How to make the ultimate pinecone bird feeder

The pinecone bird feeder is a standby that has been around for generations and rightfully so. It’s simple to make, the supplies are readily available and overall it’s relatively inexpensive.

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Pinecone Bird Feeder by Dan Hughes (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://www.flickr.com/photos/dghughes/516595214)], via Flickr

Pinecone bird feeders are a rite of passage for preschool and kindergarten students.

As you’re starting to learn about wildlife and basic biology, your teacher caters to your interest in animals of all sorts. And so the caterpillar habitats, bird feeders and class pets provide the foundation from which tiny eyes will absorb information.

The pinecone bird feeder is a standby that has been around for generations and rightfully so. It’s simple to make, the supplies are readily available and overall it’s relatively inexpensive.

It’s upside is a big reason my daughter and I have crafted our own over the last few years. While it’s the same basic formula every time, we’ve learned how to maximize our results by making slight changes here and there.

What you’ll need

  • Pinecones
  • Plastic spoon
  • Peanut butter or suet
  • Mixing bowl
  • Twine
  • Sunflower seeds
  • White proso millet
  • Finely cracked corn
  • Scissors
  • Elmer’s non-toxic glue

Not your teacher’s bird feeder

Half the fun of making a pinecone bird feeder is collecting supplies. Like anything else, your final result is the sum of what you put into it.

Pinecone scavenging: I especially like finding the perfect pinecones to use. I’m not too picky about it, but I prefer hunting for them in the woods surrounding my house rather than buying them. This tends to limit me a little bit on size, but if I find a bunch of smaller ones, stringing a few together to make one bird feeder is always an option.

The best way to search for natural pinecones is to know which trees are native to your area. The most common Ohio varieties are the Austrian Pine, the Red Pine, the Virginia Pine, the Loblolly Pine, the Scotch Pine, the White Pine and the Pitlolly Pine — a hybrid of the Pitch Pine and Loblolly Pine.

Now that we have our list of native pines, we can evaluate which cones will work best for our project.

The smallest producers are the Red Pine and Scotch Pine with cones two inches long or smaller. However, a smooth backside is one benefit of using the smaller options.

The medium choices are the Virginia Pine and Austrian Pine, measuring about three to 3.5 inches when fully mature. However, this is where it gets tricky and you have to sacrifice a little for size. The Virginia Pine produces cones with long sharp prickles on the back of its scales, while the Austrian Pine also features a prickly backside.

Moving into the largest varieties, the Loblolly Pine, White Pine and Pitlolly Pine all produce cones that grow up to six inches long. Following its own set of rules, the White Pine produces a large cone with no prickles. However, where you gain in length, you lose in girth with this option. Both the Loblolly Pine and Pitlolly Pine produce cones that maintain their fullness even with their added length, but both have prickles on the backsides of their scales. The Loblolly has sharp prickles, while the Pitlolly has recurved prickles. For that reason, the Pitlolly cones are my favorite to use.

In addition to having my favorite design, the Pitlolly are also convenient because they tend to grow in bundles of three to five, making them easy to collect.

For more information on Ohio’s native pine trees, visit the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Forestry.

Although I prefer scavenging, my daughter is convinced bigger is better. If agree with her, you can find plenty of options to purchase larger cones at pinecones.com. For pinecone bird feeders, I would recommend the imperfect, clearance cones as they will end up covered in seeds and peanut butter or suet anyway.

Seeds: The Clemson University Extension of Forestry and Natural Resources recommends a seed combination containing 50 percent sunflower seeds, 35 percent white proso millet and 15 percent finely cracked corn. If you prefer buying a bag of birdseed instead of raw ingredients, plenty of commercial varieties are readily available. I would just suggest checking the ingredients to find a similar combination, as many mixtures contains large amounts of seeds most birds won’t eat.

Peanut butter or suet: Using either peanut butter or suet — usually a hard animal fat — is perfectly fine. Both options provide birds with a good energy source. While peanut butter is simple, suet is a good alternative for those with peanut allergies. Suet is especially attractive to insect-eating birds and is readily available at butcher shops. Birds prefer it just as it comes — uncooked. It can sometimes be supplemented with protein sources or made entirely from scratch. Check out the Clemson University Extension’s recipe.

Cautions

  • Twine is safe for birds; however, substituted types of string can contain chemicals harmful to birds. Another commonly used alternative is hemp string.
  • The only type of glue that is safe for your feathered friends is Elmer’s non-toxic glue. Hot glue and Gorilla Glue can be harmful to birds and other wildlife if ingested.

Putting it all together

  1. Check your pinecones for scales that haven’t popped. Place them in your preheated oven at 300 F for 10 minutes. This will force them to pop open.
  2. While you allow your pinecones a 5- to 10-minute intermission to cool off, mix your sunflower seeds, white proso millet and finely cracked corn together in your mixing bowl.
  3. Next, cut six-inch pieces of twine to either tie or glue to your pinecones. (It makes the most sense to do this before applying peanut butter or suet to save yourself from a mess.)
  4. Once your pinecones are popped, cooled and twined, you can prepare to spread a thick layer of peanut butter or suet all over their scales. Using your plastic spoon, make sure they are generously covered.
  5. Finally, roll each pinecone in your seed mixture until cones are coated.

Choosing a location

Once you have your pinecone feeders completed, you are ready to share them with your backyard birds. It’s important to hang feeders in a safe place where cats and other animals can’t sneak up on them. The best place to situate them will be in open areas with trees and shrubs nearby for shelter.

Enjoy!

Now that you’ve created the ultimate pinecone bird feeder, it’s time to sit back and enjoy the view. As the weather gets colder, birds will rely more on the food source you’ve just provided.

Additional resources for feeding birds

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