SOME BASIC BIRDFEEDING TIPS
by Jon Friedman
Since we began publishing our printed-on-paper newsletter, in 1991, many articles that focused on various aspects of feeding birds in the backyard have informed and educated our readers. Most of the earlier printed articles were very basic and relatively short, most often just a page or two. I am aware that many readers have saved their newsletters as a resource they could refer to whenever the need arose. In recent years we have expanded our efforts as the email format easily satisfies the need for more information in a more concise format and method of delivery. Today, thousands of readers receive and forward our contemporary monthly newsletter. They can easily be archived for future reference. We do archive recent years’ feature articles and those articles are available to anyone who clicks on the Birding Articles menu tab underneath the header on the home page of our wildbirdsonline.com website. Several full length, detailed articles that are focused on backyard birding specifics can be found there. This article will provide a concise summary of several key things to keep in mind that can help in your efforts to make a better used and appreciated backyard birding station.
We are all familiar with the truism “patience is a virtue.” This is a very important thing for all birders to keep in mind. Building a complete bird-friendly station should encourage some real thought. [encourage is the wrong verb—begin with maybe] It doesn’t have to happen all at once, overnight so to speak. It makes sense to start off simply with a feeder or two and a birdbath (or some other water feature, i.e. mister or dripper). As time and budget allow, you can continue adding to your station until you feel it is complete enough to satisfy your interests and those of the birds that benefit from your efforts. Likewise, your backyard habitat can also be built upon over a period of time. No matter how long it takes for you to achieve the most desirable results, it will prove worthwhile for you and your family as well as the birds and their families. Patience is always rewarded!
If your desire is to aid the birds in their daily lives, to appreciate the complexity and inter-connectedness of nature, to create a greater diversity of birds and habitat, and to be able to enjoy seeing and experiencing all this in your own backyard – keep in mind all this can be accomplished without too much effort or expense. I remind people that “you get what you pay for” when it comes to buying products for your birding station. Higher quality products may cost a little more but almost always prove to be a more sensible solution as those products should perform as they are meant to, will provide years of enjoyment, and be more cost effective as they won’t have to be replaced often, or at all. Many good products have guarantees, even lifetime guarantees! As for foods, I think the same ground rules apply. Higher quality, highly nutritious foods for birds will have serious and immediate benefits for the birds that consume them. It’s a waste of money to buy discount brands that the birds do not prefer. If you put grains or an inexpensive grain/seed mix into a seed feeder, for example, the seed-eating birds will pick out the seeds they prefer and will drop every grain onto the ground below. When new customers come into the store and complain about doves, pigeons, and sparrows being the only birds that dominate their feeding station, I discuss what foods and feeders they are using and make suggestions as to how to end the problem and begin to attract the better singers and more colorful songbirds that they actually desired to attract in the first place. So, the other truism I explain is that the wider the variety of higher-quality foods (and the correct feeders to deliver those foods), the wider the variety of species you can attract in return.
All birds do not eat the same foods. Like humans and all other animals, each species of avian life has its own food preferences. Not all seed eaters eat the same seeds. Some birds, goldfinches for example, simply prefer Nyjer (thistle) seed to any other seed offered. Northern Cardinals, by comparison, will eat a wider variety of seeds. They are particularly fond of any of the various sunflower seeds, but they also prefer safflower and hemp, which most other seed eaters will ignore. They’ve been known to eat white proso millet, golden brown millet, and red millet, too. They are regularly seen at fruit and nut feeders also. Cardinals, unlike the “specialist” goldfinches, eat a wide variety of foods. Providing the “right” seed to attract the birds you want always works better than providing them with the cheapest alternative. Having multiple seed feeders with different individual seeds will always attract a diversity of seed-eating birds better than a single feeder with a mix in it. Avoid offering grains or seed/grain mixes in feeders as the grains will always end up on the ground, usually attracting a flock of doves, pigeons (in mid-town), and common House Sparrows. Pure individual seeds or quality all-seed mixes will always prove more cost effective and bring a wider variety of more desirable birds.
