Bird Feeding: Beyond the Basics

By Edie Parnum

Last month’s column gave information on the location and types of feeders to attract a variety of birds. This month I will cover types of food, keeping feeders clean, thwarting squirrels, and attracting uncommon birds.

Black oil sunflower: This seed is the preference of most of the birds that you are likely to attract to your yard. Chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, cardinals, house finches, jays, mourning doves, juncos, and sparrows all love it. Striped sunflower seed is harder for most birds to crack open. Hulled sunflower hearts are rather expensive but are readily consumed by small birds, and there are no hulls to clean up.

Safflower: Most of the birds that eat sunflower will use this seed, too, and cardinals may actually prefer it. The big advantage is that squirrels don’t seem to like it very well. Starlings, grackles, crows, and sparrows aren’t crazy about it either.

Nyjer (thistle): This is the seed that goldfinches love, and squirrels rarely eat this seed either.

White proso millet: Juncos and a variety of other native sparrows will enjoy this seed if offered on or close to the ground. However, it may attract house sparrows.

Seed mixture: If you want to use a mixture, make sure it is a high quality mixture that includes primarily the seeds mentioned above with possibly dried fruit and nuts added. It shouldn’t have much, if any, of the cheap fillers like cracked corn, milo, canary seed, rape seed, or wheat. These seeds are usually cast aside by most birds and consumed primarily by nuisance birds like the house sparrow.

Suet: Woodpeckers and Carolina wrens don’t eat seed often but will readily use suet. Nuthatches, chickadees, titmice, and jays also like it, too. In my yard, the catbirds, as well, have discovered it. Stick with the plain white variety and you’ll have less trouble with starlings and squirrels.

Peanuts: The same birds that use the suet enjoy shelled peanuts.

Ironically, despite our intent to provide healthy nourishment for birds, the feeding station itself can be a source of disease. Because birds are unnaturally crowded together at feeders, sanitation is important to prevent the spread of illnesses like aspergillosis, salmonella, and an eye disease called mycoplasma conjunctivitis that affects finches. Take your feeders down regularly and wash them with a solution of two ounces of bleach to a gallon of water. Use a brush, scraper, or whatever tool can reach into the crevices to dig out encrusted and moldy debris. Some feeders can be disassembled for easier cleaning.

Although most of us are initially charmed by the cleverness and antics of squirrels at bird feeders, we grow tired of spending money on the enormous quantity of seed that these animals can consume. While squirrels can be deterred somewhat by carefully chosen feeders and seeds, you will probably need to take additional measures to ensure that the squirrels leave your feeders completely alone. First, install tubular baffles on the poles or posts from which you hang the feeders. Second, locate your feeders 8 feet or more from any branch, deck railing, or other perch from which a squirrel can launch itself onto your feeders, baffle or not. Since squirrels are especially fond of peanuts and black oil sunflower seed, as an additional precaution, you may want to use feeders that are surrounded by a wire cage.

Over the years I have had the fun of attracting some less common birds to my feeders. First, while I was still living in the city, a Common Redpoll, a bird I had never seen before, thrilled me by coming to the thistle feeder one winter during one of its irruptions from its northern range. Another winter I was shocked to see a female Baltimore Oriole eating black oil sunflower seed from the hopper feeder. For some reason she had forgotten to go south. Pine Siskins are fairly regular winter visitors who enjoy hulled sunflower seed. One year a Pine Warbler also helped himself to the hulled sunflower seeds for a few days. The Red-breasted Nuthatch likes peanuts and is a semi-regular winter visitor. My personal favorite, the beautiful Rose-breasted Grosbeak, will sometimes come to eat sunflower or safflower seed at the hopper feeder during migration.

I attribute my success in attracting these birds to three things: a variety of food choices, the various feeder types, and the nearby trees and shrubs that provide shelter. As always I’m interested in attracting more birds to my feeding station, so I’m wondering what else is possible. Wild Turkeys come to feeders in rural areas of Pennsylvania, and their range is expanding. Evening Grosbeaks are overdue. How about a Varied Thrush? Yes, it’s a western bird, but one came to a feeder in South Jersey a couple of years ago. Who knows what else?