Feeding birds is a fun winter pastime

Birds will visit a feeder any time of the year, but winter is when we notice them most. Maybe it’s because they have less available food. Maybe it’s because there’s less leaf canopy to conceal them. Maybe it’s because we have fewer diversions ourselves, so we watch the birds.

My grandfather probably fed at least 300 pounds of bird seed and another 40 pounds of suet each winter. I realize Maine winters are harsher than North Carolina winters, but that’s still a lot of bird feed.

His favorite birds were black capped chickadees and he had them eating out of his hand. He also loved nuthatches, goldfinches, downy woodpeckers and mourning doves. He wasn’t crazy over evening grosbeaks or blue jays but he had plenty of them too.

Most bird lovers have their favorites. Our state bird, the cardinal, is very conspicuous because of its bright red color. Other birds like finches and bluebirds are popular too. Some folks like nuthatches and Carolina wrens. Very few people wish to attract starlings, grackles and pigeons.

The problem most bird enthusiasts face is luring desired birds and discouraging ones that bully others or are just plain messy. This can be a complicated problem. It’s difficult to attract birds not living near your feeder already. Feeders also need to be filled with the right kind of feed.

Generally speaking, inexpensive feeds containing corn, millet, sorghum, wheat and sunflower seeds will attract birds most people don’t want. Also, feeding seeds that generate trash like whole sunflower seeds can draw rats and mice. Hulled sunflower seeds won’t do this but they are more expensive. Regular cleaning under feeders usually eliminates the problem too.

Many desired birds enjoy sunflower seeds and these seeds are very available. Cardinals, nuthatches, finches, woodpeckers, Carolina chickadees, titmice and blue jays hit them hard.

Blue jays often hit other songbirds hard too, so many bird enthusiasts discourage them. Jays don’t like black oil sunflower seeds as much as they do the large striped ones, so these smaller ones might be a better choice.

Safflower seeds are often a good feed selection. They attract popular birds like cardinals, white-throated sparrows, finches and doves. Squirrels and starlings don’t really like them.

Nyjer, commonly called thistle seed is a popular choice for finches and other small birds. These seeds are not related to thistles but they look a little like thistle seeds. They are dark colored, slender and about a quarter inch long. Cardinals and larger songbirds usually leave them alone.

Suet feeders are popular for attracting wrens, nuthatches and woodpeckers. Cardinals, finches, titmice, chickadees and doves like suet too.

My biggest problem with feeding suet is that many undesired guests appear. It’s a magnet for starlings, grackles and red-winged blackbirds. Even worse, rodents, possums, skunks and raccoons love that greasy stuff which often becomes rancid.

Numerous options abound for feeding birds. Watching birds at a feeder is almost like having pets without all that responsibility. Sure, they don’t respond to you like a dog or cat, but you can gradually gain their trust.


Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (tmanzer@ecpps.k12.nc.us).

About tedmanzer

I grew up in Old Town Maine and got a B.S. at the University of Maine in Plant Sciences/ minor in Botany. From there I moved to West Virginia and earned a M.S. in Agronomy at WVU. I also met my wife there. She grew up in rural WV as the daughter of tenant farmers who raised cattle and hogs. Their lifestyle at times was one of subsistence and I learned a lot from them. I've always been a foraging buff, but combining my formal botanical knowledge with their practical 'Foxfire-type' background opened up my eyes a little more. I recently retired from teaching high school agriculture after 25 years teaching with my wife. Until recently I wrote a weekly nature/foraging column for the local paper (dailyadvance.com). I also have written several Christian nature/adventure novels that can be purchased on Amazon in Kindle format. One is a five book family saga I call the 'Forgotten Virtues' series. In the first book, Never Alone (presently out of print), a young boy comes of age after his father dies in a plane crash, and he has to make it alone. The second book, Strange Courage, takes Carl from his High School graduation to his recovery from a nasty divorce. The third book, Second Chances, takes Carl from his ex-wife's death and the custody of his son to his heroic death at age 59. The fourth book, Promises Kept, depicts how his grandchildren react and adjust to his death (this one is not yet published). In the final book, Grandfather's Way, his youngest and most timid granddaughter emerges from the shadow of her overachieving family and accomplishes more in four months than most do in a lifetime. I use many foraging references with a lot of the plants I profile in these articles in those books. I also wrote a romance novel titled Virginia. It is available on Amazon and is a different type of romance from a man's perspective.
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