Many of our most colorful birds, like orioles, are serious fruit eaters. In nature, fruit-eating birds will forage on most wild fruits. There are many varieties of wild berries. Every type of berry is eaten by some bird or animal. Phainopepla, for example, will depend on mistletoe berries when insects are not abundant or available – and mistletoe berries are poisonous for humans and most other animals to consume. Here in the Sonoran Desert, many of our native cactus flower and set fruit. So, naturally, our desert-dwelling fruit-eating birds depend on that food source when it is in season and abundant. Those of us who have experience with gardens and orchards know all too well that we must pick our fruits a little early or the birds will be the beneficiaries of our labor intensive efforts. Having a fruit feeder, with the fruits sliced into halves for easy access, will deter or prevent birds from getting your entire harvest.
Orioles, tanagers, mockingbirds, and many other species can be attracted using cheap generic grape jelly. Some of our customers provide prickly pear jelly for our native birds, but any jelly will work. However, there is one serious drawback to using jelly to attract some of our most colorful birds – bees! Bees are naturally drawn to sweet liquids and substances. Here in southern Arizona we must keep in mind that the common European honey bees we are all familiar with from the past are now nowhere to be found. Most of our honey bees are either partially or fully hybridized with the Africanized bees – otherwise commonly referred to as “killer bees.” Each year, more people suffer death and serious injury from multiple bee stings. Outdoor pets also can fall prey to these bees. I now advise people to not use jellies or at least stop using jellies to attract birds once bees discover them.
Once widely used throughout the northern tier states, particularly in cold winter weather when snow obscures most natural ground feeding, suets have advanced with time. Our parents and grandparents remember the time we could go to our neighborhood butcher and ask for “bird suet.” Real, old-fashioned suet was actually the fat that surrounds the beef kidney – the purest fat on the animal. Because it was greasy to begin with (and no fun handling as a result), it would melt and drip as the winter weather warmed into spring, and could become rancid and thereby bad for birds to ingest – raw suet today is rarely used as a staple for birds to eat. Suets were used initially when other foods were no longer available to birds. It was a good source for protein and fat. Fat is instantly turned into quick energy by birds.
In our times, raw suet has been replaced with single rendered suet, i.e., a commercially produced product that has been rendered to rid it of most of the impurities. Rendering is a process much like a double-boiler. In our desert region, even single rendered suets are potentially harmful to the birds that are tempted to try them. It can become rancid at temperatures over 72 degrees and the birds will spread its oily residue throughout their feathers when they preen themselves. It doesn’t wash out in bird baths or rains. It tends to accumulate and will eventually become so problematic that it can affect their ability to fly – and escape predators.
Here in our desert region, the only type of suet to offer birds is what’s referred to as “no-melt, suet dough.” These are suets that have been double rendered to eliminate all dangerous bacterias and contamination, are not greasy or oily to the touch, and prevent melting until the temperature reaches 166 degrees. This is the only type of suet we sell. This safe suet does cost a little more than single-rendered suet, but it will attract certain birds that other foods may not attract. It comes in a variety of flavors that may attract a wide variety of birds. Fruit-eating birds will prefer the orange or berry no-melt suet, pecan and almond flavors will attract nut-eating birds, and hot pepper (jalapeño) is curiously attractive to a wider variety of birds, as are peanut and peanut butter no-melt suets. Calcium no-melt suet is particularly good for all hens (females), especially this time of year when they are breeding and laying eggs. Hens use most of the minerals in their bodies (especially calcium) in the making of their eggs, so calcium no-melt suets are especially good for hens in replenishing their calcium intake so they can continue making and laying eggs. Experiment! Try different flavors and see who responds to each. We routinely stock about a dozen varieties of no-melt suet doughs.
