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To feed or not to feed

Expecting a gray jay to visit a bird feeding station in Fargo-Moorhead is perhaps unrealistic. But one never knows. This bird is at a well-known suet feeding site in northern Minnesota's Sax-Zim Bog.

Among the more frequent questions I get asked regarding birds is what and how to feed them. Before taking a look into this area, let's begin by stating that artificially feeding animals is not a universally accepted practice. Moreover, it's one often planted with public relations landmines.

For example, well-meaning but misguided folks who set out food for feral cats in public places are aiding in the creation of ecological dead zones, in my opinion, by maintaining a ruthlessly efficient predator in an environment it was never meant to be. Similarly troublesome is the dated practice of feeding wild deer, thereby making the herd much more vulnerable to the hardships that inevitably come with winter conditions.

Countless other examples exist but in broad general terms, supplemental feeding does little to aid the targeted species. More often it hurts them and disrupts the broader ecological balance in unintended yet negative ways.

Yet let it be known that I indeed feed birds. However hypocritical this may sound, it is my belief that, in this matter, birds are wholly different than land-based animals, with their unique abilities to fly and migrate in season. I view feeding birds as nothing more than a selfish means by which to draw them close so I can watch them. That is all. They do not depend upon me for survival; there is ample forage in the wild. Plus if food supplies do get limited, they can simply fly somewhere else.

I won't get into the different types of feeders; there is a universe of options out there. Take a stroll through a Wild Birds Unlimited store or any big box retailer and you will find shelves lined with a dazzling variety of feeders. The only thing I would caution here is, don't go cheap. Thin plastics tend to wear rather quickly and squirrels have little trouble chewing through them.

Instead, let's focus on the different types of feed. First and foremost, I would recommend black oil sunflowers. Little else gets the attention of just about every seed-eating bird than these affordable energy-filled seeds. You really don't even need a feeder, simply scatter some on the ground and the birds will eventually find them.

A cleaner (but more expensive) option is to purchase sunflower hearts or chips. In this way, there is no lawn buildup of discarded shells.

A downside is squirrels like them too. Preventing squirrels from eating bird seed is a fulltime job. I have nearly given up the fight and have reached the conclusion the wily rodents will just get their share. Another seed to consider is safflower. It's more expensive than sunflowers but house sparrows tend to shun it thus more is left for more attractive birds like northern cardinals and house finches.

Thistle (or nyjer) is pricier yet, often around $1 per pound. But by offering this seed in a specialized feeder, a person can expect visits from some interesting bird species, namely American goldfinches, pine siskins, and common redpolls in winter.

Beyond these three biggies there are even more options, including white millet, peanuts, milo, and cracked corn, each a little different in what it may attract. A word of advice: avoid red millet as birds tend to shun it. It is quite often used in cheap seed mixes as filler.

It stands to reason that by offering seeds, a person will only get seed-eating birds to your feeders, leaving out many other species. One way to add more variety is by serving up suet or some sort of fat.

Commercial suet cakes are available and are quite convenient. Some butchers sell fat trimmings if asked or you can try your hand at making your own. In any case, expect visits from woodpeckers, black-capped chickadees, and nuthatches when this is made available.

Feeding birds is not for everyone. You need space and some time to maintain a clean and safe feeding area. Also make sure some nearby brushy cover is offered as an escape because neighborhood cats and some avian predators tend to stalk bird feeding stations. Allow yourself some patience too. It can take a couple weeks for birds to find a new feeder setup. With a nod to a classic movie, if you offer it, they will come.

Sidebar: The following is a suet recipe from author and artist Julie Zickefoose (

Melt in the microwave and stir together:

1 cup peanut butter

1 cup lard

In a large mixing bowl, combine

2 cups chick starter

2 cups quick oats

1 cup yellow cornmeal and

1 cup flour

Add melted lard/peanut butter mixture to the combined dry ingredients and mix well.