Written by Rome Marinelli, Naturalist at The Inn at Honey Run
As the temperatures drop and snow begins to fly (it’s only a matter of time), we begin seeing various colorful birds decorate tree limbs like ornaments on a Christmas tree. Below we’ll cover ways to entice closer viewing of those birds, how to care for them throughout the winter, and feed options.
As you’d imagine, different seed/feed attracts different birds. Of the available bird feed on the market, I stick with seeds that either will not sprout if caused to fall to the ground AND/OR seed that is native or easily managed if by chance it is sowed to the ground below my feeders. There are options for dried or baked seed, which would eliminate potential for sprouting to occur. I focus on filling my feeders with sunflower, cracked corn, peanuts, and, if I really want to jazz things up, freeze-dried mealworms and dried fruit. Aside from the mealworms, it seems like a decent trail mix.
I opt to buy bags of single content feed (i.e. 1 bag of sunflower, 1 bag cracked corn, etc.) and mix them myself. Many mixes available on the market offer feed to include milo, millet, and nyjer. These mixes are usually disproportionately filler (almost always milo) which birds will pick through for a more desirable treat like sunflower. Many of these mixes are heavily comprised of milo, because it’s very cheap. Two bird species, however, desire milo; unfortunately, those are the European Starling and House Sparrow –invasive bird species that compete with native bird species for nesting habitat. (Note: wild turkey, a native species, will eat milo, but this post is aimed toward the typical urban backyard.) So why pay for a bag of mix that’s mostly filled with a dirt cheap seed, benefits invasive bird species, and is discarded by and unaccommodating of our native birds’ needs? That’s something you will need to think about the next time you’re at the store picking out birdseed. Make every penny count when buying mixes; look at the contents, and note the quality and caloric value!
Much like us, birds need quality, nutritional food. Specifically, birds need foods high in protein and fat. Because backyard birds burn through nearly 10,000 calories a day (no joke), they need to make efficient food choices; which explains why many birds will pick out milo in search of a more nutritional snack. When making a purchase, be sure to read your labels and find the caloric values (typically located on the back of the bag). One study by Project Wildbird found that Sunflower is one of the most preferred options for feed of the 15 bird species studied. Sunflower will behave in your yard if knocked to the ground by simply mowing over them in the spring after germination (if a rabbit doesn’t get there first). But if you’re like me, and you leave the sprouts be, you’ll find beautiful gifts of sunflowers popping up throughout the summer months.
If mixes still appeal to you, make the best purchase possible by understanding the nutritional contents of the individual component.
- Sunflower contains 40% fat, 16% protein, and 20% carbohydrates
- Striped Sunflower contains 26% fat, 15% protein, and 18% carbohydrates
- Safflower contains 38% fat, 16% protein, and 34% carbohydrates
- Nyjer contains 36% fat, 21% protein, and 13% carbohydrates
- Peanuts contain 49% fat, 26% protein, and 19% carbohydrates
- White Millet contains 4% fat, 11% protein, and 73% carbohydrates
- Dried mealworms contain 32% fat, 49% protein. and ~7% carbohydrates.
While there’s a lot of fun to be had in putting a nutritional mix in your feeder and waiting to see the visitors, you may want to know in advance of the potential birds that may take you up on your dinner invitation.
- Cardinals will be enticed by sunflower, peanuts (whole, kernels, and hearts), corn (on ear, shelled, and cracked), Safflower, and Millet.
- American Goldfinch will flock to Sunflower, cracked corn, and Niger thistle.
- My personal favorite, Tufted Titmouse, will be attracted to Sunflower and peanuts (whole, kernels, and hearts).
- Woodpeckers (downy, hairy, and red-bellied) will enjoy peanuts (whole, kernels, and hearts), peanut butter, and corn (on ear, shelled, and cracked).
Additionally, favorable feed may be found within your native garden, flower bed, or habitat. Native plants are remarkable feeders for birds throughout the winter. Better yet, it will save you from having to go out into the cold to refill feeders. For example, Black-eyed Susan and Purple Coneflower seed are great for finches, chickadees, and cardinals. Virginia Creeper provides fruits for nuthatches, woodpeckers, and mockingbirds. Chokeberry and Highbush Cranberry are great for waxwings.
There is a lot of fun to be had this season. A great holiday craft to do with friends or family is making a natural bird feeder ornament using pinecones, peanut butter and good, nutritional seed. Bonus, you have a great excuse to share some of this education with them!
Information on the impacts of European Starlings:
Information regarding the House Sparrow:
The content of commercial bird seed mixes:
Which feed attracts which bird:
Invasive plants starve birds: