Everyday Gardeners

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for the birds

I have a strong nesting instinct. As a mother of four, the need to feed is a full-time occupation. When the Blizzard of the Decade was predicted to hit the Midwest this week, I stocked up on necessities.  Milk, chocolate chips, flour, sugar, butter, vanilla…sunflower seeds, Nyjer, suet. The first six items are the basic ingredients for survival food in my house. (After all, my kids have come to expect Mom to bake cookies on snow days.) The last three are for my extended family, the birds that seek out my backyard feeders when snowdrifts cover autumn’s leftovers of seeds and berries produced by native species, such as coneflower, switchgrass, viburnum, dogwood, serviceberry, and beautyberry.

Apparently, my backyard isn’t the only restaurant in town. At last count, more than 54 million people in the U.S. feed wild birds. Birds have a much higher chance of surviving winter when supplemental food sources are available. According to the Audubon Society, human handouts are bringing about northward range expansions of many seed-eating birds, including the Northern Cardinal, Tufted Titmouse, Mourning Dove, and Red-Bellied woodpecker. A few scientists even believe that bird feeders are causing evolutionary changes in some bird species.

Quality counts when it comes to bird seed. I’ve learned that the inexpensive brands sold at many grocery stores aren’t really saving me money in the long run. They often contain cheap fillers, such as milo, that get rejected in favor of high-energy grains: sunflower seeds, millet, and cracked corn. I stick with reputable brands of bird-feeding products, such as Cole’s, Wild Birds Unlimited, Droll-Yankee, and Duncraft.

Seed mixes are great for attracting a variety of birds, but less goes to waste when each type of food is served in a separate feeder. I’ve watched many a cardinal scatter seeds hither and yon to get to the sunflower hearts—equivalent, I suppose, to one of my kids picking out all of the M&Ms from the trailmix. Presentation is everything in my avian restaurant. I offer a variety of feeders to accommodate different dining preferences. For the Mourning Doves, I scatter cracked corn on the ground. Cardinals favor sunflower seeds served in hopper or platform feeders. Finches flock to tube-style thistle feeders. And chickadees and woodpeckers are drawn to hanging suet.

As we watched dozens of birds enjoying breakfast in the blizzard, Grace (my 11-year-old daughter) said, “I wish we could let them come inside for awhile to warm up.” Yes, I thought to myself. A warm chocolate chip cookie may be just what they need.

2 Responses to “ for the birds ”

  1. Jane, what a lovely story. I used to feed the birds in winter when we lived in TN and I loved watching them eat. The squirrels always got to the food and feeders no matter what kind of feeder I bought or where I hung the feeders. Then a friend told me about safflower seed. The squirrels do not eat the safflower seed, so the birds have full reign at the feeders and you don’t have to worry about them and you get to watch the spectacular show of nature. Fair warning; ducks love safflower seed so you might be visited by any ducks in your area.

  2. Thanks for mentioning safflower, Karlin. I have observed that cardinals, especially, love safflower. I also hang a separate feeder just for squirrels and fill it with a critter mix containing mostly corn and peanuts. This seems to distract them from bothering the birds, at least for awhile! Have you ever tried bird seed that’s seasoned with Cajun spices? Cole’s Wild Bird Seed offers “Hot Meats” in their product lineup. The squirrels turn up their noses at it, but birds love it. –Jane

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