Starting a Bird Feeding Program

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Pat Schlarbaum

Iowa Department of Natural Resources

Cold winter temperatures quickly drive birds to available bird feeders.  Next to gardening, watching wildlife rates as Iowa’s top outdoor activity, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. More than 609,000 Iowans are estimated to watch and feed wildlife each year. A big chunk of the $300 million spent on wildlife is birdseed, suet, feeders and other feather-friendly supplies.

Bird feeding offers people an opportunity to see birds at close range. Feeders offer a food supplement for songbirds, but seldom provide all of a healthy bird’s diet. Local bird populations seem to benefit from stable feeding regimes, especially during the winter months.

So how can you attract the most birds? Bird feeders should be located near a favorite window. Songbirds prefer protected areas out of prevailing winds, so locate feeders near shrubs or thickets, with a sunny exposure where possible. Shrubs provide quick escape cover from attacking predators, but avoid placing feeders too close to shrubs if cats threaten birds at your feeder.

A feeder designed to provide a continuous supply of seed is called a “hopper” style, as opposed to a feeder containing only a small food supply that requires daily maintenance.  Hopper style feeders need to be designed to keep the seed as dry as possible and to minimize waste. Different species of birds have varying feeding habits, so different feeding options will attract different birds. Tube feeders will attract finches.  Feeders spaced at various locations and heights allow less-dominant species a means to feed away from more-aggressive birds.

A dry feeder is a better feeder and will last longer.  Moldy seeds may cause aspergillosis, a deadly bird disease caused by Aspergillosis fumigatus, a common, widespread mold that grows on wet grain and bread.

So what to put in your feeder? Sunflower seeds, especially black-oil sunflower seeds are favorites of cardinals, chickadees, nuthatches, titmice and at least 20 other species. A high fat content, as high as 38 percent – is more valuable in the cold when birds increase their caloric intake to survive. When feeding seed mixtures, some birds will kick less-preferred seeds out of the feeder onto the ground to rot so it is best to offer only sunflower seeds in the feeder, rather than mixing it with other grains. Ground-feeding birds, such as juncos and true sparrows, prefer white millet but will eat dropped sunflower seeds. Finches prefer niger thistle, but will eat sunflower seeds, as well.

Suet attracts a crowd, too, including woodpeckers, flickers and nuthatches. It’s ideal to have a feeder that allows more than one bird to eat at a time. Bluejays can be quite territorial, but a length greater than 10 inches provides additional space for less-aggressive birds to feed. Perches on the feeder offer chickadees and tufted titmice a place to hold the sunflower seed by their feet as they eat.  Lacking perches, these birds will fly to the nearest branch, possibly out of view, to eat the seed. Some birds, such as nuthatches, will use any crack to wedge the seed where they hammer it open. Ground-feeding birds like juncos and cardinals prefer flat surfaces to land upon.  The platform board of the feeder entices these birds, including woodpeckers. Peanuts are a favorite food of tufted titmice and downy woodpeckers.

By constructing a feeder that is screwed together, replacement pieces can be easily installed. Predrilling the screw holes up from the bottom, where possible, provides a sturdy structure. Screw indentations can become a site for weathering and wood rotting. Marine varnishes are acceptable for exterior portions of the feeder, but should be avoided where contact with the seeds occurs. Linseed oil is also a good wood preservative.

Maintaining a healthy bird feeding station can provide immeasurable entertainment possibilities for your family and friends.  Stable and consistent feeding regimes will have a positive effect upon songbirds during the winter.

Consider providing water in your yard. Birdbath heaters for your round offerings are a critical habitat requirement. Additionally, natural plantings that provider cover, such as prairie, pines, shrubs like ninebark and hazelnut provide ideal cover and added food sources.

Should just feeding and watching birds in the yard not be enough, you can take it to the next level. Two popular winter weather activities include the Christmas Bird Count, which gets teams outdoors in a specified area; and the Great Backyard Bird Count, where you simply tally birds seen from your window.

Results are valuable, as these ‘citizen scientists’ provide information on wintering birds; especially winter territories and trends, such as movement into new areas.

Though promoted nationwide, a couple websites; and  provide more information. That includes links to local chapters, clubs or blogs…and lots more information that is ‘for the birds.’  Also, any full service bird feed supply outlet has information on the counts, winter bird watching walks and other activities and products to step up your winter bird watching involvement.

Date of Publication: 
December, 2014