Natural Area Preservation

Feeding Birds in the Winter

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by Dea Armstrong

You can't deny it: seed birdfeeders bring you closer to the birds (or vice versa, as the case may be). This fall I have enjoyed the sparrow migration (White-throated and White-crowned especially), and just recently I began to see American Tree Sparrows, Pine Siskins, and Redbreasted Nuthatches, although not the Evening Grosbeaks that briefly visited my feeders a few years ago. "How can I attract these birds to my yard?" you ask? Here is some advice from the bird experts. My house is more suburban than many Ann Arbor residents, so I checked with my friends Julie Craves, head of Avian research at Rouge River Bird Observatory, and Mike Kielb, naturalist, author and former NAPper, to get a more "urban" perspective.


Feeders and Food
Cornell Laboratory has done a research project on birdseed preference. While more varieties of seeds will bring more varieties of birds, three main types of food will attract all the birds in our area in the fall and winter. Different types of feeders will also give all types of birds access to your buffet. For all of our feeders, Julie, Mike and I use only freestanding feeder poles with stovepipestyle baffles.

Black-oiled sunflower seeds (not striped) are preferred by the greatest number of species. Though the Cornell study shows that Blue Jays and Doves would rather have corn, I see enough Mourning Doves and Jays at my feeders to not make the corn investment. If you fill your feeders with a mix, you will watch the birds pick out the black-oiled sunflower seeds, so save your money and just buy the pure stuff! If you have a real House Sparrow or European Starling problem, you may want to try safflower seeds, as these non-natives don't like safflower quite as much as sunflower seeds. Julie, Mike and I all prefer to serve sunflower seeds in a tube feeder because the seeds stay drier. Julie cuts off 1/2 inch of the perches and turns these feeders upside down so that the trays don't provide a place for the larger birds, such as those urban House Sparrows, to hang out and chow down (though they do eventually learn how to feed upside down). Julie also has a hopper or house style feeder for sunflower seeds, and Mike has a platform feeder.

Nyjer (thistle) seed is a favorite of finches (American Goldfinch, Pine Siskin and, if we get lucky, Redpolls). Thistle seed feeders with small holes and short perches that limit the size of visitors are more expensive but definitely worth the investment. Julie and I have these special thistle feeders. Mike has a sack feeder that he picked up at a local bird feeder store.

Suet (beef fat) is the preferred food for woodpeckers. You can use the supermarket variety or the suet cakes sold in specialty stores. Many people, like Julie, hang their suet in a mesh bag. Mike uses a sturdy wire cage from a specialty store for his suet feeder. At our house, we have had to resort to an upside-down basket feeder to deal with crows and other critters. The crows still come and try to knock suet off by jumping up from the ground, but it just isn't as lucrative for them as the simple wire cage was.

Feeder Placement
First and foremost, put feeders where you can see them, otherwise you'll miss the best part of feeding the birds and you won't know when the feeders need to be refilled. Ideally, natural shelter should be nearby or your birds won't have a place to take cover if predators show up. But try to keep about ten feet between the cover and your feeders-otherwise squirrels will easily jump onto the feeders for a meal. If your yard is shelterless, try making a brush pile near your feeders at least for the winter.

Maintenance
The folks at Cornell recommend cleaning your feeders about every two weeks. They suggest scrubbing feeders with soap and water, rinsing well, dipping into a solution of one part household bleach and nine parts water, then rinsing well and drying thoroughly before refilling. From time to time you should also rake the area under your feeders because decomposing hulls can harbor bacteria that may harm ground-gleaning birds.

For more information, check with local stores that specialize in feeding birds or see Cornell's web site at http://birds.cornell.edu/pfw/AboutBirdsandFeeding/abtbirds_index.html.

This article was written by City Ornithologist, Dea Armstrong, for the City of Ann Arbor Natural Area Preservation’s Winter 2001 newsletter.

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