Speaking of Nature: Thanksgiving for the birds

  • Bill Danielson uses this selection of bird seed at his home. Across the top is shelled sunflower seed. In the bottom right is thistle seed. The bottom left has mixed seed featuring white millet, and scattered around are peanuts and black oil sunflower seeds. For the Recorder/BILL DANIELSON


For the Recorder
Published: 11/18/2019 6:00:58 AM

With all of the bad, sad and otherwise depressing news out there in the world (especially the recent findings about declining bird populations) we could all use something positive to focus our attention on. Thanksgiving is just around the corner, so I thought it might be fun to consider the idea of offering a portion of our cornucopia of plenty to our feathered neighbors. Those species that spend the winter with us can bring a spark of life to the cold days ahead, so why not entice them closer with food?

When it comes to birdseed, the sunflower seed is “king.” The two types of sunflower seed are the gray-striped sunflower seed and the black oil sunflower seed. You can’t really go wrong with either of these, but they do have slightly different characteristics. The gray-striped variety is much larger with a heavier shell, while the black oil variety is smaller with a more delicate shell. It is this delicate shell that makes black oil sunflower seed more accessible to a wider variety of birds.

One thing to remember about sunflower seeds is the fact that those shells end up going somewhere. If you have a feeder that is suspended over a patch of lawn you will eventually find a rather large pile of empty shells building up, which can actually start to kill the grass. For this reason, it may be a more attractive option to procure some shelled sunflower seed, which is usually the larger gray-striped variety, sans shells. This is a bit more expensive, but it is a lot cleaner.

Next there is “mixed” seed. A quality blend of mixed seeds will include white millet, various sunflower seeds, cracked corn, perhaps some safflower seeds (think of swollen sunflower seeds with white shells) and possibly even peanuts. The thing to avoid is a large, salmon-colored seed called milo (a.k.a. sorghum). It is a common ingredient in cheaper blends of mixed seed, but in my experience most of it goes to waste unless you have big birds like turkeys or pheasants at your feeders.

Lastly, there are peanuts in the shell, “suet” cakes and “thistle” seed. Suet cakes are basically seeds, fruits and nuts that have been encased in fat. All three of these choices are specialty items that are used for a narrower target audience of birds. In general, they can all be purchased in some grocery stores, but you can find a wider variety at garden centers and feed stores.

Now for the feeders: “Tube” feeders are exactly what the name suggests. They are tubes of plastic with various sorts of holes in them. Tube feeders are very popular with finches, like house finches and goldfinches and in my experience they are best filled with sunflower seeds. Squirrels are also very fond of sunflower seeds and will often “raid” tube feeders, so it is important to purchase feeders that have metal seed ports that squirrels cannot chew through and destroy.

Specialty tube feeders can have extremely small ports for thistle seed, which is a delicacy among the finches. No other birds will use such feeders, however. Other tube feeders can be made of wire mesh. Very fine wire mesh tubes can again be filled with thistle seed. Tubes made of coarser wire mesh can be filled with peanuts and this will be a major attraction for woodpeckers. I have two of these “peanut” feeders and the woodpeckers love them. I also regularly see chickadees and nuthatches successfully picking at peanut crumbs leftover from the work done by woodpeckers.

Suet cakes are often presented in square, wire baskets and are very popular with a surprisingly wide variety to species. If you are just getting started with bird feeders you may opt for the plastic mesh bags that are similar to those that onions are sold in. Basically, you just need a place to hang these cakes up off the ground where the birds will find them and squirrels wont be able to simply carry them away.

Finally, there are those traditional platform feeders. These are the ones that look like little houses and can be filled with a large supply of seeds that slowly spill out of slots along the bottom of the storage hamper. Other platform feeders can be large covered or uncovered shelves that are either mounted on poles, nailed to trees, or hung from wires or chains. These are the feeders that get the mixed seed, which will be popular with ground-feeding birds like cardinals, sparrows, juncos blue jays and mourning doves. Even better, you can just spread mixed seed on the ground or on your porch railing where ground-feeding birds will feel very comfortable.

There are many feeder choices available at a wide variety of prices. Experiment with different designs and different seed selections to see which ones work best in your yard. The most important thing is to make sure that the feeders are kept clean and that the birds you attract are not in danger from any cats that might be in the neighborhood. It may take a bit of time for brand new feeders to be discovered, but once the local chickadees figure it out, the rest of the birds will soon follow. If you have any questions just send me an email to speakingofnature@gmail.com and I’ll be happy to help in any way that I can.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 22 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service and the Massachusetts State Parks and currently teaches high school biology and physics. Visit www.speakingofnature.com for more information, or go to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.

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