Gardening is For the Birds: Part One

I think most gardeners have an interest in birds, and a great many of us feed them. I hope you enjoy this two part post on what to feed and what to plant for wild birds. It is written by my  friend  and University of Rhode Island Master Gardener program Coordinator, Rosanne Sherry. Rosanne also happens to be an avid and experienced birder, so I am thrilled that she found the time to write for my little blog. The photos were taken by moi – Dirtynailz.

Obviously not taken this snowless winter!

A fast growing winter pastime is wild bird feeding. Statistics from USFW Survey in 2006 show that 67 million people watch birds as recreation. US bird watchers spent over $45 billion (travel, bird feed, feeders and birding optics) on this activity during 2006.

It’s a relaxing hobby for young and old living in the city or in the country. Looking out a frosty window in January at colorful finches and perky chickadees at your own bird cafeteria is just plain fun. Any day could bring an unusual visitor. The most exciting visitor I had was a sparrow hawk the day after the Blizzard of ‘78. Stormy weather frequently blows in different birds.

Flying Pesticides

Birds have more than just an aesthetic purpose in the garden. Birds might also be called “winged pesticides”. Swallows and purple martins eat as many as 2,000 mosquitoes a day. Woodpeckers dig out over wintering insects and eggs. Orioles love caterpillars, flies and weevils. Nuthatches eat beetles, moths, caterpillars, ants and wasps. Some of these birds fly south with the first freezes of fall, but some remain. These birds are known as “residents”.

A female house finch on a squirrel proof feeder

What’s on the menu at the feeders?

Many backyard gardeners also feed birds in the winter. There’s a debate about whether feeding all year long makes the birds dependent on humans but I tend to follow the birds. I start up my feeding station in mid to late October. I thoroughly wash all the feeders with a bleach/water solution to prevent the spread of disease among the birds. I put out a variety of foods. The more diversity in the menu, the more species you’ll get.

I have suet. I like the cakes but look for a case of cakes that might average less than $1 a cake. I keep them in a cool spot in the basement and one or two cakes in the fridge. This will attract woodpeckers, chickadees, nuthatches and titmice especially.

A black capped chickadee digs in

Next is thistle, also known as nyjer. This is not the weedy thistle of the roadside. You do need a special feeder that has vertical slits so the birds have to carefully extract the seed. It’s a little expensive for a 5 or 8 pound bag but well worth it. I usually use about 10 pounds a season. Not every bird eats thistle but the winter finches, Purple, House and Goldfinches and redpolls definitely will be attracted. There are the sock feeders but frankly it’s a waste as hungry squirrels or other critters will quickly rip it apart. A tube feeder will last you many years. Make the investment in sturdy feeders like the Droll Yankee tube feeders.

A few years ago I read that goldfinches are late season nesters in our region and will readily come to thistle that is out in August when the chicks are fledging. So I started putting out just the thistle in August and now it brings them in every summer. Then as the season wanes they find my Echinacea that I let go to seed.

A house sparrow enjoying a mixed seed cake

Sunflower seeds are definitely a staple to the backyard feeding station. There are two kinds, striped and black oil. The latter actually has more fat in it thus making it actually more nutritious for the birds. Remember that birds need to add on fat in the fall and winter for migration and survival. The downside of sunflower seeds is they are messy. The birds pick out a seed and break it open dropping the hull and eating the kernel. The hulls have a somewhat allopathic quality as plants in the immediate area under the feeder may totally die off. It’s not a concern for me though as my feeders are placed on a small patio and in a small area in the garden. If the mess or the potential die off of plants worries you then look for the no-mess type of sunflower. No hulls!! They are simply the chipped up kernels. This bag however, will be the most expensive on the shelf. The discount stores rarely have this. I switch to this sometimes in June to encourage the birds to bring the kids to the feeders!! And keep the yard cleaner when guests visit.

Cardinals are favorite backyard visitors in RI. They love sunflower seed.

Corn is another staple in mixes as well as singly. Whole and cracked corn are available. I suggest the cracked corn for the birds and whole corn for squirrels and larger birds like turkey, jays or even quail in summer. I get a bag or two of cracked corn as it’s frequently the cheapest. I use it to stretch the other mixes and extra couple of weeks. I get 2-3 bags of corn cobs for the squirrels.

A male goldfinch in breeding plumage.

The mixed seed selections are a variety of seeds based on percentages of each. The more expensive mixes usually have a higher percentage of sunflowers. The cheapest seed mixes frequently have the worst seed!! Read the ingredient list carefully. If you see milo, wheat, oranges, canary seed, rape seed, sorghum or even rice in the list then avoid it at all costs. Nobody eats that stuff!! You are paying for junk. The seed you want to see listed is sunflower of either type, corn, peanut hearts, millet and maybe safflower. Thistle rarely is in these mixes because it’s so small and more expensive.

A few years ago I fell for a deal at a local feed and grain store $5.99 for a 20 pound bag of seed!! I should have read the label!! It was loaded with the junk!! I brought it to work and even the union birds wouldn’t eat it!!! I may pay about $14 dollars now for a 20# bag, but every seed is eaten by someone!! I keep track of how much seed I’m using every year. It varies, like this winter, but I was spending at least $300 each winter on the best seed from the top stores. But with the economy and seed (these are commodities on Wall Street) prices going in opposite directions I needed to find a better value. I now buy only Blue Seal seed and last year I bought more bags and cut my bird seed bill in half!! I get the thistle and suet cakes at Tractor Supply. Check local feed and grain stores for the Blue Seal brands. You won’t find it in the high end or discount stores.

Coming next: planting for birds.


About dirtynailz

Writer for a daily newspaper, gardener, tree hugger, orchid-grower, photographer, animal lover, hiker, wilderness seeker. Proponent of clover in the lawn and a dog on the bed.
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4 Responses to Gardening is For the Birds: Part One

  1. cj wright says:

    Thanks for the great tips, Rosanne. You are so right about that junk seed! I bought a cheap bag recently (knowing I shouldn’t) and what a waste. My bird guests must think I’ve lost my mind. I found out fairly early on that the more expensive bags DO last the longest. It makes a huge difference in birds at the feeders. I’ve never seen the Blue Seal brand here, but I’m with you on getting great prices at Tractor Supply. They’re my critter food go-to store.

    Thanks for bringing Rosanne to us, dirtynailz.


  2. Wendy says:

    I love this post! I really don’t know much about birds but would like to learn more. My husband bought me a wacky book that’s only slightly useful. However, everything is on hold because of my mostly outdoor cat. I just feel like trying to attract birds to my house – where a predator lurks – would not be very fair. I did make some very lovely birdseed ornaments and posted about it a month or so back. Unfortunately, they attracted NO birds, while there was aparty going all day long at my neighbor’s feeder. I’ll be coming back to this post for sure!


    • dirtynailz says:

      Thanks, Wendy. Rosanne really knows a lot about birds and how to attract them I am posting Part Two now, so be sure to check it out.


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