Call me old-fashioned, but there's something both inspiring and peaceful about watching birds from the window. Whenever I see them collecting at my feeder, I'm reminded of a song from my childhood called "Gertie's Birdseed Diner." It's an upbeat, creative kid's tune by Tom Chapin and Michael Mark about the proverbial bird feeder and the regulars who dine there — from the cackling grackle to the rockin' mockingbird. And those lyrics got me thinking... what seeds could I put out to attract even more members of the avian community this winter?
Don't get me wrong; I love the regulars. The female and male cardinal that have spent their winter nestled in the shrubs and thickets love the sunflower seeds. The black capped chickadees nibble on the suet. Pileated woodpeckers take their time meandering by; as if bound to a ritual, they must first peck at the poor crab apple tree in the front yard, but it doesn't take long for them to flap over and poke at the dried larvae (yech). The mourning doves hover around the bottom of the feeder, carefully selecting morsels that have dropped to the ground.
So, I've got my winter regulars hooked. But what about the newbies? I did a little research, and came up with a game plan to tempt both my loyal and new birdseed diner customers.
The Best Food to Put Out for Non-Migrating Regulars
Before you become overwhelmed with seed possibilities (every bird has a unique diet), know this: There are a few essentials you can add to your bird feeder that will attract a wide array of common species. Here's what I recommend:
Attracts: starlings, woodpeckers, chickadees, nuthatches, jays, wrens, creepers, kinglets, cardinals, warblers
Why it's good: Bird suet is the perfect winter treat, because it stays frozen. (Just don't feed your birds suet in the warmer months, when it can become rancid. Plus, AllAboutBirds.org says the warmed fat can coat bird's belly feathers as they feed; if the bird then rests on a nest of eggs, the fat can coat the eggs and prevent developing embryos from getting oxygen.) Suet is rich in beef fat, peanuts, dried fruit, and dried insects — high calorie ingredients that will give birds long-lasting energy.
Tips on serving: If you want to dissuade starlings from eating the whole suet cake, try using a feeder that causes birds to feed upside down. Woodpeckers, chickadees, and nuthatches will feed on it easily, and starlings won't stick around for very long.
The Best Type of Seed to Attract New Winter Birds
There are plenty of seed mixes you can try to attract a variety of newcomers, including Nyjer or thistle (black, needle-like seeds; a Goldfinch's favorite) and white millet (beloved by quails, American sparrows, towhees, juncos, and cardinals). If you don't know where to start, black sunflower seeds are the ones you should try first.
Black Oil Sunflower Seeds
Attracts: Northern cardinals, tufted titmice, mourning doves, gray catbirds, evening grosbeaks, house sparrows, blackbirds, common grackles, bush tits, house finches, Pine siskins, black-billed magpies, chickadees, nuthatches, jays
Why they're good: If you can spring for black sunflower seeds over striped ones, they're a great way to attract less-common species to your feeder. Black sunflower seeds have thinner shells, making it easier for all kinds of birds to chip them open and feast on the tasty insides. Shelled sunflower seeds are another easy option because they require no work for the birds — though they're expensive. AllAboutBirds.org says to only put out a small batch of shelled sunflower seeds at a time, because they spoil quickly.
Tips on serving: Unfortunately, squirrels also love black sunflower seeds. If you don't mind squirrels, you're good to go. If you want to fend them off, now's the time to buy a squirrel baffle (a rounded cone that hangs on the pole below the bird feeder, making it impossible for squirrels to climb up). Just be sure to clean the baffle once a week or so, as bird droppings often fall onto the baffle and can lead to the spread of avian disease.
What Scraps to Feed Non-Migratory Birds From Your Kitchen
Though most birds aren't likely to try unfamiliar foods, some species may go for kitchen scraps — especially flocking birds like common grackles. Safe scraps include grains (dried beans, lentils, corn, wheat, rice), nuts (peanuts, pecans, almonds, walnuts), and fruit (apples, bananas, berries). Make sure your scraps are unprocessed, salt-free, not oily, and still good; mold and bacteria can make birds gravely ill.
What NOT to Put in the Bird Feeder
It might be tempting to use put all your kitchen scraps in the feeder instead of the garbage — it's less waste, right? But actually, this can attract the wrong kind of wildlife to your yard and harm your birds. Here are a few items you should not put in your feeder.
Shelled Corn, Cracked Corn, Popcorn
It's true — a wide variety of birds love corn, including cardinals, grosbeaks, crows, ravens, jays, and doves. Unfortunately, corn is also a favorite of raccoons, deer, and bear, according to AllAboutBirds.org; and your birds likely won't appreciate these hungry creatures dining at their feeder. Corn may also be contaminated with aflatoxins, or toxins produced by certain fungi.
Golden Millet, Red Millet, Flax Seed, Rapeseed, Canary Seed
Many of these are known as "filler seeds" inside packaged seed mixes. Birds rarely go for these types, and when they don't get eaten, they are more likely to develop bacteria and fungi growths. Old, spoiled seeds will ruin any new seed you pour on top of them. So, try your best to avoid packaged mixes that contain these five types of seeds.
When it comes to feeding the bunch, one or two staple items are the best way to create a manageable bird feeder. The more complex you get, the more you will have to switch out old seed or scraps. Plus, a few items are all you really need to attract both old timers and newcomers. Let us know which feathered friends you see at your birdseed diner!