Kenneth Kieser: The many benefits of feeding birds

The Examiner
This small herd of deer loved the grain from my mother's bird feeder.

My mother spends a lot of money feeding birds throughout the winter. During the recent arctic cold snap, she purchased two 40-pound bags of bird seed each week. Her labor of kindness makes it easy for her birds to survive nature’s most hazardous Midwest conditions.

Birds are required to eat both morning and night, unlike mammals that can eat and store food. Not eating means birds may not make it through a cold night. They require high-energy, high-fat foods to maintain their fat reserves and survive frosty nights.

Some birds search out food all day and build up as much fat layers as possible, then find a place to roost out of the wind where there is some protection. They basically shiver until first light when they resume feeding on seeds, pine cones or in backyard feeders.

On occasion you might be surprised by other wildlife visiting the bird feeder. Deer especially will come by for a mouthful of grain. I was shocked one evening to see a doe’s head pass by my living room window en route to our bird feeder. They tipped the feeder until grain fell out, quite interesting to see how certain animals find solutions.

You might even see a racoon or possum trying to rob the bird feeder. Possums and coons are night travelers. Possums especially eat a variety of items, including dog poop — in case you notice it is disappearing from your yard. Bird seed is just another easy meal.

One day my wife was watching our bird feeder and noticed a bird perched on a nearby fence. The day was cold and the bird seemed to be puffed up, a trick they use to conserve more body heat. A bird landed on the bird feeder and the puffed-up bird suddenly unpuffed and came after its prey.

The puffed-up bird turned out to be a kestrel falcon, often called sparrowhawk, and the chase was on. My wife watched them chase through the trees and both were quickly out of sight.

Squirrels, of course, are constant visitors, especially when they can access an easy meal. Squirrels love birdseed, nuts, sunflower seeds, fruit and corn, but they don’t favor everything that birds eat. Try stocking your bird feeder with safflower seed, Nyjer seed or white proso millet, grains squirrels hate and they’ll look for food elsewhere. You can find these seeds at pet stores or online.

However, there are more fun ways to discourage squirrels from eating your bird seed. A squirrel can jump 7 feet vertically, so position your bird feeder away from buildings or trees, anything they can climb on.

Many use a metal pole to hold up the bird feeder. Grease the pole and then sit back and watch the show while squirrels start up and slide back down. Some bird enthusiasts attach the child’s toy, a Slinky above and below the feeders, sending frustrated squirrels back to earth.

Wooden versions are easier for tree rodents to climb. Many who use wooden poles tack on aluminum strips above and below the feeder. This is entertaining too as squirrels determined for seed slide down on the slick metal.

Most commercial squirrel-proof bird feeder poles employ a metal baffle, a semi-circular deflector attachment designed to keep critters away from bird seed. Squirrels can really jump so be sure the baffle is installed high enough so that the critters can’t jump over for a mouthful of seed.

Highly recommended bird seeds

Many will have a different opinion on the best food, but here are a couple of suggestions to get you started:

• Use only good-quality bird food and avoid most table scraps, especially bread. Table scraps will often attract rodents too, so probably best to avoid. I will note here that during the recent cold snap my cousin set out table scraps in his front yard to feed any bird or animal that happened by. He was shocked to see a bald eagle fly down and clean up the entire scrap pile.

• Black oil sunflower seeds may be the best food for birds in any season. These seeds have slightly thinner shells and higher oil content than other types of sunflower seeds, making them more efficient and nutritious.

• Suet is another good choice to offer birds and is available in many blends. Offer small pieces in dishes or tray feeders to give smaller birds easier access.

• Peanuts are a high calorie, fat-rich nut that appeals to many backyard birds, including jays, titmice, nuthatches and chickadees. They are perfect for winter feeding because they don’t freeze, whether you offer whole or shelled peanuts. Peanuts, too, mix well in suet for winter feed. Do not give birds flavored peanuts or any peanuts with candy or chocolate coatings.

• Peanut butter is a great feeding option as well and can be smeared on bark or offered in small dishes or open trays. Both crunchy and smooth peanut butter are good for birds.

• Nyjer or thistle seed is a favorite food of winter finches such as pine siskins and common redpolls. This oily seed offers plenty of calories, helping birds store the fat they need to keep warm.

• Millet: White proso millet is a favorite food of many small ground-feeding birds, particularly dark-eyed juncos and other types of sparrows or doves. This starchy grain is inexpensive and can be easily offered in hopper, tube or platform feeders. Sprinkling it on the ground will attract even more small birds.

Kenneth Kieser, a veteran outdoors writer and member of the Waterfowlers Hall of Fame and National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame, writes a weekly outdoors column for The Examiner. Reach him at kieserkenneth@gmail.com.

Kenneth L. Kieser