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Flight Lines: To feed or not to feed the birds

Red-breasted Nuthatches are but one of several wild bird species attracted to suet or peanut offerings. Keith Corliss

I get asked a certain question with enough frequency that one should think I would have a pat answer for it by now. “How do I feed birds and what do I feed them?” As simple as that might sound, it takes some time to fully explain the considerations and nuances of what can end up being anything from a quite rewarding experience to abject disappointment.

First, let’s dispel a myth. The birds, however cold and desperate looking they might appear to be this time of year, do not need our food to keep them alive. The species which choose to winter in our area are fully capable of surviving without our intervention. We don’t do the bird world a favor by feeding them. Those who choose to feed birds (including me) should understand that we do this merely for our own personal enjoyment.

A second point must be addressed: There is truly no consensus, even among biologists and other experts, as to whether a person artificially feeding wild birds helps or harms the subjects we mean to enjoy. There are downsides to this practice: Concentrating birds and potentially spreading disease; unwittingly serving up live meals for neighborhood cats and other predators; creating possible harmful dependency on the part of the birds; and—some studies suggest—possibly disrupting natural migratory movements. Moreover, depending on your level of involvement, it can get expensive and rather messy.

The upside is admittedly a selfish one. I want to observe them in my yard from the comfort of a screened porch or the warmth of my kitchen window. From the sales figures for birdseed in the U.S. (“Somewhere in the neighborhood of $2.25 billion annually,” according to Bob Majkrzak, President and CEO of Red River Commodities Inc.), I’m not the only one. In addition, I would argue that those who feed and watch birds gain a deeper appreciation for the outdoors in ways not easily achieved otherwise in urban environments.

I’ve you’ve decided to give this bird feeding thing a go after seeing the above, read on…

First, I would recommend feeding birds naturally from landscape plantings as much as practicable. Crabapples, mountain ash, elderberries, juniper, and other fruit-producing trees will attract quite a suite of fruit eaters such as Cedar Waxwings, Gray Catbirds, Brown Thrashers, Red-eyed Vireos, and others. Trees with catkins (birch and alder) will feed American Goldfinches, Pine Siskins, Common Redpolls, and other finches. Seed producers like Green Ash and Box Elder should bring in Purple Finches, Pine Grosbeaks, House Finches and more, eating their papery “fruit.”

With plenty of cover (shrubbery, trees, and other plants) nearby for birds to use as roosting sites or get-aways from cats, you can think about setting out some feeders.

Styles of feeders are so numerous it boggles the mind. Just peruse the aisles at the major box stores and you’ll see what I mean. It might be best to get two or three of the more common types, hang them up, fill them with food and see what happens.

Equally baffling is the choice of seeds and other foods. Luckily for consumers a couple of trends have emerged that have been positive for customers. One is a higher quality seed, either alone or in mixes.

“Consumers have become more savvy,” said Majkrzak. “They realize that quality seed equates to the quality of birds they want to attract and they want that seed.”

You will still run into cheap “bargain” mixes in certain stores. Just be aware you might end up with piles of uneaten and rotting seeds beneath shunned feeders should you choose to cut too many corners.

The other trend worth mentioning is what Majkrzak calls, “products of convenience.” These are things like prepackaged suet cakes (for woodpeckers, Black-capped Chickadees, nuthatches, etc.) and high quality seed blends. Both can save time and energy when keeping up a busy feeding station.

What do I usually have at my place? Black oil sunflowers mostly, in addition to raw peanuts, safflower seed, dried mealworms, black thistle, and some sort of suet, either raw from the butcher or in cakes (see home recipe in sidebar). I also will use a good blend on occasion.

Keep in mind that it may take a couple of weeks for birds to find your new feeders so a little patience is required. Once located, they will return again and again if kept filled (Majkrzak says the average backyard feeder is estimated to sit empty 60% of the time) with quality food.

No-Melt Suet Recipe

2 cups quick oats

2 cups cornmeal

1 cup whole wheat flour

½ cup sugar

1 cup lard

1 cup crunchy peanut butter

Melt lard and peanut butter together in microwave. Stir in the dry ingredients and lay out in pan. Once solid it can be scooped out or cut into convenient customized sizes. Sunflowers and raisins (or other dried fruits) may be stirred into mix as well.