When morning low temperatures dip into the 30s, I know it’s time to get serious about filling my bird feeders. Here’s a guide matching desirable birds to specific foods and feeders.
The single food that attracts the greatest variety of feeder birds is sunflower seed in tube or hopper feeders. Black-oil sunflower is appealing because its shells are thin and easy to crack and it has a high oil (energy) content. Virtually every seed-eating bird eats black-oil seeds.
Sunflower seeds. Striped sunflower seed is also great, but its heavier shell makes it more difficult to crack. It’s a favorite of cardinals, grosbeaks, and blue jays.
Hulled sunflower seeds are more expensive because the hulls have been mechanically removed. But every ounce of kernels is eaten; there’s no mess and no waste.
Hulls of in-shell sunflower seeds make up as much as 45 percent of the weight of the product, so there’s a good bit of waste in the form of shells. Despite the higher price, I think sunflower kernels are the best value in bird seed.
Though sunflower kernels are a terrific food, they must be kept dry. There are few truly weather-proof feeders on the market. I offer kernels in Goldcrest’s All-Weather Feeder and Droll Yankees’ Big Top. The All-Weather Feeder is essentially an oversized tube whose ports are totally protected for rain and snow. The Big Top is a perch-less, hanging bowl style feeder protected from above by a large transparent dome.
Nyjer. Nyjer®, the tiny black seeds often incorrectly called “thistle,” attract goldfinches, house finches, purple finches, and redpolls. 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. In fact, 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®. If you object to the high price of nyjer®, stick with sunflower kernels.
Nuts. Nuts of various types are another more expensive bird food, but their appeal to 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 it better quality nut mixes. Stainless steel wire mesh tubes require birds to remove individual nuts so they disappear slowly from this type of feeder.
Millets. White, red, and other millets attracts a variety of ground-feeding sparrows, game birds, and waterfowl. One of millet’s best qualities is that its seed coat is hard enough to resist weathering, but not too hard for birds to crack.
Corn. Crows, jays, and game birds love whole corn kernels. Unfortunately, it’s also a favorite of pigeons, grackles, and squirrels.
Cracked corn is less desirable because it’s dusty, it spoils quickly when wet, and it attracts some undesirable birds. Pigeons, starlings, house sparrows, cowbirds, and grackles quickly find feeders filled with cracked corn, so use it sparingly if these birds are a problem.
Milo. Milo is often used as a filler seed in cheaper seed mixes. The seed shell is too hard for most birds to crack. Wheat and oats are also common filler ingredients in cheap mixes. Read seed mix labels and avoid blends that contain cereal grains.
Suet. 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 in bulk at grocery stores, commercially in blocks, or you can make your own.
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 one-and-a-half inches thick. Cut to size, separate blocks with wax paper, and store in freezer.
There’s only one reason to feed wild birds – that’s because we enjoy watching them. Matching our favorite birds with their favorite foods and feeders is the best way to insure an enjoyable winter feeding season.