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By Denis Doucet
|Sunflower||Nyjer||Millet||Cracker Corn||Peanuts||Suet||Mixed Seed||Other Offerings|
Sunflower seeds (Helianthus spp.)– In the Maritimes, this is the type of seed eaten by the greatest variety of seed-eating birds. For this reason, it is the best single seed to offer and is therefore an indispensable part of any backyard feeding program. It is better to offer the small, unsalted black oil type of sunflower seed to the birds for several reasons: First of all, seed is sold by weight. Since about 50% of the weight of black oil seed is nut meat (only 30% or so in striped sunflower), you get more for your money. This is because the nutritional value is contained mostly in the nut meat. Also, most birds that eat sunflower crack it open with their beaks, discarding the shell. Secondly, the oil content, which is of high energy value, is greater in the black oil type. Finally, the shell in the black oil type is, on average, thinner and therefore easier to open for the smaller birds.
Who eats it - A partial list of those species occurring regularly in the Maritimes that readily consume sunflower seeds is provided below. Those species marked with an asterisk (*) have sunflower as one of their preferences:
How to offer sunflower seed - Sunflower seed is best dispensed in a controlled-flow, tube-type feeder such as the Aspects™ or Droll Yankees™ feeder tubes (see illustration) or a covered, platform-type house or “hopper” feeder. This is highly preferable to putting it directly on the ground or tray, as it tends to spoil quickly or is lost in the snow during the winter.
Practical tip - To cater to an even wider diversity of species, including those that don’t generally eat seeds (e.g. Yellow-rumped Warbler), you can offer hulled sunflower. This is the sunflower seed removed from its shell. This seed should be dispensed in a well-ventilated, preferably domed or roofed feeder, as it can spoil quickly. It is more expensive and not as widely available as the regular types, but it also cuts down on the build-up of messy seed hulls in your yard.
Fun tip - If you enjoy gardening, you can also experiment with planting different varieties of sunflower in your flower beds. I have tried many kinds at home. Many varieties will do, although to date, I have had the best success by simply planting some black oil seeds in the garden. Although it produces a smaller and less showy flower than many other types, it still seems to attract the greatest variety of birds.
Nyjer (thistle) seed – This seed, Guizotia abyssinica in the sunflower family, is imported to North America from Africa or Asia (mostly Ethiopia and India). It is rich in oil and is a notable favourite of several species of small, colourful finches. One advantage of Nyjer seed is that although it is the preferred food of the colourful finches, very few other species appreciate it (even squirrels seem to dislike it!). Also, it is comforting to know that seed that gets spilled will not sprout in your lawn, as it has been sterilized. It is therefore a way of maximizing your chances of attracting the above species with the minimum amount of hassle.
The best Nyjer feeders are made of UV-resistant, polycarbonate plastic such as Lexan™. Excellent quality feeders of this type are available in a variety of sizes/capacities. My personal favourites are made by companies such as Aspects™ (Warren, Rhode Island), Droll Yankees™ (Foster, Rhode Island) or Duncraft™ (Penacook, New Hampshire) and include a good warranty (often lifetime).
Who eats it – Mostly the American Goldfinch, Pine Siskin, Common and Hoary Redpolls. Purple and House Finches will also partake readily of this rather exclusive food. The Redpolls are essentially winter visitors only, but the Goldfinch, Pine Siskin, Purple Finch and House Finch are generally present in the Maritimes year-round. Other species that occasionally eat Nyjer seed include the Black-capped Chickadee, Dark-eyed Junco, several species of New World sparrows (e.g. Chipping Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, Song Sparrow, etc.) and the Mourning Dove.
How to offer Nyjer seed - Since Nyjer seed is expensive (more than 2$/kg in 2003), it is best dispensed in a tube-type feeder with the proper-sized holes (about the size of a grain of rice), adequate ventilation and a seed deflector which together reduce spillage and spoilage.
Practical tip: adding a tray to Nyjer feeders will decrease the amount of seed lost to spillage. However, it will increase your chances of getting a Mourning Dove that may decide it likes this black gold, therefore possibly negating the savings brought on by the decrease in seeds lost to spillage, especially if your goal is mainly to feed the colourful finches.
Fun tip - Interesting variations on the nyjer tube theme include the “upside-down” models. These are tube feeders with the seed holes placed below rather than above the perch levels. They further restrict the kinds of birds that will be able to partake of the Nyjer. Since finches like the American Goldfinch and Pine Siskin are very acrobatic, they adapt readily to this kind of feeder, providing us with some added entertainment to boot. An inexpensive, relatively well-made model made by Yule-Hyde™ is generally available from specialty stores and certain garden centres in the Maritimes.
Millet – Millet, more specifically white millet (Panicum miliaceum), is also an essential part of your backyard feeding program. It is a favoured seed of more than a dozen species visiting or residing in the Maritimes.
Who eats it - A partial list of species that will regularly consume millet is found below. Those species marked with an asterisk (*) have millet as one of their preferences:
Note that white millet is much preferred by birds as compared to the red and yellow varieties. Fortunately, it is generally the cheapest kind as well.
