Feeding isn’t for the birds anymore

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For anyone who enjoys watching wildlife, bird feeding can be fun and, at times, exciting.

Last spring, about a week before the turkey season, I awoke to the clucking of three wild turkey hens under my bedroom window. They were working the residual bird seed scattered on the ground beneath my wife’s bird feeder.

Half of Maine’s citizenry reportedly feeds birds, with more than $2 billion spent nationally each year on bird feed alone! If you’d like to be part of the rage, but aren’t sure how to get started, read on. What follows is an excerpt from a brochure available through a joint venture of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (MDIF&W) and the Northwoods Sporting Journal. Called “Landscaping Your Yard For Wildlife,” the booklet was written by my former boss at MDIF&W Commissioner Ray “Bucky” Owen and illustrated by biologist/artist Mark McCollough.

This excerpt is from one of the booklet’s chapters on bird feeding:

“So how do you go about feeding the birds? There are more than 60 kinds of wild birds that visit feeders in the Northeast, and birds can be fed year-round. Bird feeding can be as simple as throwing stale bread scraps out on the back porch to elaborate feeder setups.

There are so many choices of bird food available to the novice that beginners can get confused. Small bags of bird food found in most grocery stores may be cheap, but may attract the wrong kinds of birds to your feeder. Cracked corn and millet, the major ingredient of food sold in grocery stores, attracts house sparrows, an undesirable exotic species, and cowbirds that parasitize other birds nests in the spring. Furthermore, its been my experience that most of the millet goes uneaten.

A diversity of foods attracts more species of birds. The undisputed champion of all bird feeds is black oil sunflower seed, and it should be the primary food provided at your feeder. Birds more easily open its thin shells than striped sunflower seed, and this energy-rich food is consumed by more than 40 species of birds, including chickadees, nuthatches, cardinals and blue jays! Buy 50-pound bags early in the season from farm and garden stores for the best value. Striped sunflower seeds, sunflower chips, peanut kernels and hearts and other nuts are excellent choices to add to the black oil sunflower seed.

Gold finches, siskins and redpolls are common visitors to Maine feeders and Niger thistle seed really attracts these birds. Niger seed is expensive, but a bulk 25-pound bag will cost much less per pound and will last for a winter or two. Cracked corn attracts mourning doves, sparrows and red-winged blackbirds (in the spring). Corn (cracked, shelled or in ears) can also attract turkeys if you live in a wooded area in central or southern Maine. Beef suet (fat) or a peanut butter/oatmeal mixture provides a high-energy food supplement for woodpeckers and chickadees. In the spring, try adding oranges, raisins or even mealworms to attract a variety of spring migrants like Baltimore orioles or bluebirds.

Many farm and garden stores carry good quality bird feeders, but experiment with making a few of your own. Tray feeders are the simplest to make from scrap wood. A small piece of pine or plywood surrounded with 1 or 2-inch low sides to keep the seeds in place can accommodate nearly all of the food types listed above and give visiting birds a wide scope of vision. Simply add a roof to a tray feeder and you’ve made a “fly-through” feeder. Roofed feeders keep the seed dry, but still give the birds a sense of security. Hopper feeders are probably the most popular with glass or Plexiglas sides to contain the food and keep it dry. Cylindrical feeders are vertically hung tubes with multiple feeding ports allowing many birds to feed at once.

A simple one can be made with a liter soda bottle. Dowel perches are placed through the bottle with feeder holes cut about two inches above each perch. If you are going to feed Niger thistle seed, you’ll need to buy or make a special cylindrical feeder with small slits. Expensive thistle seed will blow out of a regular feeder on a blustery winter day. Suet or peanut butter/seed mixes are placed in wire cages, a hanging 3-inch diameter log with 1 inch holes, or simply smeared on the side of a tree. This latter method often attracts flying squirrels at night! My personal favorite for feeding suet is lobster bait bags found along the shore in the summer.

Bird feeding can be addictive, and one feeder usually evolves to several placed around the yard with a half-dozen different kinds of food. Locate your feeders where you can see them from the house. Folks often have trouble attracting birds to wide open spaces. For better success, locate feeders near cover (trees, shrubs and brush piles) to give timid birds a sense of security. Beware…locating feeders too close to dense shrubs can give a predatory advantage to the neighbor’s cat. Try adding a source of water near your feeders.

Bird feeding is a great way to learn more about bird identification and brings nature close to your home. . There are many books about bird feeding, but the one I recommend “Wild About Birds” – a reasonably priced, 278-page encyclopedia of bird feeding published by Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources. Call 1-800-657-3757 to order.”

The author is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal.He is also a Maine Guide, co-host of a weekly radio program “Maine Outdoors” heard Sundays at 7 p.m. on The Voice of Maine News-Talk Network (WVOM-FM 103.9, WCME-FM 96.7) and former information officer for the Maine Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. His e-mail address is paul@sportingjournal.com.

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