Saturday, November 28, 2009

Feeding Birds: Tuppence a Bag

The little old lady who sat in the square selling birdseed in the Disney version of Mary Poppins was offering a pretty good deal: a bag of birdseed for only two pence. Admittedly the bag was probably pretty small, and a tuppence went a lot further at the turn-of-the-century, when the story is set. When I walk into the bird paraphernalia shop to purchase seed today, I’d best have my checkbook handy, for I’ll need a lot more than tuppence to cover the needs of the greedy diners at my feeders, but I figure it’s worth the expense.

I did a little scrounging on the Internet to see if I could find some bird feeding statistics, and the only ones I could come up with are from a survey conducted in 1996 by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. From this survey they determined that approximately 52 million Americans feed the birds. This translated into about $2.7 billion spent on bird food (seed, nuts, suet), and over $800 million spent on bird feeding accessories (feeders, birdbaths, feeder poles, etc.). That was thirteen years ago, so we can only imagine what those numbers are today.

Despite the impact on our finances, we love to feed the birds. I suspect it has something to do with the overall barren appearance of the winter landscape: by putting out seed we bring birds to our yards, proving to ourselves that there is life out there despite the cold and snowy weather. And the splash of color the birds bring adds an extra ounce of delight, coloring an otherwise drab, grey and white world.

Sometime between the beginning of summer and the end of fall, I get out all my feeders and give them a good scrubbing. A diluted bleach solution is usually recommended for killing off any potentially harmful “bugs” that have accumulated on the feeders. Then they are reassembled and stacked on the shelves, where they wait for the first filling of the year.

Like planting my garden, I get itchy to put out my feeders when it is still a bit too early. The thing is to try to avoid feeding the birds while the bears are active, for a hungry bear can sniff out a feeder full of seed in no time, and the damage a hungry bear can do is enough to frustrate even the most dedicated bird enthusiast. Normally the bears have turned in for the winter by now, or at least the females and their cubs have. Male bears have been known to still wander about into December, looking for those last morsels of food to fatten up for the big sleep. But with the exceptionally mild weather we’ve had this month, many bears are still out and about, and your feeders can be a prime target. If you have decided to put your feeders out already, be sure to bring them in at night.

My bird feeding stations (yes, plural) have gradually expanded over the years. I have three feeder poles: two located along the edge of my property, near a nice hedge of balsam firs, and one located nearer the house, next to a crabapple tree. From these I hang an assortment of feeders: tube feeders, suet cages, platform feeders, and a hopper-type. Oh, and the peanut feeders. I also have three water sources for the birds: a hanging bird bath (used only in summer), a ground-level bird bath (ditto), and a heated bird bath (used only in winter).

Mostly, I feed black oil sunflower seeds: they are rich in oils, which translates into energy for the birds; they are easy for small-beaked birds, like chickadees and goldfinches, to open; and everyone likes them. Grey-striped sunflower seeds are larger and can be difficult for the small birds to open, but larger birds, like blue jays, have no difficulty with them. Some folks like to put out sunflower seeds that have been removed from their hulls. The logic behind this is that there is no mess beneath the feeders. These seeds, however, are a lot more expensive.

Thistle (aka: niger or nyjer) is actually not a thistle at all, but the seeds from a daisy-like plant grown in Ethiopia, India, Myanmar and Nepal, where it is grown primarily for its oil. The oil is extracted from the seeds and turned into food, paints, and soaps. The US imports huge quantities of these very fine seeds for wild bird food, over 5,000 tons annually. That’s a lot of seed. Some years I put out nyjer, and other years I don’t; it often depends on my finances, for nyjer is one of the more expensive seeds. It also can go bad quickly, and no bird wants to eat stale seeds. But, if your seed is fresh and you put it out in a special thistle feeder, you are bound to attract goldfinches and pine siskins, small birds with small beaks who greatly enjoy these tiny seeds.