How to offer millet - Millet is best offered in a tray-type feeder at ground level, up to about waist height. It can also be dispensed in tube-type feeders; however, you will likely find less kinds of birds using it the higher it is off the ground.
Practical Tip - If you have a problem with doves and/or pigeons eating all your millet, you can place metal caging with 2”x 2” openings all around and above the millet tray/feeder, thus allowing the smaller birds access, while restricting it from the larger birds.
Fun tip: As a special treat for your birds, try placing a bundle of millet sprays in your yard, ideally not too far from your ground or tray feeder(s). These are especially attractive to the sparrows and other small, acrobatic species that like millet. Millet sprays are the bundles of seeds still on the grassy stems. They can often be purchased in pet stores. However, they do tend to be a bit on the expensive side. If offered only occasionally, it is certainly worth it, as it is very enjoyable, nutritious for the small birds and very entertaining for the birdwatcher.
Cracked Corn – Corn is an excellent source of complex carbohydrates and, in the case of yellow corn (more so than for white corn), also an important source of vitamin A. It is therefore highly sought after by a wide variety of wild birds. In fact, it attracts as many species of seed-eating birds as does sunflower, although be it a different assortment. It should therefore be an essential part of any backyard feeding program, if at all feasible.
While whole corn or corn on the cob can be offered to birds, only those larger, stronger beaked Maritime birds can crack the dry seed open. These include Blue Jays, Crows, Ravens, Evening Grosbeaks, Northern Cardinals and Common Grackles. They have the necessary equipment to do the job and get to the good stuff inside, either with their beaks or with their gizzard. But, corn is such a valuable, inexpensive food source that it has the potential to be useful to a wide variety of species. The solution: offer cracked corn. This will permit a plethora of smaller birds such as the New World Sparrows (Snow Bunting, Song Sparrow, American Tree Sparrow, etc.) to ingest and process it along with the other species.
Who eats it - Cracked corn is readily consumed by the following species (partial list). Those species which have cracked corn as a major preference are marked with an asterisk (*):
How to offer cracked corn - Because of the high starch content, cracked corn is best offered in a tray feeder or directly on the ground. In fact, if you put it in a tube or house feeder, it will actually seize up the feeder (like cement) if the corn gets wet.
Practical tip – While many birds will indeed partake of corn on a tray or the ground, you may also attract many “undesirables” this way, including pigeons. As with white millet, this situation may be remedied by surrounding and covering the tray or corn on the ground by a wire mesh with 2” X 2” openings. This will permit access to the smaller birds, all the while excluding pigeons, but also doves and pheasants (admittedly an unfortunate trade-off…).
Fun tip – Corn is also decidedly a favourite of squirrels (both Red and Grey) and the Eastern Chipmunk. An interesting and entertaining way of feeding them and therefore keeping them out of your other feeders is to offer corn on the cob on a wheel-type feeder such as the Aspects™ Squirrel-Go-Round. Place your “squirrel feeder” at least 15m (50+ft) away from your main bird feeding station. This will enhance your chances of having the birds and squirrels co-existing relatively peacefully with a minimum of conflict.
Peanuts - Rich in proteins, minerals and essential fats, peanuts are also excellent for feeding wild birds, especially in colder weather. Given their cost, they are best offered sparingly in the proper type feeder (see below).
Who eats peanuts? Birds that really scarf down peanuts are denoted in the list below by an asterisk (*). A few of the other species that just eat them are listed below as well, without the asterisk:
How to offer peanuts – This food source can be offered many different ways. It is perhaps best to offer them whole, out of the shell, in a specially designed wire-mesh feeder (such as the Aspects™ peanut tube – see illustration). These feeders allow the birds to peck away pieces, while not allowing them to take away the peanuts whole. This strategy is employed mostly because Blue Jays will choose peanuts over almost anything else and quickly deplete your supply if you let them. Given the high cost of peanuts, it is often better to carefully control the flow of this food source.
In order to entice some of the smaller, weaker-billed birds, try offering crushed peanuts in a special feeder (see below). Species that will go for these include the Yellow-rumped Warbler and Carolina Wren (an exceptional winter resident in the Maritimes). To control access from those hungry Blue Jays, crushed peanuts are best offered in an adjustable-height, dome-roof feeder tray such as the Droll Yankees™ X-1 or the Aspects™ Vista Dome (see illustration). This will protect them from the elements and afford the smaller birds access, all the while preventing the larger birds from “hoovering” those peanut pieces post-haste.
Finally, peanut butter is also an excellent food source and is appreciated by a wide variety of species. See the section on suet and suet mixtures for more on this…
Fun tip - Try offering peanuts in the shell on a tray or in a special, controlled-flow feeder as a special treat for the Blue Jays in the fall, after the grackles and blackbirds have left for the season.
Suet and/or suet type preparations – Suet is the fat that surrounds the kidneys of cattle. It is perhaps the most valuable, energy-rich food you can offer birds during cold weather.
