Bird feeding basics for the budget minded

Russell Ryan
Conservation Chairperson
South Mountain Chapter of National Audubon Society

I suppose those who regularly feed birds have noticed that the prices of bird feed have increased since this time last year. I checked the prices out for myself and I was stunned. Black-oil Sunflower was nearly $30.00 for a 50 pound bag. That is nearly double the price since last year. Throw in the economic issues of the day and many folks may decide to spend less on non-essentials such as bird food.

The following information is meant to provide some feeding basics for those species likely to be encountered between now and spring migration (does not include Tanagers, Orioles and Hummingbirds). I also hope to provide ideas for the budget minded.

Birds as with all wildlife require the 4 basics: food, water, shelter and a place to raise their young. When all of these items are provided, we refer to that as habitat. When humans feed birds, they are essentially supplementing the food component of their habitat. Feeding birds can be done year round but feeding is especially important when food supplies are sparse and during harsh weather conditions such as very cold and windy conditions and/or weather conditions like ice and snow accumulations. These conditions can make finding natural food sources much more difficult.

Fresh water should be provided. There are numerous ways to provide this critical requirement but the important thing is to maintain fresh water. Dealing with frozen water is the challenge. You could use an electric heater which gets costly; or you could simply replace the water when it freezes.

Types of Food

Sunflower - Black-oil sunflower seeds rank as the single best wild bird food. These small, thin-shelled seeds are easy to open and are rich in fat and protein. Virtually every bird that visits backyard bird feeders eats black-oil seeds. They work well by themselves or as the primary ingredient in quality mixes.

Cracked corn – Cracked corn is inexpensive and high in carbohydrates and fat but low in protein.

Nyjer (thistle) – This specialty seed type is preferred by a few species such as the finches. At a cost of $1.00 per pound, you best assure that the seed is provided in a specialty feeder.

Suet /peanut butter– Suet can be offered easily by purchasing the square blocks at most retail stores for about $1.00 each. One can also purchase suet from the butcher. Peanut butter is another fat/protein substitute but I’ve heard that peanut butter prices are expected to increase as well.

White proso millet- Millet is attractive and utilized by ground- feeding birds such as doves, sparrows and juncos.

Mixed Bird Feed - If buying a mix, look carefully at the contents of the mix and the percentage of each type of seed. A mix with mostly sunflower and white proso millet is best. Many of the other seed types are generally not eaten which results in waste and more spoilage and cleaning of feeders.

Calcium and grit – These overlooked supplements are essential to a bird’s health and survival. Try providing crushed oyster shells, play sand and egg shells (disinfected). This is simple and inexpensive.

To minimize disease and unwanted visitors such as rodents, keep the area under the feeders cleaned of spoiled seed, wipe off feeders and discard wet and spoiled seed when it accumulates in bottom of feeders. Remove excess snow accumulations from under the feeders during snow events.

When trying to keep feed costs down, offer suet and a cracked corn/black oil sunflower mix. These three foods will not be wasted and will provide for a diversity of species.

Suet is cheap and once it is rendered (melted) it can be formed into molds and you can add other feed types such as sunflower.

Types of Feeders

When feeding birds, one must understand how certain birds feed. For instance, sparrows and doves are ground or platform feeders. They are not equipped to feed from a suet feeder or a nyjer feeder. Another example would be a cardinal or grosbeak cannot feed from a suet feeder or a nyjer feeder. All birds have preferences for the type of food and how that food is presented. Keep in mind that a bird’s bill and feet type dictates what type of food and or feeder type it can feed from.

Common feeders available are tube feeders, hopper feeders and platform feeders. Using these types will provide a diverse presentation of food for a variety of species.

Making your own feeders is an inexpensive option. Provide feed to bird by broadcasting the seed on the ground or provide the food by purchasing some type of platform feeder (make sure you provide drainage holes).

Suet feeder – simply place your rendered suet in a hole in a log (very natural) or wrap the suet with twine and hang from branch.

Peanut butter – I like to spread my peanut butter and sunflower mix on pine cones or other rough surface or use a spoon and stuff into a pre-drilled hole in wooden log/branch.

Nyger – Inexpensive mesh bags can be used or you can recycle a plastic soda bottle and cut your own slits and provide the perches.

Hopper feeders – These common feeder types can be easily made from recycled products. Assure that drainage is provided and a means of cleaning these and all feeders.

Shelter/Cover – One of the common mistakes made with bird feeding is the failure to provide adequate shelter not only from the weather but from lurking predators, such as the cat and the Sharp-shinned Hawk or Cooper’s Hawk. To deal with weather, try to protect your feeders from the wind. As for predators, keep the feeders in an open area but assure that cover is nearby. Evergreen trees are great for protecting the feeders from both wind and predators. My feeder placement is not ideal but I provided temporary shelter simply by recycling the various families’ Christmas trees. Using a post hole digger, I dug a hole and placed a plastic pipe within that hole so that in the winter time, I simply cut the lower branches off the tree and slip the tree into the hole with sleeve. I now have an instant evergreen that if placed properly they will provide shelter from the elements and from predation.

Birds which are likely to be encountered at local feeders include: Mourning Dove, White-throated Sparrow, Bluejay, Chickadee, White-breasted Nuthatch, Cardinal, Tufted Titmouse, Downy Woodpecker, House Finch, Gold Finch and Junco.

Some of the specialty birds that one can hope to attract include: Evening Grosbeak, Redpoll, Pine Siskin and Purple Finch. These birds are considered nomadic and sporadic in their movements from the north to the mid – Atlantic states.

The average property owner can indeed enjoy bird feeding by simply following the information above. When people understand the bird’s requirements and then offer those requirements you will enjoy feeding our feathered friends. REMEMBER: IF YOU PROVIDE IT THEY WILL FIND IT AND THEY WILL THANK YOU!

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