Feeding Wild Birds is Lively Home Entertainment

By Ann Hingas

There is nothing like a light dust of snow or a fresh coat of freezing rain to bring wild birds to backyard feeders.

Brimming with morsels to delight avian epicure, feeders stuffed with fat sunflower seeds, both stripped and solid black, draw Chickadees and their kin while fat chunks of white suet lure big woodpeckers from the deep woods.

While snow cover isn't all that good for the birds, it sure is great for birders, and there's no better time to learn about your feathered little seed snappers than when you can see them so close.

Seeing a wide variety of species out the window isn't all that hard to do in this part of Indiana, but different species like different foods and feed in different ways. So, if you want to get many different birding opportunities, you need to feed to those varying tastes and habits.

Here are a few feeder tips that will help:

  • Tube feeders are great for smaller birds, and while birds as large as grackles may camp on the kind with bases, the straight tube type feeder restricts use to the little ones--finches, chickadees, tufted titmice, nuthatches and some sparrows. Tube feeders hang from trees or from under house eaves
  • Finch feeders are tube feeders with modifications for loading and feeding thistle seed, mainly in the form a tiny slits instead of large access holes. Thistle seed is tiny and expensive, and it is the favorite food of the American goldfinch. Other birds will also eat thistle, but if there are any goldfinches in your area, they will make repeated visits once they discover your feeder.
  • Platform feeders are most frequently used feeders, and they can range anywhere from the top of an old stump to a large, elevated feeding condominium with roof, perches, windows and feeding holes. Nearly every bird will come to a feeding platform, and large ones encourage bigger birds like blue jays. Red-bellied, hairy and downy woodpeckers will all come to platform feeders, although suet is more tempting to the downy and hairy varieties. Pileated woodpeckers are also common suet feeder visitors.
  • Ground feeding happens in the natural course of events around the base of all feeders. If you watch chickadees, you know how many seeds they discard before selecting the one sunflower seed that "feels" right to them. They mine millet like badgers dig into soft earth, and all those seeds end up on the ground. Cardinals, juncos, sparrows, towhees and doves all feed on the ground but may also frequent feeders. Some of these birds prefer the millet the chickadees discard, so make sure you don't feed "straight" sunflower all winter.

    The bird feed mix you buy at the store contains mostly milletsunflower and cracked corn makes a superior feed that with sunflower. Adding more will attract every bird in your area.
  • Suet feeding requires different approaches to bird feeding, because there are all kinds of mammals out there that like beef fat. A determined raccoon will raid suet every night, but at least there are no bears in the area to wreak havoc on feeding stations. Suet feeders are usually stout wire mesh cages with secure lids. The mesh has to be big enough to let the birds get at it and small enough to deter outright chomping by coons.

    Lots of people make suet balls this time of year. There are all kinds of recipes for suet balls, but the process generally involves melting fat and mixing in seeds or whatever other little bird taste treat you can find (say a bag of maggots), then pouring the concoction into a mold or forming by hand. Put a wire hanger into the mold, or form the ball around one. Outside in cold weather, these things draw all kinds of birds. Chickadees and tufted titmice love them.
  • Squirrel feeding is part of bird feeding in this part of the country, no matter whether you want to feed squirrels or not. The native "fox" and gray squirrels are the most diabolical bird feeder raiders known to bird or human. Sure, they're not as strong as black bear that simply rips the feeder off its post, but then, they don't have to do that.

    Squirrels ramble across telephone and power lines as if they were highways, and a determined squirrel can span ten feet in a flying leap from house or tree.

    To deter a determined squirrel requires placing your feeder on a metal pole with squirrel deflector below the feeder. You must place the entire device well away from any trees or buildings that offer a leaping point for rodent raiders. More recently, I have heard that spraying a hot pepper concoction on your bird seed will deter squirrels but not the birds. Birds apparently do not feel hot pepper spray.

    There is very little else you can do to really deter squirrels, so most bird feeding folk accept these wily rodents at platform feeders. Tube feeders are just a leap away for a squirrel, and they just love to stuff their cheeks with those big sunflower seeds with the white stripe.

    If you're going to feed squirrels anyway, you might as well try a hanging corn cob device that turns squirrels into toe-hanging acrobats. The device is a chain with an eye bolt on one end and a hook for hanging on a tree limb on the other. Screw the eye bolt into the end of the corn cob, hang it up and watch them go for the corn, upside down.

    Some people make elaborate obstacle courses for squirrels, including swinging rope approaches, tunnels, slides and ladders. It's amazing what a squirrel will do for a sunflower seed.
  • When you place your feeders, arrange them at various distances from your window. Big suet feeders that will attract shy pileated woodpeckers should be far enough away that your movements inside won't flush them from the feeding station. Other than that, most of the other birds will come right to your window to eat after they get used to being there. Chickadees, titmice, nuthatches and the red and purple finches are all pretty bold, so put a small bird feeder up close. Get a Peterson Field Guide and a pair of binoculars, and you'll be ready for the winter show. 12/1/96.

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