For the Birds


Suddenly, it is truly autumn. The days are definitely shorter, the temperature colder, and I am thinking of knitting, quilting, eating, and the birds. I scrubbed all the feeders (ten) with bleach water and detergent and let them dry. I recently learned that watching and caring for birds ranks second among people as an interest in gardening. Hmm ... I wonder if there is some link.

So, why feed birds? Shouldn’t they be able to take care of themselves in the winter? Theoretically, yes, but actually, no. Take a look around your landscape. What is naturally there for birds to eat at this time of the year? The days are frequently windy and very cold. The growing season for most plants is over. There are no longer lush fruits. Insects are either dead, migrated, or hiding in such a way that it takes an enormous amount of energy and time to even find them! Birds cannot afford to waste precious energy to seek food; they are warm blooded, which means much of their energy is consumed just maintaining body temperature.

I believe that studying and caring for the birds in our immediate surroundings is a big plus. It causes people to evaluate the world in which they live. It gives them some understanding of the dearth of food and shelter for other creatures.

Before we start: feeding birds does not change migrations or other natural behaviors. These are determined by a change in day length. Also, you don’t need to worry about the birds starving if you go away for a while. They will simply seek food elsewhere.

Let’s think about what birds eat. Most songbirds that you saw from spring through summer into early autumn ate insects and arachnids such as spiders. During the autumn into winter, diets changed to seeds and fruits for the birds that don’t migrate. Such species include black-capped chickadee, tufted titmouse, tree sparrows, dark-eyed junco, northern cardinals, and downy woodpeckers. You may also get to see house finches, some birds of prey (hopefully not near your feeders!), and owls.

What should you feed the birds? The seeds that seem to attract the most birds are black-oil sunflower. They are high in fat and thin-shelled, which means that it is easier for birds both large and small to crack them open. You will also find striped sunflower seeds for sale. They are larger and have thicker seeds coats. These are suggested if you have one species of bird that seems to take all the black-oil seeds away from smaller birds. It’s fun to experiment. Try it! You might also be amused at the birds if you choose to purchase a seed mix that contains a blend of oats, flax, millet, sunflower, and black-oil sunflower seeds. Birds, especially the smaller species, actually use their feet to kick out the small seeds so they can get at the black-oil sunflower seeds!

I also purchase niger seed. You perhaps have heard folks call niger seed “thistle” seed but it isn’t from a thistle plant. Niger is an agricultural crop imported primarily from India, Ethiopia, Nepal, and Myanmar. The seeds and seed oil are actually used in cooking.

I keep all my birdseed in closed plastic containers to keep it clean and uncontaminated. This also keeps niger seed from drying out before it is added to feeders. (If it is dry birds will not eat it.) By the way any niger seed that falls to the ground under the feeders will not grow, as it has been heat-treated. Some people have told me that they don’t plan to place niger seed in bird feeders because the birds simply knock it to the ground without eating it. Not true! The shell is cracked open by the birds! You are seeing the discarded shells, not the seeds.

Niger seed bird feeders really need to be kept extra clean. If any water gets in the seed can get moldy and thus unhealthy for birds.

I personally love to watch birds coming to our feeders. Feeding them is just one small way of helping other creatures in our world.


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