WINTER FEEDING IS FOR THE BIRDS
By Carolyn Bahm
CORINTH Bring out a little seed money, and invest in a few bird feeders. It’s a “cheep” way to bring music and a flutter of beauty to back yard trees and bushes.
Carolyn Jarnagin of Corinth finds her hobby as a “birder,” or bird-watcher, relaxing. She has been an avid birder for about 25 years, and she keeps six feeders filled at her home. From her feeders and travels in the U.S. and abroad, she has added about 250 species to her life list of observed birds.
She lives in a combination urban/rural area and says her property and the city are visited by “almost as many birds as you would want to see.” A barred owl and a couple of hawks hang around her house. She’s seen a mockingbird perched confidently on a car rooftop while the driver went through a hamburger drive-through restaurant. Killdeers live behind her office, out the back door and across the railroad tracks.
She has quickly learned the ones most common to her feeders with the help of a Golden book, “A Guide to Field Identification/ Birds of North America.” She recommends it over all other field guides because it handily places both maps and basic information on the left page, with paintings of the birds on the facing (right) page.
She’s also a member of the Mississippi Ornithological Society through Mississippi State University, and she is organizing an area chapter of the National Audubon Society. She’s actively recruiting members for both groups. (For details on the next Audubon meeting, to be scheduled in Booneville sometime in March, call Jarnagin at 287-2579 during the day or 287-5553 at night. She loves to talk birds, so call.)
Another bird fan is Dr. Jerome Jackson, an ornithologist and a professor of biological sciences at Mississippi State University. He’s also the author of several nationally published articles on birds.
He said that feeding helps birds, but the person probably benefits more. The bird-watcher can simultaneously reduce stress levels and learn about nature.
Birds of a feather
Jackson listed six of the most common birds to see around Northeast Mississippi during the winter:
– The house finch. These birds are common year-round and like black-oil sunflower seeds.
– The American goldfinch. These are currently changing colors, molting into their breeding plumage. Males will change from a dull green and brown to bright yellow by April. They also like the black-oil sunflower seeds, but they prefer niger (also called thistle, although it’s no relation to the plant Northeast Mississippians know as thistle). Some goldfinches are seen here year-round, but most migrate north.
– White-throated sparrows. They feed mostly on the ground, liking sunflower seeds. They’re here only in the winter.
– Mockingbirds. Offer them half an orange or some other fruit. (Red-bellied woodpeckers, sapsuckers and sometimes downy woodpeckers also like this treat. Impale an orange half on a nail protruding from a fence post or a tree.)
– Mourning doves. They like millet seed. (Most birds don’t.)
– Cardinals. These red beauties have a fine feast on the regular striped sunflower seeds that are too large for the smaller birds.
The feeding environment
Study before you buy a bird feeder: Know the kinds of birds in this area, and decide which ones you want in your back yard. That’s the sage advice of Sue Wells, executive director of the National Bird Feeding Society, based in Illinois.
“Birds are just like us they have preferences,” she said.
Jarnagin described some basic feeder types:
– Tube feeders, or “finch feeders” This style (a clear, long cylinder dotted with perches) will attract finches, chickadees and nuthatches. Those feeders with tiny openings permit only the smaller-beaked birds to extract the small niger seeds.
Hint: To attract chickadees and titmice, hang a small feeder away from the feeder trays that attract larger birds, Jackson said.
– Perch feeders This is sometimes called a gazebo style a large container surrounded by a flat tray or trough area where seeds are dispensed. These feeders will lure larger birds, such as cardinals, blackbirds and even some of the small finches.
– Open tray/ground feeders These are wide, flat containers on which to spread seeds, cracked corn, sliced apples, raisins, oranges and other bird foods. The best ones have screened bottoms to let water drain away. (Hint: A perforated “air-bake” pizza pan nailed to the deck railing or mounted on a 1-inch PVC pipe can be a tray feeder.) Mounted on a pole, these feeders will attract doves, cardinals, grosbeaks, blackbirds and blue jays. Placed on the ground, they entice sparrows, doves, juncos (from time to time), house wrens, Carolina wrens and blue jays.
Even if you get the right feeders, the surrounding area is important, Jarnagin said. You’ll need a clear area around the feeder so predators can’t hide too close, but there should be sheltering bushes and trees within close flying distance.
“They like the safety of having a shelter around they can go to if a predator comes around, such as a cat, dog or hawk. Merlins (pigeon hawks) are one of the most notorious for coming in at feeders.”
Some birds such as chickadees, nuthatches and titmice also grab seeds, then fly to a safe, sheltered perch for dinner, Jarnagin said. They have to hold the seed in their feed and crack the hull with their beaks. Even the blue jays will stuff 15 to 20 seeds in their gullets for storage and a private meal later.
