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#NatureZen: A Guide to Feeding Wild Birds (Part 2)

Words by Fields Falcone; photos by Fields and Mike Falcone

After yesterday’s crisis account and some feeder challenges and good practices, now the fun part – attracting birds to your garden.

There are a million feeders out there for sale. For basic seed, I have my best experience with Brome Squirrel-busters™. Rather than hang them on shepherd hooks for the squirrels and raccoons to scale, I hook multiple S-hooks together down from a tree several feet, which deters the squirrels from making a perilous vertical journey. I have no problems with the squirrels feeding below the feeders and typically leave them a nice breakfast! These feeders are a bit more challenging for larger birds, so you may not see as many blue jays or grackles feeding directly from feeders. I actually remove 2 of the 4 perches to try to avoid crowding, and smaller clinging birds like chickadees and finch species have no issues feeding from the perchless ports.

You might also consider bringing your feeders in at night and offering only what can be consumed within a day on the ground to avoid attracting rats and mice, which will happily nestle into your homestead and raise their many young on bird food. I put mine in a secure tub on the porch.

Finch species feed at a nearly empty, already poop-encrusted squirrel-proof feeder in between snow days

What foods you serve determines who you will attract to your feeders. Not all birds are seedeaters, and not all seedeaters like all seeds. Some of the mixes you find with pretty pictures that feed a “variety of birds,” can be filled with various types of millet, corn, and other fillers. These foods are relatively low fat, low preference foods for sparrows, doves, and other ground-feeding species. If you fill the feeder, many birds will sift through the seed, knocking the millet out trying to get to a few of the other seeds. What are they trying to get to?

The most universal seed that pleases just about all the seedeaters is black oil sunflower. It is high fat/high energy to suit high avian metabolisms, and the hulls are soft enough for small birds to crack. Cardinals, sparrows, chickadees, titmice, finches, red-winged blackbirds, even woodpeckers – everybody loves black oil sunflower. However, it does make a mess from the cast-off seed hulls. But I would so much rather have birds feeding contentedly, dropping less filler food out of the feeders, and clean up the seed hulls once a day.

This is why I personally prefer not to buy mixes at all, and rather buy the individual seeds so I can curate their delivery. I fill the Squirrel-busters™ with black oil sunflower, that’s it. I fill one of them with hulled sunflower for the morning rush hour. Hulled seed is a “no-mess” food, but that does come with a price tag. Some of the mixes branded “no mess” do still have millet and corn mixed in, so we are right back to feeder birds dumping much of the seed on the ground where less preferred foods often go to waste and spoil.

In the morning I do ground-scatter a breakfast portion of no-mess, high-quality millet (I use a pet bird grade millet mix rather than wild bird mix) and hulled sunflower, enough that will bulk up birds that can ground forage at breakfast but not leave extensive waste. There are some lovely species that just prefer ground-feeding; my beloved mourning doves, blackbirds, and even pine siskins love to forage below the feeders. In the winter I have an abundance of white-throated sparrows and dark-eyed juncos that are particularly appreciative.

Other seeds are for more specialized species. One such is thistle, or nyjer seed. Thistle attracts goldfinches, house and purple finches, and even pine siskins in the years they irrupt down south (this year brought a bumper crop in Shelby County because of a lack of food up north). I serve thistle in metal mesh feeders where a dozen can cling and feed at a time. It may take longer to attract the thistle-lovers – in the middle of the city the best chance to try is fall when birds may find them during post-breeding dispersal and migration and then hang around all winter.

I also serve peanuts in a separate metal mesh feeder with larger holes made for clinging birds. Titmice, chickadees, wrens, woodpeckers, nuthatches, and others love to pick at peanuts – I’m watching a pine siskin on the peanut feeder right now.

Left: A pine siskin feeds on thistle (red-bellied woodpecker on suet cake in foreground); right: Carolina wren and tufted titmouse amicably share the peanut feeder

Suet is also a wonderful universal food, primarily to attract woodpeckers, but any insectivore (or part-time insectivore as many seedeaters are) may go for it. Various “nuisance birds” will also hammer it, such a European starlings and grackles, which can decimate a cake in a day, but if you have that problem there’s a great solution – upside down feeders strongly deter these species but are no problem for a downy woodpecker or a Carolina chickadee. By “nuisance,” folks mean that some species can simply dominate a feeder station. Their intelligence can be admired and compromises such as specialized feeders can help keep a balance at your feeders, ensuring that a diversity of birds can safely visit your garden.

Starling and woodpecker
Everybody’s gotta eat in a natural disaster: a European starling and a downy woodpecker at suet feeders

Rest assured birds don’t stop feeding in the wild when you start feeding them. This polar vortex weather event is the first time I feel I have been feeding birds that are desperate. We had ice right before the snow which locked up all the food sources – I was watching American robins frantically try to eat holly berries encased in ice. But in “normal times” (if there is such a thing anymore) we are only augmenting wild food. In fact, you likely won’t see chickadees and titmice coming very often – they typically swoop in and get a couple of seeds but prefer to feed on natural forage much of the day. There are some persistent feeder birds – house finches for one. House sparrows if you are in the city center.

There are so many other more specialized foods you can get into – mealworms on platform feeders for robins, northern mockingbirds, and eastern bluebirds for instance. (Last year I could not convince my pair of bluebirds to trust my mealworm offerings, so I take it there is plenty of food around here!) And seasonally things change – toward the end of the summer I typically don’t have to fill seed feeders more than once every couple of days, but I am filling my hummingbird feeders up twice a day! (Perhaps a future NatureZen on hummingbird feeding…) So it’s fun to shift with the seasons along with the birds.

But it isn’t necessary to get that complicated if you don’t want to. One feeder with black oil sunflower, or even a mix if you don’t mind cleaning up any unused seed, and a pan of water is all you need to get started. Just commit to cleaning and admiring!

A few quick points: when you attract birds, you open up to the potential for more wildlife interaction. If you come across an injured bird, contact a wildlife rehabilitator. It is illegal to rehabilitate native birds without a permit, and there are many risks in causing further harm. The Humane Society has a state-by-state list of links to local sources, and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency breaks down our regional licensed rehabilitators by county. Keep a list of local avian rehabilitators handy.

We also have to accept the fact that we may attract avian predators. In particular, Cooper’s hawks have learned to be urban feeder specialists, though during the initial thaw this week I had a red-shouldered hawk opting for a songbird snack, perhaps not ideal for a full meal but these were not ideal times. His mate was nearby, so I am hopeful for neighborhood offspring again this year.

Red-shouldered hawk
A red-shouldered hawk defrocks a female red-winged blackbird caught off-guard near the feeders

However, by feeding birds we may be afforded wildlife viewing opportunities we might not expect, and fall in love with those we do. Here are a few of the less common species that came to dine during the storm and have since departed.

Rusty blackbird and pine warbler
Rusty blackbird and pine warbler (far left on suet) enjoying the Falcone buffet


Fox sparrow
A fox sparrow (center front) is an uncommon visitor to residential areas

And finally, what better way to augment your bird feeder garden than with planting native shrubs and flowers that attract birds and pollinators! With our relatively new house this will be a new frontier for me. We can plant for food resources such as fruits, seeds, and nectar for hummingbirds and butterflies, and we can plant for habitat – roosting, nesting, and predator safety. Audubon has a great repository of suggestions for planting native in any region. As my bird garden evolves, I’ll share more of my wonders, blunders, and joys with the Conservancy community.

Until then, I am grateful my avian neighbors are well-fed and sunning again.


House finches