a nutritious meal.
“Things usually pick up around here with the onset of cold weather,” said Eckhoff, who runs Hope Valley Commons store. “In fall, there are berries and nuts and grass seeds, and the birds enjoy that. But when temperatures drop below freezing, feeders become really important.”
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But before you rush out to pick up a 10-pound bag of ready-mix bird seed at the grocery store, Eckhoff and other bird-feeding specialists have a few words of advice: Pay close attention to the ingredients.
Seeds such as millet, flax, oats and others are considered “filler” seeds, which are shunned by many species and often knocked to the ground by birds seeking a better meal. This resulting mess can breed fungus or attract rodents, Eckhoff said.
For that reason, red millet is an especially troublesome element of lower-end seed mixes, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. White millet, on the other hand, can be a treat for ground-feeding birds, such as doves, juncos and cardinals.
Just about every bird-friendly source I encountered cites sunflower as the best overall seed to fill your feeder, whether the type you choose is black oil or striped.
“The black oil seeds have very thin shells, easy for virtually all seed-eating birds to crack open, and the kernels within have a high fat content, extremely valuable for most winter birds,” the Cornell site says. “Striped sunflower seeds have a thicker shell, much harder for house sparrows and blackbirds to crack open. So if you’re inundated with species you’d rather not subsidize (with) your black oil sunflower, before you do anything else, try switching to striped sunflower.”
Shelled sunflower is another popular option. It helps soft-beaked birds such as bluebirds eat their fill.
Of course, it’s hard to please everyone.
“You’ve probably known some finicky people, and birds can match them when it comes to what they will and will not eat,” Eckhoff said.
Carolina wrens, for example, are especially picky eaters.
“They will kick a whole lot of seed onto the ground just to find one or two pieces of unshelled sunflower, which they like,” he said.
Tree nuts, such as pistachios and pecans, are favorites of tree-dwelling birds, such as woodpeckers, titmice and chickadees.
Eckhoff suggests placing a feeder atop a pole with a spacious platform underneath to help salvage some of the seed that is inevitably kicked out of the feeder. Ground-feeding birds will find their way to the platform to graze.
Other wintertime food options include suet, which is typically a mixture of rendered beef fat with peanuts and other seeds to provide protein and act as a binder.
“It’s what you would think of as an energy bar for people,” Eckhoff said. “It helps birds build up the fat reserves they will need to stay warm throughout the winter.”
Vegetarians may want to look for a soy-based version of suet that meets similar nutritional requirements, he added.
The shelf life of birdseed is, to my surprise, not that long.
In fact, Eckhoff says bird seed should be treated like any dry food – it will last a few weeks at most, depending on the temperature and humidity where it is stored.
And if you are in the market for a new bird feeder, shopping all the options can pose another quandary.
There are tray feeders, house feeders, window feeders, thistle feeders and suet feeders, among others.
Tray feeders – also known as platforms – attract ground-feeding birds and other species, while house or hopper feeders are typically mounted on poles and are favorites of finches, chickadees, titmice and many others.
Suet feeders are built to enclose the rectangular brick of suet and may be mounted alone or adjacent to a house feeder. Thistle feeders are round and elongated to hold “socks” of thistle, a tasty treat that is also especially susceptible to mold in damp conditions.
My plan is to pick up some sunflower seed this weekend (and throw away the six-month-old bag of mixed seed that now is probably moldering in my basement) to create a beautiful and nourishing backyard for birds this winter.