Turn those backyard feeders into an avian fast-food restaurant

Posted Jan. 05, 2012, at 11:53 a.m.

As the blizzard pounded our neighborhood on Monday, Dec. 27, 2010, the resident avian fast-food freaks abandoned our backyard bird feeders. Not until mid-afternoon on that snow-darkened day did a solitary white-breasted nuthatch venture into the gale-force wind to tap, tap, tap on the wire-mesh feeder.

Watching from our cozy kitchen, I marveled at how long the storm-defying nuthatch battled snow and wind to filch a few seeds from the snow-crusted feeder.

Oh, what a difference a day makes! The sun shone the next morning, and chickadees and nuthatches and tufted titmice swarmed our bird feeders.

Apparently they’re finding what they like at the fly-by windows at McFeeder’s.

Serve the right foods

The correct foods attract birds to feeders in winter. In fact, winter limits the foods that bird lovers need buy: Insect-eating birds flitted south months ago, and only seed-eating birds remain. They also like fat, so serve seeds and suet to satisfy wintertime appetites.

But not just any seeds. To help our feathered friends survive during cold weather, Diane Porter writes at www.birdwatching.com that we should serve:

• Black oil sunflower seeds, “higher in oil content, softer shelled, and cheaper” than striped sunflower seeds sold for human consumption.

Note: www.birdwatchersdigest.com states that “thick-shelled, gray-striped sunflower seed” appeals to cardinals, chickadees, grosbeaks, jays, nuthatches, and tufted titmice. All sunflower seeds provide birds with energy and protein.

• Niger seeds, which attract goldfinches.

• Safflower seeds, colored white and “slightly smaller than black sunflower seed,” according to Porter. She reports that chickadees, downy woodpeckers, and tufted titmice like safflower seeds, while blue jays and grackles do not.

• Suet, “the solid fat rendered from beef and venison,” Porter indicates. Suet “provides concentrated en-ergy” to help birds maintain their interior warmth during cold weather.

• White millet, good for juncos and sparrows.

Porter cautions against serving mixed birdseed, which contains “a lot of filler, such as red millet. Most birds won’t eat it.”

What birds won’t eat, they drop onto the ground. Snow covers such avian litter until spring melt.

Feeder care

Like a fast-food restaurant, a bird feeder should be kept clean to eliminate pests — insect and rodent — and disease. As with people, wherever birds of a feather flock together, communicable disease can run ram-pant; clean feeders inhibit disease.

Consider these tips offered at www.birdwatchersdigest.com:

• Unlike a platform feeder, a covered feeder can protect seed from getting wet during damp weather.

• Throw out wet birdseed immediately.

• Spread only a few days’ birdseed on platform feeders. Brush out discarded seed shells every day.

• Clean and disinfect a bird feeder every few weeks. Use a bleach solution based on a quarter cup of bleach blended with two gallons of warm water. Let a disinfected feeder dry before using it again.

• Before cleaning or filling a bird feeder, dump out the old birdseed, preferably into a plastic bag or trash container and not onto the ground, where loose birdseed attracts crows and squirrels.

• Store fresh birdseed “in a clean, dry, air-tight container” impervious to mice.

• Stop feeding the birds after finding a sick or dead bird near a feeder. Immediately remove all birdseed from the feeder, then clean and disinfect it. Wait a few weeks before feeding the birds again.

• Create a brush pile “near your feeder to make sparrows, towhees, and other shy birds feel more at home.” Thick, leafless bushes work well, too.

Keep covered feeders relatively full, especially during and after storms and in cold weather. Since most Maine birds have flown to their southern coops by late fall, fewer birds will visit backyard feeders in winter — but those birds arrive ravenous. If they find delicious fare, they will eat … and eat … and eat.

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