For the Birds Radio Program: Feeding Birds on a Budget
Now that the economy is tanking, lots of people have been asking for tips about attracting their favorite backyard birds without wasting money on squirrels and more piggish birds.
The cheapest thing you can set out that will attract birds is water. While temperatures stay above 20 or so, providing water for food and bathing is the cheapest way of keeping a few birds around. When we’re short of money, we tend to look for the cheapest alternatives, though with regard to birdseed, it’s easy to be penny wise but pound-foolish. The fillers in the cheapest birdseed mixtures are varieties of seeds that most wild birds simply don’t eat. Not only does most of it go to waste as they pick out the sunflowers and white millet—it actually rots, and the fungus and bacteria can contaminate fresh seed when you add more.
But when a bag of sunflower seed costs more than $20, you want it to last a long time. If you want to focus on chickadees and other fairly confiding birds without squirrels, your best bet is to buy the little acrylic feeders that you attach to your windows with suction cups, and fill them with sunflower. If you have so many birds that the supply gets depleted too often to be affordable, fill them at set times every day and leave it at that. You do need to be careful if you have trees within squirrel jumping distance from your window. Squirrels always seem to feel at home in the world, and the concept of not being welcome at a feeder is utterly foreign to them.
The double-hung windows in my Ithaca apartment don’t work for that kind of feeder, so I went even cheaper, using two plastic cereal bowls, which I put on my balcony railing. First thing every morning and again in late afternoon when I get home from work I fill them with sunflower seeds. My Tufted Titmice fly in before I can even get back into the apartment, and I get chickadees, juncos, Purple Finches, both kinds of nuthatches, Downy Woodpeckers, and Blue Jays regularly. They use up the seed within a couple of hours, but there’s obviously enough natural food in my area to keep them healthy—my feeders serve as a dessert buffet, only offering healthy desserts.
If you set out suet cakes and don’t want squirrels or jays to take too much, make sure not to get blends with peanuts. If you have problems with starlings, limit or eliminate the suet. Fortunately I don’t get starlings but I do get downy, hairy, and red-bellied woodpeckers as well as nuthatches and titmice. They go through a suet cake every couple of days. To keep that affordable right now, I’m only setting out suet on Saturday morning, so I can enjoy them and they can have fun all weekend at least. When the weather gets more severe, I’ll probably break down and keep it filled all the time, but even with restricted offerings, the birds here seem to keep an eye on the place so they show up quickly after I fill the feeder. I’m keeping my hummingbird feeder out for a few more weeks at least, just in case a rare one shows up. As always with hummingbird feeders, it’s both cheaper AND healthier for them to use only small hummingbird feeders. Thanks to the cold weather lately, I’ve been able to change the water just once a week. I haven’t had a hummingbird in two weeks, but hope springs eternal, even on a budget.