Taking Care of our Feathered Friends

Now is a great time to set-up bird feeders. Various natural foods (wild cherries, dogwood and holly berries) become increasingly hard for birds to find during winter. Supplementing their diet will provide them with enough food to keep warm during cold, winter nights.

Even though most birds are generalists and eat a variety of foods, many birds have preferred foods. By selecting foods that are known to attract the birds you want to see, you will be less bothered by birds you don’t care to see, like starlings.

Black oil-type sunflower seed attracts most seed-eating birds. Another good food is millet, known as white prove or white millet. Millet attracts sparrows, cowbirds, and juncos. Seed mixes that contain peanut hearts strongly attract starlings.  Rather than buying mixes, you may have better success, and save some money, by buying black oil-type sunflower and white millet separately, in bulk.

A fly-through or platform feeder will accommodate most bird species or you may choose to select for specific birds, like goldfinches and pine siskins, by using tube-type feeders. The list below matches birds to the different seeds and other foods they prefer.

Brown-headed Cowbird – white and red millet

Blue Jay – sunflower seeds (all types), peanuts, cracked nuts, shelled and cracked corn, suet

Cardinals – sunflower seeds (all types), safflower, cracked corn, shelled and broken peanuts

Eastern Towhees – white millet, sunflower seeds (all types), cracked corn, shelled and broken peanuts

Evening Grosbeak – sunflower seeds (all types), cracked corn, shelled and broken peanuts

Goldfinches – niger thistle, hulled sunflower seeds, black oil-type sunflower seeds

Grackles – hulled sunflower seeds (all types), cracked corn

House Finch – black oil-type sunflower seeds, niger thistle

Juncos – white millet, fine-cracked corn

Mockingbirds, Brown Thrashers, Robins, Thrushes, Catbirds – cut apples, oranges, raisins, bread crumbs

Mourning Doves – black oil-type sunflower seeds, safflower, white millet

Purple Finch – sunflower seeds (all types)

Sparrows – white millet, black oil-type sunflower seeds, wheat, bread crumbs

Woodpeckers, Chickadees, Titmice, Nuthatches – black-type sunflower seeds, cracked nuts, shelled and broken peanuts, bread crumbs, suet

Other foods like suet, fruit halves nailed to a tree or post, peanut butter smeared into pine cones or onto the side of a tree, and old breads and cakes can increase the diversity of birds visiting your backyard. In addition to food, birds will readily use water placed near feeders. The attractiveness of a feeder location, either surrounded with trees and shrubs or in a wide open lawn, will directly affect the number of birds that visit your feeder. Place feeders in a somewhat open area with both deciduous and evergreen trees and shrubs nearby for shelter and escape cover.  Try to situate it so it is protected from strong winter winds.

Many people believe that if you begin a feeding program, it must be maintained without interruption.  Birds waste little time at empty feeders and although it is true that supplemental food helps birds survive the winter, occasional periods where feeders are empty will unlikely result in starvation.

Remember to clean feeders periodically with hot, soapy water and a capful of bleach. Bottoms of platform feeders (and others that might hold water) should have small holes drilled into the bottom to allow water to drain after a rain.

Finally, beware of house cats.  Research shows that house cats are extremely efficient predators and can severely reduce the number of birds visiting feeders. If you have a cat, consider keeping it inside and/or putting a bell on its collar.

Submitted by Kelly Jackson, Agent for Horticulture, Christian County Cooperative Extension Service

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About krjack4

Extension Agent for Horticulture Serving home gardeners and Green Industry professionals, including commercial fruit & vegetable producers. Advisor to: Christian County Master Gardener Association; Downtown Hopkinsville Farmers Market.