Throughout the country, serious birders know that particular insects will bring a variety of insectivore birds to their yards. While several companies sell insects via mail order, birders usually prefer to raise their own insects. Breeding insects is substantially cheaper than buying them in smaller quantities from a retail outlet. The insects that are most commonly used are crickets, mealworms, earthworms, grasshoppers, and the like. However, breeding insects has its disadvantages, too. Aside from the expense, they are perishable and need to be kept in a refrigerator. Unless handled properly, they will begin to smell. Many folks, particularly women [this wouldn’t be a gender stereotype would it? It is women who handle baby crap], do not want to handle live insects. Live insects require specialized feeders to contain them and prevent their escape. An alternative to live insects is dehydrated insects, particularly mealworms. Dried mealworms are available at our store in several sizes.
A practical alternative to live insects is our Nuts ‘n’ Bugs. Our recipe blends insects, ground nuts, and a small variety of other nutritious ingredients into a simple meal that can be used in a variety of feeders. Many of our year-round resident birds and quite a few of our migrants favor this insect food, which provides a delicious high protein/high energy food source. We use Blue Bottle-nosed flies and common fruit flies in our meal. Those particular flies are among the highest protein-yielding insects available. We use about 1700 dehydrated insects per pound in the manufacture of our insect meal. Nuts ‘n’ Bugs does not freeze in cold winter weather nor does it melt in the hot summer months. Our woodshop produces several feeders designed to deliver Nuts ‘n’ Bugs to a variety of insectivores, from tiny kinglets to large flickers.
Tree nuts and ground nuts (actually legumes we call peanuts) are favored foods for quite a few species. Woodpeckers, flickers, thrashers, wrens, jays, cardinals and Pyrrhuloxia, the grosbeaks, Clark’s Nutcracker, nuthatches, chickadees, titmice, creepers, and others can become regulars once they discover your nut feeder. Shelled tree nuts, especially walnuts and pecans and almonds, can be used in ¼” metal grid feeders designed for peanuts or virtually any feeder that allows birds to gain access to the nuts. Most nuts are too large to be eaten whole, so the birds have to work at chipping away at the nuts and eating smaller pieces. This results in a pound of peanuts lasting many times longer than a similar amount of seed in an appropriate seed feeder. More specialized feeders are available for delivering peanuts-in-the-shell. These feeders are amusing and entertaining to watch as the birds figure out the best method of extracting the nuts.
Nectar is an essential staple in the diet of all our hummingbird species. Some other birds, particularly orioles and verdin, are also attracted to nectar feeders. Additionally, two species of nectar-eating bats are frequently seen at backyard nectar feeders. (When folks tell us that their nectar feeders were completely drained dry the previous evening, we inform them they have bats visiting the feeder.)
There has always been some amount of disagreement or controversy regarding the difference between a simple sugar source, such as sucrose (ordinary table sugar), and nectar, which is a blend of several different plant sugars (usually with sucrose, glucose, and fructose present). This argument continues today and will likely continue into the future. Some believe that the simple sugar will suffice as a short-term energy source. In a pinch, I, too, believe this is true. But, I also believe that the carefully blended mix of plant sugars we offer our customers is superior to any one sugar and better provides for the birds’ longer-term needs. This is what nature provides in the wild. And I am a firm believer that nature knows best. I believe that hummingbirds can survive on simple sugar water, but they can thrive on a real nectar mix. My simple rule of thumb is that if we humans must err, it’s always best to err in favor of the birds. If in doubt, do what causes no harm. Nature provides fresh nectar, why should I offer them less than what nature deems necessary?
Just as no one food satisfies the dietary or nutritional needs of most birds; no single feeder will feed all the foods to all the birds you can attract. By providing feeders designed to deliver particular foods, we can substantially increase the number and variety of birds we can attract to our backyards. Our website, wildbirdsonline.com, details all the different types of feeders we offer and all the individual choices available within each type. Sometimes the placement or location of a feeder may make a difference in which birds use it. Feeders offering the same types of food can be grouped closer together, but feeders offering different foods should be spaced further apart. Location of the feeders may become important with certain species that are particularly territorial or simply want to avoid unnecessary competition. How far apart is enough? That depends. Usually I suggest at least 10 feet of distance between unlike food sources. More distance may be better if you have the space. Less will obviously have to do if your space is very small. There’s no absolute rule about these things. Understand them as guidelines and feel free to experiment. After all, everyone’s yard is configured differently, has different habitat, different feeders, and maybe, different birds. Don’t be afraid to make changes if you or your birds aren’t satisfied with what you’ve done so far.
