Feed birds food for flight

If you have a backyard bird feeder, you’ll know when the purple finches dine. The giveaway is not so much their rich red plumage, it’s more the quantity of bird droppings these voracious feeders leave behind. Still, that’s a minor problem compared to the many joys of playing host with a bird feeder.

There are several bird feeder plans on the market, some simple, others elaborate.

  • Choose a design that ensures the feeder can be easily cleaned, especially at the beginning of the season, and throughout a wet spring. Wet seed can become moldy, the kiss of death for many birds.
  • There are safe commercial cleaners in birding and pet supply stores to help kill mold.

Kinds of feeders:

  • The platform feeder is popular with ground feeding birds like doves and juncos.

It consists of a piece of wood perched on top of a post two to three feet off the ground. If there are cats or squirrels around, you may wish to place it higher with some sort of funnel or stovepipe guard around the post to prevent them from climbing.

Feeders can also be hung from trees or a clothesline. Place metal or plastic tubing on the wires holding the feeder or on the clothesline to knock squirrels off before they reach the feeder.

  • Slender tube-style feeders with special little pegs hold niger thistle seed, a favourite of goldfinches. Larger birds like blue jays cannot hold onto the small pegs, and so the finches become exclusive users.

    If you add a tray to the bottom of this feeder, cardinals, purple and house finches will join the goldfinches. A variety of seed in a tube feeder, such as black oil sunflower seeds, will attract nuthatches, titmice and redpolls, as well as some acrobatic blue jays that can hang upside down.

  • Hummingbird feeders are based on colour attraction. Those tiny dynamos are attracted to the colour red. In spring, you can put a feeder near red flowers, or tie a red ribbon to the top of a feeder. They will buzz by to check it out.

    Nectar for your feeder is made from one part sugar to four parts boiling water. Store it in the fridge, and change frequently as it can get moldy. If it attracts bees or wasps, move it, or take it away for a few days. And if it attracts ants, try putting petroleum jelly on the string or wire holding it up.

These feeders can be put very close to your windows. ‘Hummers’ don’t mind being stared at from behind glass, though they can get very indignant if you get too close at first. I’ve been severely scolded by a tiny little ruby-throat, who resented my presence very much. He squeaked at me, and if birds can swear – he did!

What to serve
For large birds, such as cardinals, grosbeaks and jays, striped sunflower seeds are popular, but they can be difficult for small birds to open.

  • Black oil sunflower seeds contain the most nutrition and fat.
  • White millet is the food of choice for doves and many, ground -feeding birds.

Occasionally, robins or bluebirds decide to winter over in some parts of Canada. They find protected valleys where there is lots of sumach and berries to live on during the cold months. If these birds come to your feeder, you’ll see them in early spring. They have probably wintered over and will welcome your offerings while they wait for the ground to thaw.

  • Dried fruit such as raisins, or peanut butter appeal to robins and bluebirds, cardinals and cedar waxwings. Other birds that like fruit in warmer weather are mockingbirds, tanagers and thrashers.
  • Peanut butter draws woodpeckers, goldfinch, wrens and kinglets.
  • Woodpeckers and chickadees love suet. You’ll find suet either plain or with dried raisins, berries and seeds in the meat section of your grocery store or in a pet food store. You can hang this treat on the tree in its little mesh sacking, or buy a wire suet feeder. Suet is not a warm weather food because it can go rancid very quickly, not only smelling dreadful, but also becoming poisonous. If you do use suet in summer, put out small bits and replace it every couple of days.
  • Peanuts are also very popular with cardinals and blue jays. Blue jays will grab them in their shell, sometimes cracking them open by holding them in their beaks and banging them against a tree limb. But they also hide them in the notches of trees and gaps in the bark-great for savvy squirrels.

Perching places
Birds are wary of feeders set on a post in the middle of a vast open space. They prefer shrubs and trees in which to perch and hide.

  • Evergreen bushes, cedar hedges and spruce clumps, make wonderful cover as well as nesting spots.
  • Planting sunflowers in your garden does double duty – a perch with seed built in. A variety of woody stems is important too.
  • Small bushes like dogwood, forsythia and lilac lend themselves to bird perching. Several gardening books list flowers that appeal to particular birds, providing colour in the growing season and seed in fall and winter.

Some people use their summer birdbath as a tray feeder during the winter. Or, check your local pet store or the Internet for heated birdbaths for year round use. You can make your own for warm weather by putting a flat pan or saucer on a table on a balcony or on the ground and filling it with an inch or so of water. Keep it clean and filled with fresh water.

One of my friends placed an antique soup ladle on a hook in a tree. By keeping it filled spring, summer and fall, he is endlessly entertained by the bathing beauties that find the little pool just the right size. In winter he fills it with seeds.

Barbara Selkirk is a former journalist, public relations consultant and free-lance writer living on a farm in southern Ontario.