For the Birds Radio Program: Feeding Birds in August, Part II
Laura talks about some alternative seeds to offer birds in summer, and why it’s important to keep feeding hummingbirds at summer’s end and into fall.
Sunflower seed may be the favorite for the widest variety of birds, but some species simply don’t touch it, and others have other preferences. Right now goldfinches are raising babies, and fledglings are starting to appear at feeders with their parents-occasionally for sunflower, but more consistently at niger seed. The common name for this expensive seed is thistle, but niger is actually a less noxious relative of thistle, imported and sterilized so it is pretty much guaranteed not to germinate. Niger seed is popular with true finches-especially goldfinches, pine siskins, and redpolls, but most other birds leave it completely alone.
White millet is another specialty seed. I get mourning doves and a wide variety of American sparrows where I scatter white millet on the ground. It isn’t taken by some of the more common feeder birds, though, so the only time I use it is during migration.
Com is popular with squirrels, but also with ruffed grouse and jays. Sometimes white-tailed deer also come to com feeders. The simplest feeder to use for these species is a low-set tray feeder.
Virtually no eastern birds eat red millet. When you buy a bag of grocery store seed, the red millet not only goes to waste, it gets moldy, and unless cleaned up, the mold and bacteria can contaminate a whole feeding station. So buying bags of mixed seed may be penny wise but it’s definitely pound foolish.
When I started birding 26 years ago, the way you got suet was to ask in the meat section of a grocery store. The butcher gave it to you free, glad to get it off his hands. Now that bird feeding has become so popular, suet is suddenly a marketable commodity. I still use the grocery store suet in winter, but during the warmer months, when raw suet gets rancid, I use pre-packaged suet cakes. My chickadees, nuthatches, and downy and hairy woodpeckers are exceptionally fond of the suet mixed with insects or peanuts, so that is what I usually get. Some people still render their own suet, melting it on the stove, straining out impurities, and adding their own ingredients, from com meal to crushed eggshells, but every time I’ve ever melted suet, my family gets all excited that I’m making some special meal, and then it turns out to be for a bunch of birds. Not only do my pots and pans get gunked up with congealed fat, but I get my family’s hopes up for nothing-it’s just not worth it.
When people start setting out their feeders for fall, a lot of them take in their hummingbird . feeders, afraid they’ll entice their hummingbirds to stay too long. But that is simply not an issue. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are far too migratory to remain north into winter. The few that remain after Labor Day are perfectly migratory-they just don’t have enough body fat yet to fuel their flight. Late ruby-throats are invariably underweight immatures. If an early frost kills their food supplies, they are doomed without feeders. And since some late hummers fuel just about their entire trip at feeders, taking feeders in too soon has a far greater potential for harm than leaving them up too long. Even after our hummers have packed up and left, sometimes a straggler from farther north zips through, so I like to leave my feeders up until mid-October. It’s not much of a bother for me, and the fact that it might give a bit of sustaining food to a weary hummingbird makes it well worth it.