May 21, 2018
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Maine experts offer advice on how to attract returning birds to your backyard

By Aislinn Sarnacki, BDN Staff

The birds are back. Well, some of them, anyway. And more are arriving every day, migrating north to lay eggs and raise their young in Vacationland, where there’s plenty of bugs and berries to go around.

“Bluebirds are already back here,” said Holly Twining, co-chair of Fields Pond Audubon Center in Holden, where bluebird nesting boxes are scattered throughout maintained fields.

“They nest in one side, and swallows will nest on the other,” Twining said. “Bluebirds feed on the ground and swallows feed on the wing, so they’re not competing.”

Not only does the Audubon provide housing for these beautiful songbirds, they also make sure they have plenty to eat. Bird feeders of all shapes and sizes surround the Nature Center, attracting a variety of birds — blue jays, woodpeckers, finches, chickadees, nuthatches and more. When it comes to attracting birds, they’ve got it down pat.

Mealworms tend to attract bluebirds; white millet is a favorite with sparrows, juncos and cardinals; and sliced oranges attract orioles, Twining said. She also suggests putting out Blue Seal Birder’s Secret Neat Feast bird food — a combination of shell-free sunflower chips, peanuts, coarse cracked corn, pistachios, walnuts, pecans and pumpkin seeds — a favorite of bigger birds such as ravens, crows and blue jays. Plus, it doesn’t require a lot of clean-up.

“For people who have less space, I highly recommend black oil sunflower seeds — that hits an awful lot of species,” Twining said.

Spring is a perfect time to clean your feeders, Twining said. Then, throughout the spring, summer and fall, feeders should be cleaned once a month.

“With the extra rain that comes in the spring, you want to keep a close eye, especially when using thistle seed, also called niger seed, a tiny black seed that chickadees and goldfinches love,” said Twining.

It’s just as crucial to clean under your feeders, according to Derek Lovitch, who owns Freeport Wild Bird Supply with his wife, Jeannette.

“This time of year, one of the things we absolutely stress is how important it is to clean up under your feeders,” Lovitch said. “A winter’s worth of seed shells, starting to rot and covered in bird droppings, are a significant vector for very dangerous diseases that can spread between birds, like salmonellosis.”

All species of birds are susceptible to salmonella infection, according to the National Wildlife Health Center, and salmonellosis is a common cause of mortality in birds at bird feeders. Commonly reported signs of the infection include ruffled feathers, droopiness, diarrhea and severe lethargy. Chronically infected birds often appear severely emaciated and may also be observed to seizure.

“We’re trying to help birds with bird feeding,” Lovitch said. “We don’t want to be counterproductive by providing an unsafe environment. If you don’t want to have a picnic under your feeders, your birds probably don’t want to eat there either.”

Lovitch also stresses not to put cracked corn in bird feeders, but to spread it on the ground or flat platform instead. Corn in feeders tends to stay wet and develop a fungus that can kill birds, he said. Spreading cracked corn on the ground can also prevent hundreds of blackbirds from overwhelming your feeders this spring.

“Also use safflower seed, which is a seed blackbirds don’t like,” Lovitch said.

For people who only have room for one feeder and want to attract a wide variety of birds, Lovitch suggests a quality mix, one without useless fillers such as sorghum, a tiny grain also known as milo, which makes up about 70 percent of some cheap bird seed mixes.

“Generally, the birds tell you what they like,” Lovitch said. “It’s important to look at whats under your feeder, and if you see a seed thats not eaten, it’s generally because the birds don’t like it … It’s amazing at the piles of rotting seed we see under feeders. It’s dangerous to birds and it’s a pile of money sitting there.”

In addition to a quality mix, Lovitch suggests a hopper-style feeder, which is a good size and shape for a variety of birds to feed from.

To avoid the mess of loose bird seed, you can put out suet cakes, blocks of bird food made from fat or a thick substitute mixed with hard morsels such as cornmeal, peanuts, fruit and dried insects. But these too can contain useless fillers.

“If you’re paying less than $2 for a suet cake, it’s generally not worth putting out,” Lovitch said.

Fields Pond Audubon Center provides a simple suet cake recipe to visitors: Heat and stir together 1 cup of peanut butter, 1 cup of vegetable shortening and 3-4 cups of cornmeal. Add a cup of birdseed. Pour into a pan and let it cool, then cut it into cakes. Extra cakes can be stored in the freezer.

Hummingbirds, which usually appear in Maine around Mother’s Day, also are easy to feed. Their liquid diet can be replicated in the kitchen by mixing 4 cups of water with 1 cup of sugar, Twining said.

“If you have a red feeder, hummingbirds are attracted to red, but don’t put red dye in their feed,” she added.

Bird baths, houses, and nesting boxes can also attract a variety of birds to your backyard. Just remember, these too need to be properly maintained.

“We popped one [a bird house] at my house on our arbor, just to get it out of the way, and a wren family came and used it,” Twining said. “Just put one up and see if anyone comes. You might get a visitor.”


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