Time to fill the bird feeders for winter

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woodpecker

If the weather forecasters are right, the October cool down should have begun by now.

After days of unseasonably late September heat, I’m ready to concentrate on feeding my backyard birds.

Here are some tips

The single food that attracts the greatest variety of birds to feeders is black-oil sunflower seed in tubes, hopper feeders, or even simply cast on the ground.

It’s appealing because its shells are thin and easy to crack, and it has a high oil (energy) content. In fact, black-oil seeds are grown primarily to be crushed and processed to make sunflower oil.

Striped sunflower seeds are also great, but the heavier shell makes it more difficult to crack, and it’s a bit more expensive. But it’s a favorite of larger birds such as cardinals, grosbeaks, and blue jays.

Hulled sunflower seeds require a special process to remove the shells, so they are more expensive than in-shell sunflower seeds. The good news is that every ounce of kernels is eaten; there’s no mess and no waste.

Best value

Despite the higher price, sunflower kernels are the best value in birdseed. Without hulls, kernels are subject to deterioration when wet, so they must be kept dry. I offer kernels in Gold Crest’s All-Weather Feeder and Droll Yankees’ Big Top.

The All-Weather Feeder’s food slots are small, completely protected from rain and snow, and suitable only for sunflower seeds. The Big Top is a perch-less, bowl style feeder protected from above by a large transparent dome.

Because the Big Top has seed ports that can be varied in size, it is suitable for nuts as well as sunflower kernels. 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 a great winter food. And farmers can rest easy because 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 nyjer’s higher price, stick with sunflower kernels.

Nuts are another more expensive bird food, but their appeal to species such as chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, and woodpeckers justifies the expense. Peanuts, walnuts, pecans, and almonds are the more familiar nuts that are now commonly found it better quality nut mixes.

Candy mixes

Most of the nuts found in bird food mixes originate in candy factories where they failed to meet standards for human consumption. This also explains why you sometimes find a piece of candy in a bag of nutty bird food.

Stainless steel wire mesh tubes require birds to remove nuts individually so they disappear slowly from this type of feeder. Otherwise, a pound of nuts can disappear in minutes.

Millets, especially white millet, attract 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.

Crows, jays, doves 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, and house sparrows quickly find feeders filled with cracked corn, so use it sparingly if these birds are a problem. Milo is often used as a filler seed in cheaper, poorer quality seed mixes.

Cracking the shell

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 these seeds or the generic term “cereal grains.”

There’s only one reason to feed wild birds — to enjoy them. Birds are mobile and can easily find food sources over a large area. Feeders just make their lives easier.

They can spend more time actually eating instead of searching for food. Place feeders where they can be conveniently viewed from the living room or dining room. And match your favorite birds to their favorite foods and feeders to ensure an enjoyable winter feeding season.

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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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