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Myths and Facts Concerning Feeding Hummingbirds


Most of us have heard several myths regarding wild birds that many people assume to be true. Some of the more commonly accepted myths include: human handling of baby birds will cause the parent birds to abandon their babies; backyard feeding causes the birds to become dependent on our handouts and abandon their natural foods; feeding birds keeps them from migrating; and, birds should be fed only in winter when “they need our help the most”, among others.

Now for the facts…The most comprehensive report ever written about the relative attractiveness of various commercially available wild bird seeds is “Feeding Preferences of Wild Birds at Feeders”, published by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. This report, called Special Scientific Report 223, documents many facts about particular seeds and foods and dispels the myths surrounding others. It demonstrates the clear superiority of high oil content seeds over inferior seeds and almost all grains. Additionally, Report 223 provides data on the effectiveness of various types of feeders used to deliver foods to wild birds.

Most avian species do not rely on scent, with the notable exception of the corvids, i.e., vultures, ravens, crows, jays, magpies, etc. Therefore, human scent does not interfere with the nurturing relationship parent birds have with their offspring. Backyard birds are not dependent on human “handouts”. When birds come to our feeders, they are supplementing their primary diet of wild foods. Most experts agree, and research bears out, that wild foods account for up to 90% of their diets and that feeding birds is a year round activity that we can enjoy and benefits the birds as well.

Circumstances and experiences vary in every climate and region. Deep snow in northern regions may cover much otherwise available food during winter. Extreme temperatures in southern regions during summer cause real hardships that alter the natural food production cycles. Drought anywhere will bring more birds to birdbaths and ponds for relief and survival. Attracting and feeding birds throughout the year is good for the birds, and people alike.

Many folks believe that all birds eat the same foods. This is simply not the case. Birds, like humans, have needs and preferences for particular foods that vary greatly. Some species are specialists in their food needs, having evolved in certain habitats and requiring particular foods found solely in those habitats. Hummingbirds’ nutritional needs are best met by the large amounts of small insects they eat daily. This is where the proteins, fats, amino acids, vitamins, minerals, moisture and fiber originate in their diets. Nectar primarily provides quick energy for their very high metabolism.  Lesser Goldfinches almost exclusively prefer Nyjer thistle to the exclusion of all other seeds. Cardinals, on the other hand, eat a much wider variety of seeds and other foods. More adaptive species eat a much wider variety of foods. Some species’ diets are wholly, or in large part, composed of any of the following: insects, fruits, nuts, grains, seeds, plants, or nectars.

The more adaptive species tend to be, when food is considered, generalists. Consider the hardy and adaptable House Sparrow. Originally introduced to New York in 1850, by 1910 it had spread across the continent to the pacific coast. Presently its North American range includes almost the whole of the continent, the only notable exception being Alaska and the northern half of Canada. Because it eats in incredible variety of natural foods, feeder foods, and almost anything edible that it forages in cities, towns, suburbs and rural areas, it has successfully adapted to every region of the country, adapting and foraging whatever foods each specific habitat can offer.

The general rule of thumb is: the wider the variety of bird foods you provide – the wider the variety of birds you can attract. The Southeast region of Arizona is one of the most biological diverse regions in the whole continent, with hundreds more species than many other areas. With the right feeders and a wide variety of foods, our customers can attract more species to their yards than people in other areas of the country.

Backyard bird feeding rewards the birders offering the widest varieties of foods to attract the widest variety of species. Fruit and nectar eaters, such as orioles and mockingbirds, respond to fruit and nectar feeders. Insectivores, like flycatchers, depend most heavily on insects or insect meal. Nut eaters, such as crossbills, nutcrackers, jays, and woodpeckers are attracted to peanuts, pecans, walnuts, acorns, and other nutmeats. In other words, you cannot attract orioles if you only put out seeds.

The US Fish and Wildlife report 223 underscores one of the least understood facts concerning seedeater preferences. Seedeaters attracted to backyard feeders usually prefer a particular seed or seeds, while ignoring others. Filling different feeders with individual seeds is preferable to using most commercially prepared mixes. Most commercially prepared mixes are created with the lowest cost to the consumer and greatest profit to the producers as the highest priority – not the best interest of the birds. Most of these mixes are very high in grain content, especially corn and cracked corn, red and white milo (which resembles seed with its round shape and relative small size), wheat berries, oats, etc.

These types of “economy mixes” are most prevalent in the big box, franchise and chain stores such as discount stores, supermarkets, hardware stores, nurseries, feed stores, home improvement stores, etc. Most often they are packaged in clear plastic twenty pound bags. The least expensive mixes have the highest content of grains, which the true seed-eaters reject. These mixes contain up to 90% grains, particularly Milo (the cheapest of all grains) and only 10% or less of true seeds such as sunflowers or millets. In every case the grain content is dropped to the ground underneath the feeders as the birds seek out the true seeds. This is the most common reason that doves and pigeons are attracted to the ground underneath the feeders. Dove-proof feeders filled with real seed or real seed blends alleviate this problem, attract a wider variety of desirable birds, and prove to be more cost effective.

High grain/low seed mixes have only one advantage – they are cheaper in cost at the outset, but less cost-effective than quality ingredients. One could spend $12 to $15 on a twenty pound “economy” mix that lasts for about four to five days or buy a quality mix of pure seeds without any grains for about twice the cost but will last two to four times longer. The high grain/low seed mix will empty out onto the ground quite quickly and attract many unwanted or less desirable birds, such as House Sparrows, doves, and pigeons. The all seed mix will stay in the feeder much longer, not be wasted on the ground, and, best of all, attract a wider variety of more desirable species into the yard.

The results of using the “economy mixes” sold at supermarkets, chain stores, pet and feed stores, and nurseries are responsible for many of the problems people encounter when backyard birdfeeding. It is clear that the greatest number of bird visits and the least cost per bird visit occurs when high quality foods are used. The only perceived advantage of using “cheap” mixes containing corn, wheat and milo is a lower purchase price, which only satisfies the occasional, uninformed or casual birder.

The reduced bird visits, much higher costs per bird visit, increase in mess and wasted foods, possible increase in pests and potential spoilage problems should make the “inexpensive” mixes an undesirable option. Actual day-to-day costs are noticeably reduced using the higher quality all-seed mixes. Next time you visit The Wild Bird Store, try our original recipe, best-selling Songbird – All Seed Mix. Our long-time customers remain loyal to this seed blend as it easily proves itself with the birds, and their budgets. 

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