The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Bird Feeding Is the Perfect Way to Enjoy Nature
by Ro Wauer

How many of you feed birds? According to a report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, more than 86 million Americans regularly put out feed for birds. That’s one out of every three people in the United States. And those 86 million Americans spend more than one billion dollars on birdseed annually. An additional huge amount is spent on feeders, binoculars, and field guides. The hobby of feeding birds is increasing for a very good reason; it is the best possible way to enjoy the outdoors from the comfort of our homes.

The easiest group of birds to attract to a home feeder is the seed-eaters. At this time of year there are a dozen or more species around our yards that eat seeds. Some of the most common species include Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, northern cardinals, chipping sparrows, American goldfinches, and house sparrows. And some of the less common but expected species include white-winged, mourning, and Inca doves; blue jays; field, Lincoln's, and white-throated sparrows; brown-headed cowbirds; house finches; lesser goldfinches; and pine siskins.

A few years ago, birdseed was pretty well limited to cracked or whole corn, but now there are a variety of options. And there is considerable information about which seed is best for what species. And most people who feed birds agree that black-oil sunflower seed is most preferred by the greater number of species. Striped sunflower seeds are larger and have tougher seed coats that are difficult to handle and too tough for smaller birds. The standard birdseed common on shelves in all the stores contains a blend of sunflower, milo, millet, oats, wheat, flax, and buckwheat seeds. Many birds will kick out some seeds to get to the prized ones. This results in lots of unused seeds, more cleanup time, and greater expense. The more expensive black-oil sunflower seeds are cheaper in the long run.

Niger or thistle is preferred by finches, especially American goldfinches and pine siskins. However, these seeds are so small, special feeders but readily available at most stores selling such products are necessary. Also, cracked corn is still popular for blue jays, mourning and Inca doves, and northern bobwhites. And green jays, that are beginning to move into our area, seem to prefer cracked corn.

Another option in winter is suet, favored by woodpeckers but also eaten by chickadees, titmice, Carolina and house wrens, and cardinals. Suet is strictly a wintertime food; it turns rancid when temperatures exceed 70 degrees. Birds prefer plain, inexpensive beef suet over commercial suet cakes. Suet can be placed in wire baskets, wired to trees, or pressed into holes drilled in small logs hung in trees. Wire baskets are recommended because they are less likely to get oil on the bird’s plumage. Plus, I use small logs with shallow holes as a peanut butter feeder. I find that peanut butter mixed with cornmeal, to lessen the chance of choking on the thick substance and also to reduce the cost, packed into the various holes is an excellent attractant. It is amazing how many species will take advantage of this handout.

Nectar-feeders normally are few and far between in winter, but some hummingbirds, including our full-time resident buff-bellied hummingbird, remain with us all winter. Nectar can be essential some cold winters when insects are in low supply, although a hummingbird diet normally consists of more than 50 percent insects. And during periods of extreme weather, the hummingbird feeders can easily be taken inside overnight. But be sure they are taken out at dawn.

Feeder maintenance is extremely important year-round. Seed-feeders should be cleaned and scrubbed with soap and water, dipped or washed with a solution of bleach (1 to 9), and dried thoroughly each season. Also rake up the seed hulls regularly; decomposed hulls will kill the lawn and could spread disease to your birds.

Feeding birds is great fun and a way to attract birds to your yard; my yard list currently includes 176 species. Several of those are seed eaters and a few are present only in winter.


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