Bird Feeders: It's for the Birds!

Today I was sitting on the patio, absent-mindedly watching the bird feeder while trying to figure out a topic for our weekly discussion. The continually lousy weather has put most outdoor activity on hold and I was stumped. Meanwhile, the nearby avian ensemble swooped, preened, flapped, cackled, argued and otherwise behaved just like humans at an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord.

As I watched a splendid male rose grosbeak digging through the sunflower seeds, I had a sudden inspiration for today’s topic: turf care, with a special focus on chinch bugs and manganese.

No, seriously, the feathered floor show inspired me to talk about the secrets of feeding the birds.

For an outdoors enthusiast who loves wildlife, I believe that having a bird feeder is almost a requirement but we’ve also learned that the whole business isn’t as simple as merely throwing some cheap seed into a feeder and hoping for the best. While we are speaking of animals that have a brain the size of a ball-bearing, they definitely have needs and preferences that must be taken into account if you want to see a good variety of desirable species visiting your tiny avian restaurant.

The first and foremost tip I can share is to offer good-quality food. Most of the cheap stuff you find is composed mainly of tiny, round milo seed and our experience is simple and inarguable: no bird, even the lowly starling, will eat milo seeds. A few of the grains will get consumed but overall, 98% of it ends up on the ground where it will sprout into noxious weeds that are difficult to control.

By far the best thing to put in bird feeders is black oil sunflower seeds. Fifty-pound bags of these seeds will only run about $20 at a farm supply store while smaller bags are correspondingly more expensive. To attract a wider variety of birds, we add safflower seeds at a rate of about 20% to the mix. This fills several of our feeders and we are regularly visited by nearly every seed-eating songbird indigenous to Indiana, even though we live smack-dab in the middle of suburbia.

Once you have the feeders laden with sunflower and safflower, buy a finch sack or two. These are inexpensive loose-meshed tubes that hold nyjer seed, a tiny black speck smaller than a grain of rice that looks like it wouldn’t provide enough nutrition for an anemic mouse yet red-headed house finches and the more-spectacular yellow finches eat it with passion. You can put the nyjer seed in other types of feeders but finches are definitely most comfortable hanging from the seed-filled sacks.

The next most-common question is “What type of feeder should I use?” The answer to this one is pretty simple: use some kind of feeder. We have tried all sort contraptions and most of them are highly satisfactory to the birds. Some people especially like platform feeders because ground-feeding birds such as doves are more likely to use them but we’ve found the other birds are so messy that more than enough seed spills to keep the ground-lovers happy.

One thing I can guarantee about bird feeders is that the term “squirrel-proof” is a lie several orders of magnitude larger than “Your Government Cares About You.” I won’t go into my ongoing war with the raiding tree rats except to say that one of us will eventually emerge victorious and quite frankly, I’m not certain it will be me.

Where you place your feeder is important. It should have a clear flight-path for visitors while also providing nearby perches where the birds can relax between bites. Ours are situated on an iron pipe over a perennial garden so the spilled seed doesn’t present a problem. The plants also provide cover for the songbirds when our resident cooper’s hawk stops by for a quick snack of sparrow.

Another important factor is water. Unless you live near a pond or stream, birds get thirsty just like everyone else. We have added a couple of small bird baths to the yard and while we see the occasional bather, most birds use it for drinking.

Which leads to the final point of good bird feeder etiquette: keep everything clean.

Seeds can get wet, spoil and possibly kill song birds. Dirty feeders can also spread disease. Make sure that you periodically clean out and wash your feeders, being careful to avoid the various germs that live in leftover bird filth. Likewise with those bird baths that quickly foul and become disease-pools. We try to rinse and add clean water at least every two days during dry weather.

Ultimately, if you use good-quality feed, provide water and keep everything clean, you’ll have plenty of bird life to keep you entertained year-around.

Now, if I could just convince the finches to start eating squirrel.