For the Birds Radio Program: Bird Feeding

Original Air Date: Dec. 23, 1988

Today Laura talks about bird feeding issues in winter.

Duration: 3′54″


(Recording of a Blue Jay)

One of the most enjoyable of winter activities is feeder-watching. When it’s 20 below, or a swirling blizzard keeps us house-bound for the duration, the sight of a fluffy chickadee is enough to remind us that there is good cheer and camaraderie even in the harshest conditions. White-breasted Nuthatches eye us from their upside-down perspective, while Downy Woodpeckers notch their way, not up the corporate ladder, but up the trunk of a tree in search of their frozen dinners. We may not get cardinals in the Northland, but the incomparable hue of an adult male Pine Grosbeak certainly is more than adequate compensation. Evening Grosbeaks, with their cheerful chatter and voracious appetites, are like the hearty beer drinkers on commercials, grabbing for all the gusto they can get. My favorite bird, the Blue Jay, may be smaller than its close relatives, crows and ravens, but it makes up for its size with feistiness–the Blue Jay is the Danny DeVito of the crow family. Crows, on the other hand, always seem timid at feeders, skulking in the background. An approaching chickadee flock is usually enough to scare my neighborhood crows out of the feeder. It’s not that the chickadees would attack a crow–I think it just offends a crow’s pride to have to resort to taking handouts at a feeder.

Most people who feed birds hang a single feeder from a tree, and then wonder why they don’t get very many birds. If you want to attract lots of birds, it’s best to have two or more feeders, set out on posts in an opening. Songbirds are vulnerable to attacks by hawks and shrikes while they’re feeding, and seem to feel more secure if they have a good view of the airspace all around them. But feeders should be set near enough to shrubs or conifers to provide cover if they need to make a fast get-a-way.

Sunflower is the seed of choice if you only put out one thing. But, like any restaurant, your feeder will attract more patrons if you add variety to the menu. In my main feeder, a flat platform without any roof, I set out sunflower seed along with a handful of Purina Cat Chow for the jays and crows, and a bowl smeared with a couple of tablespoons of peanut butter for the chickadees and squirrels. Then I try to keep some suet out there for the chickadees, nuthatches, and woodpeckers. Sometimes the starlings take it, and one year I had a Gray Jay that emptied out the suet feeder as fast as I could fill it.

Grocery store seed mixes are nice supplements to sunflower seed. These mixes are especially good choices for Mourning Doves, juncoes, and sparrows. They work just as well scattered on the ground as in a feeder, since the birds that eat small seeds tend to be ground feeders. Spilled seed may attract a few field mice or voles, which in turn may bring out an owl or two. I also keep my neighborhood squirrels well fed, but in spite of the fact that I’ve been feeding them for 7 years, the neighborhood population hasn’t increased at all. I’ve never heard of any feeder which attracted rats or other really objectionable pests. My in-laws’ feeder in Port Wing, Wisconsin, attracts an occasional bear in spring and fall, but the largest mammal my feeder has ever attracted was a bird-watcher who came all the way from South Carolina to add a Boreal Chickadee to his lifelist. My favorite Port Wing Blue Jay Hater considers the many Blue Jays his feeder attracts to be vermin, but then, he doesn’t think much of Danny deVito, either.

(Recording of a Blue Jay)

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