For the Birds Radio Program: Feeding Birds

Original Air Date: Oct. 19, 1990

Recast from 12-12-86. (3:37)

Audio missing


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.

Now is the perfect time to start feeding birds in the Northland. The resident birds are still figuring out their winter feeding patterns and are investigating every possible source of food as insurance against harsh times ahead. As soon as 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 Minnesota and Wisconsin DNRs and the National Wildlife Federation. An excellent source is A Complete Guide to Bird Feeding by John V. Dennis, published by Knopf.

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 is as expensive as Porterhouse steak.

Suet, the solid fat trimmed from meat, provides both protein and fat essential to insect eaters like chickadees, woodpeckers, and nuthatches.

The more feeders and types of food you offer, the more birds you’ll attract, and the better your chances of finding a rarity. Bird feeding is a fine hobby, whether you want to help your neighborhood birds survive the winter or just like cheap and colorful entertainment.

(Recording of a Black-capped Chickadee)

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