Belly up, birds: The feeders are full

Posted Jan. 18, 2013, at 10:58 a.m.
Common redpolls are eager eaters and can cost a homeowner a fortune in feed through the winter.
Courtesy of Bob Duchesne
Common redpolls are eager eaters and can cost a homeowner a fortune in feed through the winter.

I wonder if I sometimes go a little overboard when feeding the birds. I think about that every time I throw a dead cow on the vulture feeder.

Bird feeding is America’s second favorite hobby, coming in just behind gardening. I read that on the Internet, so it must be true. This subject can fill many columns, which is good news for me because I expect to write many columns. Whole articles can be written about food choices, feeder types, feeder locations, proper cleanliness and everybody’s favorite gripe: squirrels.

Let’s start with the basics: food. If you can only choose one, choose black oil sunflower seeds. It’s a universal favorite. This seed has a good meat-to-shell ratio with a higher fat content, making it more nutritious and easier for small birds to eat. Striped sunflower seeds are larger and have thicker seed coats. These may be easier for jays and cardinals to eat, but since they will also eat black oil, why bother? Striped sunflower seeds are a popular addition to seed mixes, but nuthatches are notorious for picking seeds out of the feeder and dropping the ones they think are too big. Wasteful.

There are some circumstances where seed mixes are OK, especially on platform feeders. Birds can pick up the seeds they want, ignoring the ones they don’t. Meanwhile, another species can clean up the ignored seeds when it’s their turn. Personally, I avoid commercial mixes. The cheaper mixes sometimes have a lot of filler seeds that local birds don’t care for. Rather, I have a mix of feeders, each filled with one seed type.

My second feeder choice is Nyjer. Nyjer resembles North American thistle, but it is not related. It is imported from Asia and Africa, which explains its relatively high cost. Still, I put out multiple feeders. These feeders are habitually ignored for long periods, and then suddenly come alive with small finches. Nyjer is favored by American goldfinches, pine siskins and common redpolls. The flocks wander and often arrive in big numbers, swarming the feeders. When they sit in the trees on a cold winter day, their cheerful cacophony is deafening.

If my feeding habit has not yet emptied my wallet, at least one suet feeder is hung with care. It’s nice to have a feeder that the squirrels disregard. I have a lot of woodpeckers in the neighborhood and my house is a regular stop on their rounds. The blue jays, nuthatches and chickadees also grab a bite regularly. I bought the wooden log feeder with holes drilled for suet plugs. I know these plugs are overpriced, but the woodpeckers are downright indignant when the feeder goes empty.

Hummingbird feeders are an obvious choice. Plan to put them out in early May and leave them out long after the hummers have seemingly gone. Vagrants of other hummingbird species drift into Maine during migration and when these rarities find a late feeder they like, they’re apt to entertain for days.

Everybody’s household is different. Waterfront homeowners have been known to lure ducks by spreading whole corn on the ground. That’ll draw turkeys, too, so be prepared for a very well fertilized lawn. Cracked corn gets the attention of pigeons and sparrows. Millet is a small, round grain that is often included in seed mixes. A handful sprinkled on the ground is a boon to juncos and sparrows.

Feeders should be cleaned regularly to avoid problems. Because feeders concentrate a lot of birds — all defecating with uncaring abandon — they can spread disease. Salmonella is known to spread among finches in this way. Hummingbird feeders can suffer from mold. The sugar solution can ferment. Nyjer goes moldy at the bottom of the feeder, especially if exposed to moisture. During a warm July, I’ve had a whole bag of Nyjer go rancid from sitting too long in a metal can in the hot garage.

Feeders on a porch can also be messy. Some folks have good luck using hulled sunflower seeds, but these are expensive and don’t store as long. Some homeowners get annoyed by too many pigeons and house sparrows. For them, safflower seeds might discourage the pests while attracting cardinals and larger finches. Safflower resembles sunflower seeds, though they are less preferred by most birds.

Many birds like mealworms. Even bluebirds are sometimes attracted to mealworms on a platform feeder. These can be purchased live, frozen, dried, canned or roasted — ultimate proof that the birds are eating better than you are.

Bob Duchesne serves as a Maine Audubon trustee and vice president of its Penobscot Valley Chapter. Bob developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at www.mainebirdingtrail.com. Reach Bob at duchesne@midmaine.com.

 

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