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Flight Lines: Mealworms add dimension when feeding birds

A black-capped chickadee selects a freeze-dried mealworm from a bird feeder. Keith Corliss/The Pioneer

I'll likely never see bluebirds in my yard. The best I can hope for is a lucky fleeting glimpse of a flyover during migration, but the birds will not stop at the feeders I put out. It's just not in the cards for me; I live in the middle of town, after all.

Bluebirds are hardwired to open areas, where they nest and feed on various forms of bug life. I'm envious of rural dwellers and those on the edge of town who likely witness the beauty of these birds frequently. But it doesn't stop me from trying.

Through the years, I've seen countless articles, books, and Web sites dedicated to the feeding of birds. A person would have to be living in a cave or on a desert island not to notice the barrage of information available to the would-be provider. All manner of seeds, fruits, and nuts are suggested, rated and promoted. Plus the variety of different feeders available is dizzying.

For more than 30 years, Red River Commodities has been processing and packaging various forms of bird food products for the retail market. The company handles labels, such as Stokes and National Audubon Society, not to mention their own brand - Valley Splendor. In addition, RRC is the sole supplier of Lowe's entire line of wild bird food.

The company's number one seller, according to Sales and Marketing Coordinator Lisa Lorentz, is their 20- and 40-pound wild bird mixes, which consist of black oil sunflowers, millet, milo, and cracked corn.

"It's the most economical for buyers," Lorentz said.

I tend to shy away from mixes, instead choosing to stick with pure stuff without fillers. That way I can determine exactly what is being eaten and what is being ignored. It makes for a cleaner approach, in my opinion.

But mixes remain very popular, especially elsewhere. You'd think our area would be ripe for bird feeding given our relatively harsh winters, but that isn't the case according to Lorentz.

"The East Coast is way more into birding and is a lot more educated about bird feeding," she said. "They do it a lot more than we do in the Midwest."

The North Dakota Game and Fish Department has wrestled with the biological consequences of supplemental feeding for some time. While they've officially come out against the feeding of deer and other animals, they're taking a reasonable approach to back yard feeding.

"We realize people are going to feed birds," said Doug Leier, a state Game and Fish Biologist. "We just try to encourage them to do it the right way, with natural plantings of fruit and seed bearing stuff."

One small corner of the bird-feeding world, however, is almost completely neglected - insects. There are a huge number of birds that rely almost entirely upon invertebrates for sustenance and, for the most part, they are ignored by the typical backyard feeder.

Which brings us back to the bluebird thing. Bluebird aficionados know all about the natural history of their charges. They set out properly spaced nest boxes of the appropriate dimensions. They check the boxes regularly for invaders such as house sparrows, and some even feed their birds with, get this: mealworms. That's right, the same bait popular with ice fishermen also is a primary technique among the bluebird folk. But instead of live worms, the ones being fed to bluebirds mostly are freeze-dried.

After noticing freeze-dried mealworms on the shelf of a local retailer, I wondered if it might make sense to try it. It would be a fishing expedition of sorts since I lack proper bluebird habitat, but might something else come in?

There are a handful of mealworm feeders for sale, but most merely are open trays and the like. This won't do with the snow and weather conditions we face. So I designed and made a covered feeder with the sole purpose of making mealworms available.

It's been several weeks now and I have to admit, the results are rather middling. Only one species consistently feeds there - black-capped chickadees - but spring is coming and that's when the vast majority of insectivores arrive.

I have my fingers crossed in hopes that others may find the morsels to their liking. It likely won't be eastern bluebirds, but with experiments like this, you never know.

Corliss is a West Fargo resident, avid birder, and ND Game and Fish volunteer instructor. He serves as a corporate pilot for Forum Communications.