The bird feeding season is upon us, and invariably questions about which foods and feeders are best fill my mail box. Here's a preemptive effort to answer some of those questions.
If you are new to feeding birds or you just want to keep it simple, offer black-oil sunflower seed in a high quality tube feeder made by Droll Yankees or Aspects. I have used tubes made by these manufacturers for more than 20 years.
Black-oil sunflower seed is the single food that attracts the greatest variety of seed-eating birds. Its thin shell is easy to crack, and the meat has a high oil (energy) content. In fact, black-oil sunflowers are grown primarily as a source of the sunflower oil sold in grocery stores.
Striped sunflower seed also attracts many seed-eating birds, but its heavier shell is more difficult to crack for smaller birds. It's a favorite of cardinals, grosbeaks and blue jays. Offer striped sunflower seeds in tubes, on platform feeders or in hopper feeders.
Many manufacturers make excellent hopper and platform feeders. Base your selection on appearance and the quality of construction. I prefer those made from 100 percent recycled plastic that simulates wood and weathers well.
Hulled sunflower seeds are more expensive because the hulls have been mechanically removed. But there is no mess and no waste; every kernel is eaten. The hulls of in-shell sunflower seeds make up as much as 45 percent of the weight of the product, so there's a good bit of waste. Despite the higher price, I think sunflower kernels are the best value in bird food. But because the hulls have been removed, they must be kept dry. Gold Crest's All-Weather feeder is the only truly weather-proof feeder I can recommend.
Nyjer, the tiny black seeds often incorrectly called "thistle," attracts goldfinches, house finches, pine siskins and purple finches. Because nyjer is imported from Africa and southeast Asia, it's more expensive than sunflower seed, but its high oil content makes it great winter food. Offer nyjer in a tube feeder specifically designed with tiny feeding ports for finches.
Nuts are another more expensive bird food, but their appeal to species such as chickadees, titmice, nuthatches and woodpeckers justifies the expense. Peanuts, walnuts and almonds are the more familiar nuts that are commonly found in better quality nut mixes. Nuts must also be protected from rain and snow. The ideal nut feeder is Droll Yankee's Big Top. It is a bowl-style feeder protected from above by a large dome. It lacks perches so only strong-footed clinging birds can access the feeding ports.
White millet is a great seed for ground feeders such as song sparrows, white-throated sparrows, towhees, doves and juncos. But don't put millet in elevated tube or bowl style feeders. Birds that use these feeders such as woodpeckers and chickadees rarely eat millet. Instead scatter millet on platform feeders or even on the ground. And remember that millet is usually the dominant ingredient in many bird seed mixes.
Also, read the ingredients labels found on seed mixes. Don't buy mixes that include milo (sorghum) or cereal grains such as wheat and oats. These are filler seeds that birds rarely eat.
Finally, suet is a favorite of woodpeckers, chickadees and nuthatches. Best offered in inexpensive plastic-coated wire baskets, suet is high energy animal fat. It is available commercially in blocks, or you can easily make your own.
My favorite suet recipe is "Martha Sargent's No-melt Peanut Butter Suet." Melt and blend one cup of lard and one cup of chunky peanut butter (buy a cheap generic brand) over low heat, then stir in two cups of quick-cook oats, two cups of cornmeal, one cup of white flour, and 1/3 cup of sugar. And feel free to add a handful of sunflower chips, peanuts and/or raisins.
Pour the mixture into a flat container about 1 inches thick. Place in the freezer about an hour, then cut blocks sized to fit your suet basket. Place a piece of wax paper between the blocks, then stack, bag and store in the freezer. It keeps for months, and the birds love it.
Send questions/comments to Dr. Scott Shalaway, 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, West Virginia 26033 or via email to firstname.lastname@example.org.