By choosing the right birdseed and feeders, you can turn your backyard into a virtual aviary.
By Lowell and Kaye Christie, F47246
Backyard bird feeding may be the most popular nature-related activity in the United States, with an estimated 65 million Americans setting the dinner table for their avian friends. According to one report, these bird-lovers spend $2.7 billion each year feeding wild birds. Attracting birds to your backyard, your kitchen window, or even right next to your motorhome can give you one of the closest looks you’ll ever get of a wild creature.
1. Why feed birds? Many people start feeding birds during the winter, knowing that the birds’ natural foods are scarce. Most of the insects have disappeared, fewer nuts and berries are available, and, in many climates, snow hides what is left of the summer plants. But, in all honesty, most of us feed birds because we enjoy having them around. And we do it in every season.
2. Feeders and migration. Some worry that keeping food available during the early winter months will prevent birds from migrating south. That’s not the way it works. Bird migration is primarily initiated by shorter days, not an absence of food. Although some species actually have extended their range because of backyard feeding, they are an exception. The birds at your feeder would have been in the area anyway “” you are just making it more convenient for them to get a meal.
3. Choosing a seed feeder. There are many different styles of bird feeders, and your choice often will determine what birds frequent the backyard of your stationary home or the area near your motorhome. The simplest type is a platform feeder: a flat, raised surface (preferably with a roof) where you spread seed. A house-shaped hanging feeder does a better job of protecting the seeds from the weather, but ground-feeding birds may not use it. Tube shaped feeders are hollow cylinders with holes that allow access to the seed. Unless this type of feeder has large perching pegs near the holes, only small birds will feed from it. But you don’t have to pick just one. Multiple types of feeders mean more species will visit your yard.
4. Types of birdseed. Just as different feeders attract different birds, so, too, does the type of seed you provide. Unfortunately, inexpensive mixed birdseed contains a high proportion of seeds such as milo, which most birds don’t like. You can experiment with what is available locally, but you’ll find the most popular food is black oil sunflower seed. These seeds are small, provide quick energy for birds, and have thin shells that are easy for many birds to crack open.
5. Suet feeders. Insect-eating birds like suet, which usually is made from beef kidney fat. You can sometimes buy it at a meat counter, or it is available as a processed cake that also contains seeds, berries, and other ingredients. Suet is usually fed in small hanging wire cages where the birds can peck at the mixture. During warm weather, make sure the suet doesn’t turn rancid. Some of the processed cakes are designed to withstand moderate heat.
6. Homemade suet recipe. If you can’t find suet or suet cakes, you can make your own. A recipe we’ve found uses one part vegetable shortening, one part peanut butter, three parts yellow cornmeal, one part cracked corn, and one part flour. Other recipes are available on the Internet. This mixture can be used in a regular suet feeder, spread on the bark of trees, or pressed between the scales of a pinecone and hung from a piece of twine.
7. Hummingbirds. In much of the United States, hummingbirds are around only during the warmer months, but in the Southwest they are year-round residents. Hummingbird feeders hold a sugary syrup that must be changed frequently, as it will spoil in the heat. Or better yet, choose a feeder size that matches the number of hummers that frequent your yard and refill it often. To make your own nectar, mix one part regular white sugar with four parts boiling water. Stir, cool, and serve.
8. Placing the feeder. Place your feeders where you can see them, both for the enjoyment they provide and so you can tell when they need to be refilled. Ideally, the feeder should be near some type of shelter where the birds can perch or escape from predators. The commotion caused by excited birds at a feeder can attract hawks and neighborhood cats. The birds need a sense of security while feeding that a nearby escape area can provide.
9. Prevent window crashes. One problem when birds are startled is that they are confused by the transparency of nearby windows and will fly into them. Many birds are killed each year by trying to fly through a closed window, thinking the pathway is clear. Besides placing decals on nearby windows to provide a visual obstruction, you can just move the feeder closer. If the feeder is within three feet of the window, the birds can’t gain enough velocity to injure themselves when they hit the glass. It also gives you a much better look at the birds.
10. Keeping pests away. Squirrels like birdseed, too. No matter where or how high you install the feeder, a squirrel will consider it a challenge. They can jump up to 10 feet, so place the feeder accordingly. Our squirrels love to swing down from the roof onto one of our feeders. It’s enclosed inside a metal cage and suspended on an 8-foot metal pole. They can’t get in, but it’s actually fun watching them attempt to solve that puzzle. If you’ve tried everything else, you may want to get a feeder we’ve read about that closes when something heavier, such as a squirrel, tries to access the food.
11. Just add water. Sometimes providing water for birds proves almost as effective as feeding them. We furnish water both summer and winter “” in the summer because it’s so hot, and in the winter because outside water is often frozen. When we fill feeders on winter mornings, we chip the ice off the water dish, and within minutes birds are using both the feeder and the water.
12. Cleaning the feeder. Moldy seed can make birds ill. Be sure to empty and clean the feeders every week or so. Wash each feeder in soapy water and then rinse (or soak) it in a solution of one part bleach to nine parts water. Dry thoroughly before refilling. Wash hummingbird feeders several times a week. Clean up under the feeders also. Not only can the leftover spilled food turn moldy, but it also can attract rodents.
13. Identifying the birds. Now that the birds are coming to your feeders, you’ll want to know them better. Place a good bird book and a pair of close-focus binoculars by the window, and you’re ready for years of pleasure. Good birding.