Monday, December 14, 2009

Providing a little extra!

(Photo by Heather Peterson, NY)

As winter is settling in around the country we can take this opportunity to give our animal friends a little extra energy to make it through the cold months. Winter for many places means colder weather and an increase in rain or, if you’re lucky snow. In case you have not caught on, I am a big fan of cold snowy winter weather. Anyway, regardless of the  winter weather where you live, you can provide wildlife with some assistance by providing extra food for local animals. I addition to the local animals we are used to seeing in our area, winter is also a time of migration for many bird species. Migration takes a lot of energy so providing some additional food sources aids those birds heading south for the winter.

By offering food for birds and some mammals, you will be providing you and your family with some “wilderness television” for your viewing entertainment. Even without binoculars, you will be able to see many bird and animal species up close. When you start feeding the birds, or continue to do so if you already have been providing winter feed for the birds, here are some topics to keep in mind.

There are a few important points to keep in mind when deciding where to place your feeding stations. Consider the following things:

Ample cover, preferably provided by native plants. Native plants also provide potential nesting sites and sources of natural food.
Place your feeders and feeding stations in areas that provide places for birds to find cover. This reduces stress in birds. If birds have places where they can wait and feel safe while they are feeding, it can help them conserve energy while they feed. Use existing trees, bushes, and even buildings as locations for your food sources. However, keep in mind cats. More on that later.

You want to avoid creating unneeded competition amongst various bird species, while accommodating various feeding styles and preferences.
By placing feeding stations in various locations and levels, you will allow birds to find their own feeding level. Also, by placing a variety of food sources out in a variety of areas birds will not have to compete against additional species. By separating feed into different areas, you can also watch to see what species go to what food source. 

You also want to think of possible hazards to the birds, such as window collisions, prowling cats, and thieving squirrels.
Try not to place your feeders or feeding stations near windows. Birds have a difficult time "seeing" glass, and finding dead birds outside is not exactly holiday cheer. There are bird sticker silhouettes that you can place on your windows. Also you can place plants in front of windows or fine nets to prevent birds from crashing into the glass. 
If you have outdoor cats,place your feeders high off the ground and in open areas so it is more difficult for cats to stalk the birds. Bells do little to warn birds. Squirrels and chipmunks are going to seek out your feeders and feed stations. You can help birds get their share of the food by placing some food in easy to get areas on the ground for the small mammals to access. And let's face it, squirrels can be hysterical to watch as they work out how to get by all the squirrel defense systems created by humans. One trick I have used is to put cayenne pepper into your bird seed. Birds don't smell it or taste it, but mammals will.

What to serve, what to serve?:
You have chosen where to put your feeders and feed stations, so what do you put out for the critters to eat? As with us humans, food can make or break a party. Let's give the animals a good party. Different birds are attracted to different kinds of seed. By providing a variety of seeds at various locations, you can attract a wider range of bird species. There are many different kinds of feeders out there, so make sure that your feed is compatible with the feeder(s) you have.  

Sunflower Seeds:
Black-oil seed is the preferred seed of many small feeder birds, especially in northern latitudes. Striped sunflower seed is also readily eaten, especially by large-beaked birds. Hulled sunflower seed is consumed by the greatest variety of birds; it attracts various jay species, red-bellied woodpeckers, finches, goldfinches, northern cardinals, evening grosbeaks, pine grosbeaks, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, and grackles.

White millet is the favorite food of most small-beaked ground-feeding birds; red millet is also readily eaten. Millet attracts quail, doves, juncos, sparrows, towhees, cowbirds, and red-winged blackbirds.

Cracked Corn:
Medium cracked corn is about as popular with ground-feeding birds as millet, but it is vulnerable to rot, since the interior of the kernel readily soaks up moisture. Feed small amounts, mixed with millet, on feeding tables or from watertight hopper feeders. Avoid fine cracked corn, since it quickly turns to mush; coarse cracked corn is too large for small-beaked birds. Cracked corn attracts pheasants, quail, doves, crows, jays, sparrows, juncos, and towhees

Milo, wheat, oats:
These agricultural products are frequently mixed into low-priced birdseed blends. Most birds discard them in favor of other food, which leaves them to accumulate under feeders, where they may attract rodents. Milo is more often eaten by ground-feeding birds in the Southwest. It attracts pheasants, quail, and doves.

A preferred food of American goldfinches, lesser goldfinches, house finches, and common redpolls. It is sometimes called "black gold," because it costs about $1.50 per pound. Do not confuse it with prickly thistle, a pink-flowered weed used by goldfinches to line their nests.

Suet (animal fat and seeds):
This mixture attracts insect-eating birds such as woodpeckers, wrens, chickadees, nuthatches, and titmice. Place the suet in special feeders or net onion bags at least five feet from the ground to keep it out of the reach of dogs and raccoons. Do not put out suet during hot weather as it can turn rancid; also, dripping fat can damage natural waterproofing on bird feathers.

Whole and crushed peanuts attract woodpeckers, jays, chickadees, titmice, bushtits, nuthatches, brown creepers, wrens, kinglets, northern mockingbirds, brown thrashers, starlings, and yellow-rumped and pine warblers. Provide these in tube-shaped, metal mesh feeders.

Stale Bread:
If you and your family end up with extra bread, or the ends of bread loafs, grind them up and place them out for the birds. It is a great way to use leftover bread. Or make yourself croutons. 

Peanut Butter Suet:
Mix one part peanut butter with five parts corn meal or a mixed bird seed, and stuff the mixture into holes drilled in a hanging log or into the crevices of a large pinecone. This all-season mixture attracts woodpeckers, chickadees, titmice, and occasionally warblers. This mixture is a good substitute for suet in the summer.

A few thoughts about attracting mammals to your feeders.

Squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits, raccoons, opossums, skunks, woodchucks, mice, and deer are commonly found in many of the same areas where we live. These species are highly adaptable and, in many cases, are becoming unwanted visitors rather than welcome guests.
Food set out for birds may attract many of these animals. Squirrels, chipmunks, and mice will readily eat birdseed, especially sunflower seeds. Raccoons will feed on suet if they can get to it.
Check the exterior of your house for loose or rotted boards that could allow access by mice or other rodents. Remember that these animals are wild, and if threatened they can bite. Raccoons can be particularly aggressive. All these species can carry diseases. Do not handle them!
I know I should not need to mention anything about bears, but I will anyway. If your area is known to have bears, brown or black, please do not encourage them to come to your house and feed. Squirrels are one thing, bears are quite another. I have only heard of a couple of reports of bears raiding bird feeders, but you do NOT want bears close to your house. If you have any doubts about bears, contact your local Department of Conservation or Natural Resources for information on bear sightings in your area.

Website resources:
Here are a few websites to help you get some ideas of the variety of bird feeders available.
Don't forget that if you have any comments or ideas, please email me at: or simply leave a comment here on the blog.

That's it for this week. Have fun getting out there! 


  1. Thieving squirrels indeed! They can be such pests, although the local bear knocking the feeder down has also been quite the disturbance!

  2. Ahh, garden bird feeders really remind me of my childhood, as we would always have them set up and filled, no matter what part of the year it was! We would always get the regular bird seed, and we were lucky enough to not get squirrels!