Advice for feeding the birds this season

With the official start of fall and chilly morning temperatures, it’s time resume feeding backyard birds. But if you haven’t purchased any bird seed since spring, you may experience sticker shock when you return to your favorite seed supplier.

I feed birds year-round, so I’ve felt the pinch over the last 12 months. The price of black-oil sunflower seed, the best all-purpose bird food, has more than doubled since last fall. The best price I’ve found locally this week has been $24.95 for 50 pounds. A year ago I was paying just under $12 for the same amount.

There are two reasons for the dramatic price increase. First, the price of gasoline and diesel fuel has significantly increased transportation costs. Second, many growers in sunflower country have planted more acres in crops to produce biofuels and fewer acres of sunflowers. Consequently, the supply of sunflower is down and the price is up.

Variety

Despite the price increase, sunflower seeds remain the single food that attracts the greatest variety of feeder birds. Black-oil sunflower is appealing because it has high oil (energy) content and its shells are thin and easy to crack. Virtually every seed-eating bird eats black-oil seeds.

Striped sunflower seed is also great, but its heavier shell makes it more difficult to crack for smaller birds. It’s a favorite of cardinals, grosbeaks and blue jays.

Hulled sunflower seeds are more expensive because the hulls have been mechanically removed. But there is no mess and no waste — every ounce of the kernels is eaten.

The hulls of in-shell sunflower seeds make up as much as 45 percent of the weight of product, so there’s a good bit of waste. Despite the higher price, I think sunflower kernels are a better value than in-shell seeds, particularly when transportation costs are considered.

Finches

Nyjer, the tiny black seeds often incorrectly called “thistle,” attract goldfinches, house finches and purple finches. Because nyjer is imported from Africa and southeast Asia, it’s more expensive than sunflower seed, but its high oil content makes it great winter food.

And farmers can rest easy because nyjer is not an invasive thistle species. Furthermore, nyjer is sterilized at U.S. ports of entry so it does not germinate. Finch tube feeders with small feeding ports are best for nyjer.

Nuts of various types are another more expensive bird food, but their appeal to favorite species such as chickadees, titmice, nuthatches and woodpeckers justifies the expense.

Peanuts, walnuts and almonds are the more familiar nuts that are now commonly found in better quality nut mixes. Stainless steel wire mesh tubes require birds to remove individual nuts so they disappear slowly from this type of feeder.

Recipe

Finally, suet is a favorite of woodpeckers, chickadees and nuthatches. Best offered in plastic coated wire baskets, suet is high energy animal fat. It is available commercially in blocks (pure suet is best) or you can make your own. Here’s my favorite recipe, courtesy of friend Martha Sargent.

No-melt Peanut Butter Suet:
1 cup crunchy peanut butter
2 cups quick-cook oats
2 cups cornmeal
1 cup lard (no substitutes here)
1 cup white flour
1/3 cup sugar
Melt lard and peanut butter in microwave or over low heat, then stir in remaining ingredients. Pour into square freezer containers about 1 1/2 inches thick. Cut to size, separate blocks with wax paper and store in freezer.

Warning

I’ll conclude with a word of warning. If bears live nearby, bird feeders can be a problem. Mark Ternent, bear biologist for the Pennsylvania Game Commission, offers advice to anyone who lives in bear country.

Bird feeders can be bear magnets, so Ternent offers these tips:

- Restrict the bird feeding season to when bears hibernate, which is primarily late November through late March.

- Avoid foods such as table scraps, sunflower seeds and suet that are particularly attractive to bears.

- If you stock feeders while bears are active, take them inside at night or suspend them from high cross wires.

- If bears visit a feeding station, remove the feeders for two weeks.

About the Author

Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. Send questions and comments to scottshalaway@gmail.com. You can also visit his Web site, http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com. More Stories by Scott Shalaway

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