Seed feeders are available in several basic styles and materials.
Standard tubular seed feeders for passerines are usually made from metal mesh or plastic of some sort. The better quality metal meshes will be stainless steel or cold-rolled steel with a vinyl coating. The best quality plastic material will be U.V. stable polycarbonate. This is the most optical-quality clear plastic on the market. It is scratch-resistant and usually, under normal use, unbreakable. The damaging rays of the Arizona sunlight will not cause it to weaken, turn yellow, crack, blister, or in any other way, show wear. Most of these higher quality polycarbonate feeders have lifetime guarantees for this reason. U.V. stable acrylic would be the next best of the choices available in plastic. Avoid buying other plastics as they will prove non cost-effective, have a much shorter life span, need replacement every two or three years and their cheaper design will require more effort for filling and cleaning. Remember – you get what you pay for! Put a gridded cage around the feeder to make it dove-, pigeon-, and/or squirrel-proof.
Platform feeders are well used by a wide variety of birds. They come in a variety of sizes and materials. Some have legs for placement on the ground or a table. Some can be pole or post mounted. Some can be hung from branches or Shepard hook poles. The most commonly used materials for these feeders are wood (cedar being the best) or recycled plastics. While platform feeders were originally designed to deliver seeds, folks have realized that you can use just about any bird foods in this type of feeder.
Hopper feeders also come in a range of sizes and styles. Although the use of recycled plastics is firmly established in the birding market, wood still dominates the materials used. Plain hopper and platform feeders can easily be made or retro-fitted to serve as anti-dove or anti-squirrel feeders. Hopper feeders are designed primarily to dispense seeds.
A good window bracket will enable the user to install any small or lightweight feeder from it. We sell two U.V. stable polycarbonate window bracket models. These window brackets will hold feeders weighing in at 5 pounds or less.
Seed and/or nut blocks and cylinders are also popular. Formed under great pressure, these dense blocks and cylinders can be put directly at ground level, in specially-built block feeder housing, on walls, or installed on tree branches. They come in a wide range of prices and quality. The most popular large block we sell is the Sahuaro block for quail. At twenty-one pounds, it’s the densest, largest, and most popular of the blocks we sell. It’s also the longest lasting with an average life span of anywhere from 1 to 2 months up to 3 or 4 months. Many of the smaller seed and nut cylinders either have a mesh netting to hang them from or can be installed on any spindle feeder.
Hardware and habitat
If your yard lacks native habitat, you can install feeders using Shepard hook poles, different pole kits, post mounts, and brackets. We routinely stock a wide variety of all these items for those who need them. All of our metal accessories are manufactured in Chicago, by Erva, using quality US steel.
Bird baths and waterers come in an assortment of different sizes, shapes, materials, and colors. They range in price from very inexpensive to very expensive. The two most important things to keep in mind regarding bird baths is that they should be shallow (1” to 1½” deep) and either algae-resistant or algae-free. Birds are far better attracted to water when the surface of the water is agitated and moving. Adding a dripper or mister achieves this as it makes a plain standing birdbath about 6 times more attractive and inviting when it appears to birds that the water is moving. We also stock and sell the Water Wiggler. This is a device that sits in any bird bath and creates a constant swirl of water. Unlike drippers and misters that are constantly adding fresh water to the bath, the wiggler simply causes the water to move without adding any water. A fresh, clean source of water daily is more important to birds than any food. If you are just starting out creating a backyard birding station, make your first purchase a water feature.
Remember! Have patience! Create diversity! Happy Birding!