Peanuts – everyone loves peanuts. I have three peanut feeders at home: two hold peanut halves, and one, a coiled wire contraption, holds peanuts that are still in the shell. When I have the latter up and filled, the birds empty it in near-record time. I got a great deal of pleasure last year out of watching the blue jays tackle this feeder. (Very clever birds, blue jays: they will contemplate a new contraption and figure out a way to make it work for them. But then, they are corvids after all.) When it comes to bird foods, peanuts are probably rated #1 in desirability, or at least they are in my yard. Peanuts disappear before any other food I put out.

Suet is another great attractant, and all the birds love it, not just woodpeckers. Basically, it is fat. Fat means energy, and energy is what every bird needs to survive our cold Adirondack winters. I know people who hang up the rib cages of the deer they get from hunting season and the birds pick at them all winter. Even martens visit these free meal sites! You can purchase chunks of suet or beef fat at the grocery store (it used to be free), or you can purchase pre-fab suet cakes at bird feeding stores, which are often a mixture of goodies, including peanuts, berries, mealworms, and seed. You can also make your own suet cakes, using drippings from your morning bacon and the burgers you cooked last night. I used to use vegetable shortening when making homemade suet cakes, but if that stuff is bad for us, it’s probably bad for the birds, too.

If you go into a bird feeding shop, you might be tempted to purchase safflower seed. This specialty seed is expensive and might leave you wondering why you bought it. At least it did with me. Nothing ate it. Supposedly, cardinals love it. “They” say that other birds, like grosbeaks, finches and chickadees, also enjoy it. You couldn’t prove it by me.

Bags of birdseed found in the grocery store are filled with lots of little round white (and sometimes red) seeds. These are millet. White proso millet is often popular with feeder birds, but red millet is less so. In fact, some sources claim that indigo buntings and tanagers will flock to your yard if you have a feeder filled with just white proso millet. Hm. Maybe so. Mostly I find that millet is kicked out of the feeders by birds as they strive to reach the tastier morsels: the sunflower seeds and peanut hearts.

What I tell people who are new to bird feeding is to start small. If you are only going to put out one feeder, fill it with black oil sunflower seeds, which are sure to please every bird in your neighborhood.

The next most important thing is to put out a source of water. This is especially true in the winter, when open water is hard to come by. A heated bird bath will be welcomed by every bird visiting your feeding station.

Lastly, you’ll want to provide shelter. Your bird friends will appreciate having a safe get-away nearby if a predator should approach. A conifer hedge is ideal, but any sort of shrubbery will do. If you really get into it, you can landscape your property with native fruiting shrubs, like nannyberry, winterberry, and dogwood, which will provide not only shelter, but also a food source for your feathered friends.

Feeding the birds in the winter is a wonderful way to get your nature fix with very little effort. Just picture yourself sitting next to the window on a chilly January morning, your hands warming around a morning cup of cocoa, as you watch the chickadees, nuthatches, and purple finches darting about the perches of your tube feeders; juncos and snow buntings hopping on the ground in search of fallen seeds; a family of blue jays screaming in to take over the platform and hopper feeders; a downy woodpecker working on a cake of suet. A squirrel scampers nearby, hoovering up fallen seeds as quickly as he finds them. And all you had to do to witness your wild neighbors is put out a little seed. It’s a happy thing.

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Ellen Rathbone is by her own admission a "certified nature nut." She began contributing to the Adirondack Almanack while living in Newcomb, when she was an environmental educator for the Adirondack Park Agency's Visitor Interpretive Centers for nearly ten years.

Ellen graduated from SUNY ESF in 1988 with a BS in forestry and biology and has worked as a naturalist in New York, New Jersey, and Vermont.

In 2010 her work took her to Michigan, where she currently resides and serves as Education Director of the Dahlem Conservancy just outside Jackson, Michigan.

She also writes her own blog about her Michigan adventures.


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