For the Birds Radio Program: Feeding birds in winter

Original Air Date: Feb. 16, 1994

Some tips for feeding birds. (3:27) Date confirmed.

Audio missing


Every year, it seems like I get fewer and fewer birds at my feeder, and I hear from many others who are experiencing the same dismal thing. A chickadee flock zips in now and again with their attendant nuthatches and Downy Woodpecker, but most days my squirrels outnumber birds. On the off-chance that a flock of redpolls will pass over and notice my feeding station, I keep niger seed available, and just in case a Pileated Woodpecker will turn tame, I keep out suet even though my usual takers are a gang of starlings that cruise the neighborhood every afternoon.

Fortunately for them, people in the country are still getting more birds than us town folks. When any species declines, the first disappearances are always in the places of marginal habitat, which means that we in the city are the first to see any loss, whether in swallows or in winter finches. Even though many songbirds are declining, it’s still possible to see enormous flocks of some species. Redpolls seem to be suffering from the loss of their most important food source, birch seeds, but since they are so gregarious, the ones that remain all stick together. Where once we had zillions of flocks of zillions of birds, now we just have a few flocks, but still of zillions of birds. Bohemian Waxwings and Pine Siskins also hang around in huge flocks. Pine Grosbeaks, goldfinches, and crossbills collect in flocks, too, though usually numbering in the dozens rather than in the hundreds. So it’s quite possible to find feeding stations still filled with plenty of birds.

In a time of declining birds, if you want to keep some at your feeder, you have to make that feeder especially attractive to them. Sunflower seed is the most appealing fare for most of our birds. It has the added benefit of being too hard for a House Sparrow or starling to crack open, so if you’re trying to limit your feeder to native species, it’s an especially good choice. House Sparrows, juncoes, and Mourning Doves are pretty much the only species that consider the mixed seed sold in grocery stores, and since juncoes and Mourning Doves are equally fond of sunflower, mixed seed is generally not recommended.

Suet is popular with woodpeckers, chickadees, nuthatches, and other insect-eaters. An occasional shrike visits a suet feeder, and when an unfortunate warbler misses its migration time, suet is the only thing that can sustain it.

The tiny finches—redpolls, siskins, and goldfinches—are most fond of niger seed. It’s very expensive—as far as price goes, you might as well be providing them with a fine fliet, but in a time when little finches are few and far between, I’ll entice them any way I can. Providing pet store grit or crushed eggshell is very good for many kinds of birds, especially as females come into breeding readiness and are calcium stressed at the end of winter, and providing grit in a nice, safe feeder is a litt like providing children with basic sex education at home–much better than leaving them to pick it up on the streets.