Who eats suet/suet preparations - More than 50 species of birds in the Maritimes will consume it, especially woodpeckers, chickadees and nuthatches. A partial list of species who consume it is included below. Those who prefer suet/suet mixtures compared to most other foods are denoted by an asterisk (*):
How to offer suet – Firstly, it is best offered after it has been rendered (melted). This process increases its melting point, which lengthens its “lifespan” before spoilage. You can then offer it in a wire-mesh cage, hanging or attached to a tree trunk. These two types of wire-mesh feeders are typically sold at specialty stores, garden centers and at feed stores.
Practical tip - To enhance its nutritional value by adding protein, you can mix rendered suet half and half with peanut butter, preferably unsalted. This mixture is even better for the chickadees and nuthatches, but it is also absolutely irresistible to Blue Jays, and, when present, Grey Jays.
Practical tip – Another excellent mixture, equally as nutritious, is a half-and-half mix of baking lard (like Tenderflake) and peanut butter. Given that this mixture is softer, it is perhaps best offered in a rough log, preferably cedar, with holes drilled into it. This is actually the best way to attract the Brown Creeper, which is an exceptional feeder bird.
A few words about seed mixes:
At first, offering a seed mix can seem like a very logical and economical thing to do. But, since all birds have a type of seed they prefer (often sunflower), they will sift through and discard all the other types of seed in the mix in order to get it.
While it can be entertaining to watch a Blue Jay creating a shower of seeds while it tries to grab that sunflower seed it wants from your feeder, it is rather wasteful. It also greatly increases your chances of hosting pigeons and other “undesirables” at your feeding station. Finally, many commercial seed mixes contain an important percentage of cheap “filler” seeds, such as sorghum, barley and oats which most wild birds don’t go for. Since seeds are sold by weight, this increases the seed companies’ profit margin at your expense. In fact, I have always had more success in attracting a variety of birds by simply offering the individual “favourite” seeds separately in the proper type feeders.
However, if you still prefer offering mixed seed, may I suggest you prepare your own “premium” mix by buying sunflower, millet and cracked corn in bulk and mixing it yourself? I have found that by mixing these seeds in a 2: 1: 2 ratio, I have hosted all of the birds that use commercial seed mixes with much less waste and at a substantially lower price per pound. Also, because nyjer seed is so expensive, it is best offered in a tube feeder on its own, rather than as part of a mix.
Other offerings for wild birds:
Besides the staple bird seeds (sunflower, nyjer/thistle, millet, corn and peanuts) and suet/peanut butter that you may already offer to wild birds, give these suggestions a try. You never know what you might attract:
1) Frozen wild berries – (Place in a tray or platform-type feeder). Many types of wild berries can be collected in late summer or fall when ripe, then stored in the freezer for later use. I especially recommend Mountain Ash berries, Elderberries, Highbush Cranberry, Juniper berries, Staghorn Sumac berries, Wild Raisin and crab-apples, but also try rosehips, shadbush/serviceberry/Saskatoon berries (Amelanchier spp.) and others. Over 30 species of birds occurring in the Maritimes are known to eat one type of berry or another…
2) Apple slices and/or cubes – (Place in a tray or platform type feeder). The American Robin will go for these, as well as the Eastern Bluebird and other thrushes, but also members of the mockingbird family (Grey Catbird, Northern Mockingbird, Brown Thrasher when present), the occasional waxwing (if the pieces are smaller), Pine Grosbeak, European Starling and more!
3) Orange halves – (Skewer them on a tree branch or put them on a tray). Excellent for attracting Baltimore Orioles (especially in mid to late spring), but also the occasional Scarlet Tanager, Purple and House Finches and more…
4) Grape jelly (!)– (Place in a small bowl or a metal lid) - This seemingly bizarre offering, when given in the spring during migration (early to late May), has been known to attract Baltimore Orioles, as well as a variety of wood-warblers, notably Cape May, Yellow-rumped and Black-throated Blue Warblers and possibly others. This is particularly prevalent during a cold spell. Cold weather causes early-flying insects to die off or to go dormant, forcing the recently arrived warblers to exploit another food source. A little known fact about the Cape May Warbler is that during the winter in Central and South America, it can feed heavily on flower nectar and fruit juices which it obtains by piercing with its sharp beak, then sucking it up with its unique (in the wood-warbler world) tubular tongue!
5) Raisins – (soaked in water overnight to soften them, and then offered on a tray-type feeder). This offering is a favourite of the Northern Mockingbird, Grey Catbird, American Robin, Eastern Bluebird (and other thrushes) and European Starling. Occasionally attracts Cedar and Bohemian Waxwings, Pine Grosbeaks and others.
6) Pumpkin seeds – If you are looking for something to do with some of the leftovers from your Halloween jack o’ lantern, put out those pumpkin seeds! It is a special and useful treat for a number of birds, including Blue Jay, both local species of chickadees, nuthatches and more…
7) Dog Kibble – My Blue Jays have gone nuts over this one, even preferring the kibble over peanuts and sunflower seeds! This food is nutritious, inexpensive and actually may attract a wide variety of species. Ideally, offer the kibble in a covered tray and serve only as much as the birds will eat in the course of a day to prevent spoilage and invasion by other animals such as raccoons. Other species that occasionally go for dog kibble include Grey Jays, American Crows, Northern Ravens, European Starlings, woodpeckers and more…