It’s time to fill the bird feeders

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Chilly temperatures and shorter days mean it’s time to fill the bird feeders, so let me review the best foods to offer backyard birds

Sunflower seeds (best feeder — tubes)

Black-oil sunflowers seeds are the single best and most economical food for wild birds. These small, thin-shelled seeds are easy to open, rich in fat and protein, and inexpensive.

Virtually every seed-eating bird that visits backyard feeders eats black-oil seeds. A feeding station can be stocked solely with black-oil sunflower seeds, and birds will visit daily.

Striped sunflower seeds are larger and have thicker shells than oil seeds. They are favorites of cardinals, jays, and woodpeckers, and can be cast on the ground or presented in tube or hopper style feeders.

Hulled sunflower seeds, which are also called sunflower kernels or sunflower chips, are the best food for most birds because they are 100 percent food — no waste, no mess, no germination. The extra step of removing the shells, however, increases the cost, so they are not cheap.

Also, hulled sunflower seeds spoil quickly when wet, so they should be placed in a feeder that is weatherproof.

Nyjer (best feeder — finch tube)

Nyjer is the tiny, black, oil-rich seed that’s often erroneously called “thistle.” Finches love it, and doves and many native sparrows clean up what spills beneath finch feeders. Because it’s imported from Africa and Asia, it’s expensive.

Millet (best feeder — platform or hopper)

Several varieties of millet include white proso, red, golden, German and Japanese. All are eaten by a variety of ground-feeding sparrows, game birds, and waterfowl, but white proso millet is preferred. 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 (best feeder — tray or hopper)

Crows and game birds love whole corn. At backyard feeders whole corn also attracts jays and doves. Unfortunately, it’s also a favorite of pigeons, grackles, and squirrels. Cracked corn appeals to many backyard birds, but it carries some serious disadvantages. 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.

Pumpkin seeds (best feeder — tray)

Pumpkin seeds compare favorably to sunflower seeds in popularity with many birds. After carving jack-o-lanterns for Halloween, dry pumpkin seeds and offer them as occasional treats.

Nuts (best feeder — squirrel-proof tube)

Walnuts, pecans, acorns, and almonds are natural, nutritious, high-energy foods for woodpeckers, jays, chickadees, titmice, and nuthatches.

Many seed packagers now offer mixes that include nuts, but they’re expensive. Peanuts are cheaper and provide an excellent source of protein and fat for nut lovers.

Milo (or sorghum) 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 (best feeder — suet basket)

Suet is animal fat; woodpeckers, chickadees, titmice, and nuthatches love it.

I prefer buying pure suet cakes, but those mixed with sunflowers seeds and nuts are great, too. And for do-it-yourselfers, here’s my favorite suet recipe, courtesy of Martha Sargent, an avid Alabama birder.

I’ve printed this recipe many times and get requests for it each fall.

“No-melt Peanut Butter Suet” ingredients: 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 over low heat, then stir in remaining ingredients.

Pour into square freezer containers about an inch-and-a-half thick.

Chill in the freezer for about 20 minutes, then cut to size, separate blocks with wax paper, and store in freezer.

Live food

Finally, for a treat birds cannot resist, offer live mealworms, the larval stage of harmless darkling beetles, on a shallow tray. Woodpeckers, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, and even cardinals love ’em. Mealworms are most economically purchased from online sources such as www.grubco.com. Better yet, buy a few thousand mealworms, then raise your own.

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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. He can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at www.khbradio.com, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at www.drshalaway.com or contact him directly at sshalaway@aol.com or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.

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