Feeding Your Feathered Friends

“You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?” 

– Steven Wright

Maybe so, but you can never have enough bird feeders. Bird feeding has grown to be one of the most popular pastimes in America, and not just among people. It’s popular among birds, too. So many people feed our feathered friends that it’s making an actual difference in bird populations. We’re seeing more cardinals and titmice, as they extend their ranges northward. We’re seeing some birds lingering longer in winter.

There are probably some birds in your backyard right this minute, impatiently tapping their tiny feet, waiting for you to put out your first feeder. When that day comes, start with a sunflower seed feeder. Black oil sunflower seeds are best. Even woodpeckers eat them. Striped sunflower seeds are also available, and these are relished by larger birds, like cardinals, blue jays and grosbeaks. But the bigger birds also eat the smaller seeds, whereas the smaller birds may struggle with bigger seeds. Black-oil sunflower seeds have a higher meat-to-seed ratio, so it usually proves a more nutritious choice for all birds.

Some seed blends work well, but many mixes don’t. Mixes are designed to attract a wide variety of birds, but not necessarily Maine’s wide variety. We have chickadees, nuthatches, finches, cardinals, and grosbeaks. Commercial mixes that attract birds of the southern and western United States are wasted in the northeast. Maine birds will pick the sunflower seeds out of the mix, and drop the unwanted remainder to the ground. Many mixes contain red or yellow millet, which is mostly filler. It is ignored by our local birds.

Other mixes contain shelled and cracked corn. Cardinals and grosbeaks will eat it. Most of it will fall on the ground, perhaps attracting pigeons, doves, jays, and house sparrows, but not the birds that most homeowners desire. With a little experimentation, it is possible to find an ideal mix. Personally, I stick to sunflower seeds.

Choosing the right bird feeders is a challenge, because every back yard is different. Many homeowners want to discourage battle squirrels. Feeders with cages, baffles, spinners, and weight-activated closures work, though squirrels are patient. They have all day to figure out how to beat these defenses.

Platform feeders are most attractive to cardinals and sparrows. They don’t like feeders that swing in the breeze. But platform feeders are also attractive to squirrels. If there are no resident cardinals nearby, platform feeders make less sense.

Consider thistle feeders. Only a desperately hungry squirrel will attack them, so they generally don’t require squirrel-proofing. The actual seed product is called Nyjer. It resembles North American thistle, but is not related. It comes from Asia and Africa. Nyjer is favored by American goldfinches, pine siskins, and common redpolls. Since these flocks wander, and often arrive in big numbers, it’s good to have multiple feeders to handle the swarm. Small finches may hang around the treetops for days and weeks near thistle feeders, brightening cold winter days with friendly chatter.

Next, add a suet feeder. They come in a variety of styles. A simple cage is good for holding raw fat, often available at the supermarket meat counter. These work well, until the local squirrels develop a taste for suet. More elaborate feeders can be stuffed with commercial suet plugs. These processed suet logs are less desirable to squirrels, and hold up in summer heat. Often, these plugs contain additives like peanut butter, berries and nuts. While cute, such embellishments are mostly for marketing purposes. The birds want the fat. Woodpeckers are the primary suet consumers, but chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, and blue jays will all take a nibble.

Winter’s a bad time to talk about hummingbird feeders. Our hummers are all in Central America right now. But find a summer spot for feeders. It’s almost impossible to make a mistake with them. They’re simple, attractive, work for all hummingbirds, and you can’t have too many. Aggressive hummingbirds will take over and defend individual feeders, but multiple feeders scattered around the yard attract multiple hummers. Once the kids leave the nest, it becomes impossible for an individual hummingbird to defend a feeder, so they tend to swarm later in summer.

If you travel in winter, don’t worry about stranding your birds with no food. They’re smarter than that, and there’s natural food nearby. You can slowly taper off your feeding as the departure date approaches. That gives them a chance to adjust. Otherwise, enjoy them whenever you can.

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