For the Birds Radio Program: Feeding birds

Original Air Date: Dec. 12, 1986 Rerun Dates: Nov. 18, 1987

Laura gives tips about the best foods to offer birds.

Audio missing

Transcript

Black-capped Chickadee feeding on peanuts (Recording of a Black-capped Chickadee)

The bird business is booming. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in 1980 alone Americans spent over $15 billion for birdwatching, bird photography, and bird feeding activites.

It wasn’t always this way. Bird feeding was unheard of in colonial times. Farmers had enough problems with the arduous task of raising food for their families and for trade without watching the fruits of their labors be devoured by birds.

In the early 19th century, John James Audubon noted that a few people were actually setting out food for birds–mostly city dwellers, removed from the rigors of farm life. Henry David Thoreau used corn and bread crumbs to attract birds and mammals to Walden Pond in 1845. But it wasn’t until the turn of the century, as the conservation movement began working to protect animals, that any significant interest developed in feeding and sheltering birds.

Now bird feeding has developed into an art. The practice of scattering crumbs and seeds on the ground has given way to designing elaborate feeders, blending complicated seed mixtures to attract particular species, and even importing special seed from India.

Although winter is upon us, it isn’t too late to start feeding birds in Duluth. Most of the resident birds have developed their winter feeding patterns, but a mild spell will send many off to investigate new food supplies as insurance against future famine. If one bird discovers a good feeding station, word of mouth will quickly pass to the other birds in your neighborhood.

Hardware and department stores carry feeders, but if your creative urge or your pocketbook keep you from buying one, you can build feeders from wood scraps, old bleach bottles, and other inexpensive or recyclable items. Plans are available from the DNR and the National Wildlife Federation. An excellent source is A Complete Guide to Bird Feeding by John V. Dennis.

Although the mixed seed found in most grocery stores is both cheap and easy to get, most of the birds that like it also come to sunflower seed, which is the only seed Evening Grosbeaks, purple finches, chickadees, and a lot of other popular species like. Quite a few birds like cracked corn, too. Peanuts in the shell, salted or unsalted, are popular with blue jays and sometimes with chickadees–but if you start setting out peanuts, you better be prepared to double the number of squirrels in your yard, too. Niger seed, imported from India and sometimes erroneously called thistle seed, is popular with goldfinches and redpolls, but so far this winter there aren’t many finches in town, so you might as well save your money.

Suet, the solid fat trimmed from meat, provides both protein and fat essential to insect eaters like chickadees, woodpeckers, and nuthatches. This year, my suet is disappearing as fast as I can set it out–Gray Jays are carrying it off to hide in their caches.

Bird feeding is a fine hobby, whether you want to help your neighborhood birds survive the winter or just wish to be entertained by feathered comedians.

(Recording of a Black-capped Chickadee)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”

Re-recorded for 1987-11-18 (Recording of a Black-capped Chickadee)

The bird business is booming. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in 1980 alone Americans spent over $15 billion for birdwatching, bird photography, and bird feeding. But bird feeding was unheard of in colonial times. Farmers would never have dreamed of watching the fruits of their labors be devoured by birds.

In the early 19th century, John James Audubon noted that a few pepople were actually setting out food for birds–mostly city dwellers removed from the rigors of farm life. And Henry David Thoreau used corn and bread crumbs to attract birds and mammals to Walden Pond in 1845. But it wasn’t until the turn of the century, as the conservation movement gained momentum, that any significant interest developed in feeding birds.

Now bird feeding has developed into an art. Around here, most people who feed birds direct their ingenuity to the task of developing the perfect squirrel baffle. Some feeders look like Rube Goldberg inventions with metal cones, pizza pans, plastic strips, and all kinds of clever devices which would certainly scare off lesser creatures, but squirrels are not only bright, they also seem to take special delight in tackling the most elaborate squirrel-proofing known to mankind. I’ve seen squirrels placidly pigging out atop feeders with devices so forbidding that even a starving chickadee would steer clear. I’m partial to squirrels so I’ve never joined in the quest for the perfect anti-squirrel device, but if any listeners would like to share ideas that work, please send them to me.

If you want to attract lots of birds with a minimum of starlings and House Sparrows, set out sunflower seed on a platform feeder. Most Evening Grosbeaks are too scared to sit under a roofed feeder, and many other species also prefer a simple tray. The only problem is you have to go out after a snowstorm and clear the snow off.

If you already set out sunflower seed and want to try something new, try cracked corn. It brings in lots of ground feeders like juncoes and native American sparrows, as well as that most splendid bird of all, the Blue Jay. Of course, those Port Wing Blue Jay Haters I hear from now and then are working hard at developing the perfect Blue Jay baffle, but jays are even harder to discourage than squirrels.

Chickadees love peanut butter. Last winter I kept a few spoonfuls in a cheap plastic bowl set on the feeder. Not only did I have the happiest chickadees in the neighborhood, I also kept three Boreal Chickadees in my yard all season. Suet is another good choice–it attracts woodpeckers, and whenever a late warbler turns up, it invariably is found at a suet feeder.

If you don’t already have a feeder, why don’t you make this the year you start one? You won’t regret it.

(Recording) This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”