Everyone can enjoy feeding the birds. It’s a simple hobby demanding little investment in equipment.You don’t even need a yard, for many people feed birds from park benches or at campsites.
During the last 25 years, bird feeding has become remarkably popular, ranking second only to gardening as America’s preferred outdoor pastime. About 43 percent of American households provide food for wild birds, and we spend at least 2.5 billion dollars annually on bird-related products, including seed and feeders.
People love to see beautiful birds up close and watch their antics. Later, they may be intrigued by the myriad bird interactions, their diversity of feeding styles and the unusual species that visit. Usually, people find binoculars and a field guide helpful for observing and identifying the various birds that come to feed.
Although individual birds benefit from receiving supplemental food and seed, feeding has almost no effect on total bird populations. Even when food is plentiful, habitat availability still limits bird numbers. The best way to increase overall bird populations is to increase the amount of bird habitat. The Conservation Department publication Landscaping for Backyard Wildlife includes recommendations for plants that offer food, cover and nest sites.
The best time to start attracting birds is during the first cold snap or snows of winter. During winter, a variety of birds eagerly accept handouts because they need calories. Some winter birds form large flocks and can seem quite tame when hungry.
Birds that winter south of Missouri, such as indigo buntings, rose-breasted grosbeaks and chipping sparrows, arrive in spring and can often be drawn to feeders. Feeding in warm weather helps you discover which birds are nesting in your neighborhood, especially if they bring their new fledglings around for a snack. Don’t worry about starving the birds if you cut off their food supply when you go on vacation. Wild birds can almost always find food.
The best place for a feeder is where you can observe it and refill it easily. If you set out only one feeder, mount it on a deck railing or hang it from a tree limb where you can see it from inside your house. If possible, place the feeder near escape cover, such as evergreens or shrubs, so that birds will have a refuge if danger threatens.
To attract the greatest diversity of birds, the best seeds to use are black oil sunflower, striped sunflower, hulled sunflower and Niger thistle seeds. The latter two types can be used in tubular feeders designed for small birds, like chickadees and goldfinches. Although not as widely sold, peanut hearts and safflower seeds also have their adherents. White proso millet is used by juncos and sparrows that feed on the ground.
Many components of standard wild bird mixes sold in stores are used by relatively few birds. Put out milo, for example, and you won’t have many takers. The cracked corn often found in these mixes may attract nuisance birds, such as house sparrows, starlings and crows. Bread crumbs and other table scraps are especially inviting to these aggressive, less desirable species.
The hopper-style feeder is the most common design. It provides birds easy access to seed and protects it from rain and snow.
A feeder can be as simple as an open platform with an edge to reduce seed spillage. Birds that feed on the ground, including juncos, towhees and fox sparrows, will visit open feeders. They also learn that the ground beneath other types of feeders contains spilled seed for them to eat.
If the weather is cool enough to keep it from spoiling, suet (fat trimmed from meat) can be hung in mesh bags for woodpeckers, Carolina wrens and chickadees. Pre-made suet cakes are also available.
Berries, raisins, cut fruit or jelly may attract robins, bluebirds and mockingbirds in winter, plus orioles, tanagers and catbirds in summer. Nectar-consuming birds, including hummingbirds, orioles, tanagers and house finches, may be drawn to specially designed dispensers of sugar water.
Water necessary for bathing and drinking, water may be harder to find than food during freezing weather and droughts. In subfreezing weather, put out water daily at the same time to allow birds to develop a routine, or purchase an immersion-style water heater.
The most common problem at bird feeders is squirrels. You can discourage them to an extent by hanging feeders or placing feeders on posts. A baffle (central disk) around the supporting cable or post can further challenge them. However, they can still jump from eight feet away to the feeder. Squirrel-proof feeders are made of metal to prevent chewing and have counterweights that close the feeder to all but lightweight customers.
Certain flocking birds can become so numerous that they drive off others and reduce the variety of birds. If house sparrows, starlings and grackles become a problem, switch entirely to sunflower seeds in the hull. Purple and house finches can become monotonously numerous, and additional feeders may be required to reduce competition. The aggressive behavior of blue jays bothers some people. You can discourage them with swinging feeders and the counter-weighted feeders already mentioned.
Occasionally, sharp-shinned or Cooper’s hawks may take advantage of an assemblage of prey at a feeder. These bird-eating hawks are comparatively rare, but if their attacks on songbirds upset you, place feeders near escape cover or discontinue feeding. Hawks are protected by state and federal law.
If feeders have a downside, it’s that they probably attract a disproportionate number of diseased and handicapped birds that find it difficult to find food in the wild. One commonly seen disease is house finch conjunctivitis, a bacterial infection that causes swelling around a house finch’s eye.
To reduce disease potential, keep areas under feeders clean and occasionally wash feeders with bleach solutions and rinse. If disease appears epidemic, stop feeding immediately to curtail its transmission.
These are just some of the birds you’ll see at your feeders. An accurate field guide will help you identify some of the less common visitors that will surely arrive. Once you catch the bird-feeding "bug," you’ll find yourself looking forward to their daily visits
Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
Designer - Tracy Ritter
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
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Circulation - Bertha Bainer