Holly, dogwood and magnolias are favorite environments, she said. Their seeds can feed birds all winter. Other good choices are hawthorn and hackberry.
Buying the right seed & suet
Mixed wild bird seed in those tempting bargain bags can be a waste of money.
“Buyer beware,” Wells said. “Read the label and know what you’re getting. It should have a larger percentage of sunflower and white millet seeds than anything else. If a lot is milo or wheat, in all probability, your birds are not going to like it. And it can sprout, and you’ll have weeds.”
Jarnagin agreed. Instead, she recommends the more nutritious black oil sunflower seeds (tiny all-black seeds, not the larger striped variety) to attract songbirds, finches, chickadees, nuthatches and even woodpeckers. Cracked sunflower seeds can be used, but they’re more expensive.
Finches adore the tiny, expensive seeds like imported black niger, Wells said.
Other acceptable seeds for general wild bird feeding include regular sunflower seeds, safflower seeds (a favorite of cardinals) and white millet, Jarnagin said. Bread tidbits are less nutritious but acceptable; they’re also likely to attract only a limited selection of birds (such as the not-too-picky blue jays and robins).
Suet, a fatty mixture, needs to be put out for insect-eating birds, such as finches and woodpeckers, she said. Wire cages that hold commercially prepared suet cakes are available where bird supplies are sold.
Jarnagin provided the recipe for a homemade “bird pudding”: Mix equal quantities of peanut butter and lard, then add enough yellow cornmeal to create a firm consistency.
There’s one key caution for feeding: Mold will spoil rain-moistened seed, and suet can go rancid. Bird watchers should clean their seed feeders and suet containers out at least once a month, Jarnagin said.
Birds also need water, especially in the winter. (In the summer, there are wading pools, watered gardens and lawns and other common sources.) For cold weather, provide a small heated watering container to keep water from freezing.
“Water is a great attraction,” Wells said.
Airing a few myths
Jarnagin plucked a few myths from her years of birding experience:
– “Feeding will keep the birds from flying south for the winter.” Nope. You’re not creating a bird welfare system.
Birds have an inborn calendar, so they know exactly when to migrate, she said. “And they’ll go. What feeding does is give them enough energy.”
– “Birds don’t need feeders during the summer.” While not necessary when Mother Nature’s bounty is so plentiful, summer feeders also help. They’re especially valued by early nesters (such as cardinals) who have to feed themselves and their fledglings when early spring food is still scarce.
“It’s a possibility the survival rate will be higher because they did get a little more food,” she said.
Jarnagin leaves out at least one feeder during the summer, and she keeps the seed level low because the food goes stale quickly in the summer heat and humidity.
– “Woodpeckers will hurt my trees.” Instead, they’re actually an asset.
“Their main objective is to find insects to eat,” Jarnagin said. “As a result, that is one less insect that is eating on the tree. For their nest holes, they look for dead branches.”
– “Why should I feed the birds? They don’t do anything for me.”
Many birds, such as mockingbirds, bluebirds, flycatchers, robins, woodpeckers and swifts are familiar sights at Jarnagin’s feeders, and the insect-eaters make her backyard bug count ultra-low. “Last summer, it made it very comfortable for us to be outside without any chemicals that are harmful to the environment.”
– Watch the feeders early. Cardinals and hummingbirds come to feeders at first light, and other feathered friends aren’t far behind, Jarnagin said. Feeding drops off in the middle of the day, and then picks up again in the late afternoon. Cardinals are usually the last birds to leave, just before dark.
– To attract birds to a feeder, scatter some seeds on a bit of aluminum foil on the ground below. Birds will spot it easily, and they may then notice the feeder, Wells said.
– Check the seed in the feeder, Wells advised. Is it clean? Does it move through the feeder freely?
– Clean under the feeders often. Perching birds will drop fecal matter, and scattered seeds can mold. Both can cause diseases, Jarnagin said. Raking about once a week should help. Wells also suggested putting a tray under the feeder to collect scattered seeds. Another choice is being very selective with the seeds; hulled sunflower seeds are more expensive, but they produce no waste.
– Hang feeders properly. Too-low feeders can be within pouncing range of a prowling cat. Feeders can be hung from house eaves or tree branches, and they can be mounted on poles, Jackson said.
“Believe me, the birds will find them if the food is good.”
Squirrels are acknowledged as the worst food predators, destroying feeders and taking food meant for the birds. To foil the squirrely visitors, try various methods, such as overhanging domes that block their access to the feeders or installation of special feeders just for the squirrels.
– Adjust feeding amounts to the birds’ needs. Birds eat more during times of crisis: During Northeast Mississippi’s February ice storm, Jarnagin’s backyard buddies ate about 50 pounds of seed.