For the Birds Radio Program: Feeding Birds

Original Air Date: Dec. 23, 1987

Laura has more tips about feeding birds. (3:42) Date verified.

Audio missing


(Recording of a Northern Cardinal)

One of the most satisfying hobbies I can think of is feeding birds. Not only does it fulfill the need most people have to nurture something or someone; it also provides abundant entertainment and learning experiences for very little money.

A single bird feeder obviously doesn’t have much of an impact on avian populations, but the sum total of bird feeders in America definitely has helped extend the ranges of several species. The most dramatic example is the Cardinal. It was once strictly a southern bird, ranging no further north in 1886 than the Ohio River Valley. By 1895, it could be found as far as the southern Great Lakes Region, and now is common or abundant in much of southern and central Minnesota. Sightings in places like Hayward and Duluth are uncommon but regular, so in another decade or so cardinals are sure to be breeding regularly up here.

This range extension has been due just about entirely to winter bird feeding. Cardinals aren’t migratory, but when a brood is ready to leave their parents, they scatter in every direction. The young cardinals that ended up going north historically had a hard time surviving winters. Heavy snow and ice usually buried their main food sources–weed seeds. Even encased in their thick down coats, birds freeze to death if they don’t have enough calories to burn. But seeds from feeders can keep a cardinal alive even when the temperature drops to well below zero.

The invasion of cardinals northward has mainly followed major human population centers. The wide stretch of rural land between Duluth and the Twin Cities acts like a barrier to the cardinal, since feeding stations are more spread out in the country than in the city. Cardinals are extremely rare in much of the Northland, but when they do show up, it’s always at a feeder. A cardinal’s thick beak is ideal for cracking open sunflower seeds. If you’ve had cardinals at your feeder, I’d love to hear about it.

It’s hard to say whether the populations of more hardy species, like redpolls and chickadees, actually benefit from feeders, but there’s no doubt that many individual birds would die each winter without that supplementary source of food. Sunflower seed and cracked corn are the most appealing seeds for most northland birds–only a few actually prefer the mixed seed found in grocery stores, and some, like the Evening Grosbeak, won’t touch it. Suet is valuable for insect-eaters, like chickadees, woodpeckers, jays, and starlings. Peanut butter is a treat for Chickadees and squirrels. Don’t believe the old saw that peanut butter will stick in their mouths and they’ll starve to death–in cold weather peanut butter hardens quickly, and is quite easy to manage. But if you don’t want to give it to them straight, you can always make a mixture of peanut butter and corn meal, seed, or suet.

Water is one necessity which is often unavailable during frozen spells. Small electric heaters are available for keeping a birdbath open. Again people tend to underestimate the brain power of birds, worrying that they’ll take a bath instead of a drink and freeze to death. A songbird’s brain may weigh a fraction of a gram, but it is smarter than you think.

(Recording of a Blasck-capped Chickadee)

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