Wild Ideas: What’s best in winter for wild birds, and for you

To learn more

For more information about wild birds and feeding them, check out the following: Audubon (audubon.org or call 212-979-3000), NBFS (birdfeeding.org or call 866-WILDBIRD) and Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s online “All About Birds” (allaboutbirds.org).

You like birds. You want to see them up close. You’d like to help them survive through the winter. For any or all of these reasons, you’ve decided to feed your wild feathered neighbors, but doing it so that you and the birds get the most out of it can be complicated.

You can just buy a bag of mixed bird food from wherever and stick it in any old feeder, but you’re unlikely to attract all the native species overwintering in your area and could even endanger the ones that do come. Think first about which species you want to attract, how many feeding stations fit within your budget and your willingness to maintain them, and where they will be located.

Every bird species has its food preferences, and some commercial mixes have seeds in them that they may not eat and that may even discourage wanted birds and attract unwanted ones. Corn will more likely attract unwanted nonnative species, such as weaver finches (a.k.a. English sparrows) or cowbirds, and can get wet easily and become dangerous for the birds that do eat it.

Milo (sorghum), the little brown seeds in many mixes, is not preferred by any species in our area, according to National Bird-Feeding Society (NBFS) director Dr. David Horn. White proso millet, also often in mixes, will attract birds who feed close to or on the ground — such as quail, doves, juncos, sparrows, and towhees — but will likely go untouched if it’s in a tube feeder higher up.

A pair of Northern Cardinals at a feeder. Photo by Ken Thomas.

If you’re only going to use one kind of feed, black-oil sunflower is best because of its high fat and protein content. According to the National Audubon Society’s Web site, hulled sunflower seeds are consumed by the widest variety of bird species, including jays, red-bellied woodpeckers, finches, goldfinches, northern cardinals, evening and pine grosbeaks, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches and grackles.

Finches, redpolls, juncos, doves and pine siskin love Nyjer (Guizotia abyssinica) seed. Often mistakenly thought of as thistle, it’s actually cultivated in Asia and Africa and belongs to another plant family.

An evening grosbeak at a tube feeder filled with sunflower seeds. Photo by George Gentry/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

If you want to use a seed mix to attract more species to one feeder, how about making your own? Use seeds that suit the birds you want to attract and the location and type of feeder you want to use. Shelled sunflower seeds, peanut hearts, and safflower seeds make a good mix that leaves less mess and is easier for softer-beaked birds to eat. (However, “hit-and-run” birds with tougher beaks, such as chickadees, enjoy hauling off larger or unshelled seeds to feast on in private.) You can use the various types of seeds separately to attract specific species.

Not all birds are seed eaters. Mockingbirds prefer raisins and berries, and bluebirds may come calling if you put out meal worms. For many birds, especially woodpeckers, suet is hugely popular because of the high fat content.

To get a variety of bird species, have feeders at different levels, with food matched to birds who feed in those zones. Doves, northern cardinals, juncos, and sparrows like feeding on the ground, or at a flat, open feeder not more than about five feet off the ground. Doves won’t visit tube or hopper feeders―those that release seed when birds hop on them, but cardinals may visit both feeders they’re large enough. Chickadees, titmice, woodpeckers, and finches will feed higher up and do fine with most types of feeders.

Many species don’t like to be crowded or will gang up and take over, so spreading out feeders horizontally keeps everybody happy and also helps prevent spread of disease. Salmonella and other diseases, along with seed that has gone rancid or moldy, can be a problem, so it’s really important to dump out old seed and keep feeders clean. A mild bleach solution is recommended by most bird organizations.

Water is often more important than food for birds, so have that available, too. And you’ll need to protect the feeders from bears, squirrels, dogs, cats, and other nonbird marauders.

The quality of the seed processing can vary, according to Horn. How do you know which brands are best? Horn says the Wild Bird Feed Industry (www.wbfi.org), a trade association, has set quality standards based on purity, test weight, maximum moisture, mold, odor, insect infestation and damage and heat damage.

“Not all seed producers who belong to the organization meet the standards, and not all producers who meet the standards belong to the organization,” Horn says, but he still suggests looking for WBFI’s logo on bird-feed packages.

Here in Rappahannock County, the CFC Farm & Home Center recently started carrying a line of feed that’s endorsed by WBFI and by Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.

What about the use of pesticides or herbicides in the growing process? I haven’t found any information on that and neither has Horn. However, he did point out that, since most of what ends up going to the bird-feed market is initially aimed at human consumption, the type and amount of chemicals (if any) used in the growing process should be the same wherever the feed ends up.

If all this doesn’t seem worth the rewards of seeing lots of different birds in your yard, you can just keep it simple and scatter a small amount of bird food around on the ground early in the day so that it’s gone before nocturnal nonbird foragers come calling. Change the locations regularly to avoid the spread of disease.

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Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 275 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”

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