Dropping temperatures will mean hungry birds

Weather forecasters are calling for overnight low temperatures to dip into the 30s this week, so it’s time to pull out the bird feeders and stock up on some seed.

Here are some tips to keep in mind when shopping for food for wild birds. Sunflower seeds attract the greatest variety of feeder birds. Black-oil sunflower is appealing because of its rich oil (energy) content, and its shells are thin and easy to crack.

Good choice

Virtually every seed-eating bird eats black-oil seeds. A quick phone survey of a few of my local sources found prices varying from $14 to $16 for 50 pounds this fall.

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 when you buy bags of in-shell sunflower seeds. All things considered, I think sunflower kernels are a better value than in-shell seeds. Though sunflower kernels are a terrific food, they must be kept dry.

Feeder

The only truly weather-proof feeder on the market and the one I use for kernels is the All-Weather Feeder (manufactured by Goldcrest). It is essentially an oversized tube whose ports are totally protected from rain and snow. An optional metal squirrel guard keeps out larger birds and mammals.

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 expensive, but its high oil content makes it great winter food. And farmers can rest easy because nyjer is not an invasive plant; nyjer is sterilized at U.S. ports of entry so it does not germinate.

Another oil seed found in many mixes is safflower. Cardinals and titmice eat it, and squirrels tend to avoid it. But because it’s relatively expensive and appeals to only a few species of birds, I don’t recommend it except as a minor ingredient in a seed mix.

Treat

Nuts are another more expensive bird food, but their appeal to birds such as chickadees, titmice, nuthatches and woodpeckers justifies the expense. Peanuts, walnuts and almonds are the more familiar nuts that are now commonly found it better quality bird food mixes. Stainless steel wire mesh tubes require birds to remove individual nuts so they disappear slowly from this type of feeder.

Corn and millet attract a variety of ground-feeding native sparrows and game birds, and they are usually inexpensive. But cracked corn can be very dusty so beware if you store it in the house.

Filler

Milo (sorghum), wheat and oats are often used as fillers in cheaper seed mixes. However few desirable birds eat these seeds, so read ingredients labels and avoid mixes with large amounts of these seeds.

Live mealworms (a beetle larvae) are a truly irresistible treat for most wild birds. I offer mealworms in a small custard bowl placed on a platform feeder. Reasonably priced sources can be found online (google “live mealworms”). For instructions on how to start and maintain your own self-sustaining colony, send me one dollar and a stamped, self-addressed envelope.

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, or you can make your own.

Suet recipe

Here’s my favorite recipe, courtesy of Alabama friend Martha Sargent. No-melt Peanut Butter Suet: One cup crunchy peanut butter, two cups quick-cook oats, two cups cornmeal, one cup lard (no substitutes here), one cup white flour and one-third 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.

(Send questions and comments to Dr. Scott Shalaway, RD 5, Cameron, WV 26033 or via e-mail at his website, http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com.)

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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