The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates more than 50 million people in North America feed birds. If you are one of them, you know the rewards. It’s fun!
Many Fairfax County residents enjoy luring the color, song and antics of year-round and migrating high-flying inhabitants of the bird world, and a backyard bird feeder is a prime way to do that. Some folks provide seed only during winter with the hope of sustaining resident species, and others opt to feed all year.
By feeding through spring and summer, homeowners witness the joys and tribulations of avian child-rearing. Human parents watch their feathered counterparts fret over when junior will take that first successful flight. In fact, the human interest factor is likely the major benefit of backyard bird feeding.
By enticing certain species to their yards, county residents develop an understanding of and appreciation for local birds. A simple scattering of mixed birdseed will attract several species that enjoy feeding on the ground. Families can easily distinguish among the redbirds, doves and the little brown sparrows that descend. Interest grows, and someone makes an effort to learn the names of those Northern cardinals, mourning doves, English sparrows and Carolina wrens.
There are several types of feeders, and they attract different species. Platform feeders encourage mourning doves and blue jays. Keeping the seed off the ground discourages rodents from visiting, but squirrels have a grand time enjoying their fill. Tube feeders have openings that attract perching birds from cardinals to sparrows. The finch feeders with tiny openings accommodate only smaller-billed birds, including house finches and the beautiful goldfinches.
The secret to attracting the birds you want to your yard while discouraging others such as crows or starlings is to provide the preferred seed. Insect eaters gravitate toward protein substitutes such as black oil sunflower seed and suet (beef fat). Suet, available at the meat counter at grocery stores, is less attractive to crows and squirrels when it has no added seed. Cardinals dote on safflower seed, and finches flock to niger-thistle seed in tube feeders.
Homeowners’ number-one complaint about feeding birds is the abundance of squirrels and other rodents attracted by the seeds. Squirrels typically find safflower seed distasteful and may opt to dine elsewhere if they find it mixed with the tempting sunflower seeds. Another option is setting up a separate feeding station of corn and peanuts. Specialty wildlife stores sell squirrel-proof feeders that boast a trap door that shuts out heavier animals, such as crows and squirrels. Sometimes they even work – until the squirrels figure out how to beat the system. Watching squirrels during their trial-and-error can be part of the fun.
A metal case with a locked lid will provide more hours of viewing pleasure than a mesh onion bag. A secured cage on a stable surface will draw the attention of red-bellied, downy, hairy and possibly even pileated woodpeckers plus skittish Carolina chickadees and white-breasted nuthatches. Exclusion feeders or baffles, metal cones over the tops of tube feeders, can help. Squirrels and raccoons will make a quick getaway with anything not firmly attached to a tree or post.
Our videos, Night Thief and Pole Climber, will give you an idea of the skill and determination critters have to get your bird seed.
A quick trip to your local nature center, library or wildlife supply store can provide guidelines for the heights of feeders and distance recommended from trees. To minimize visits from rats and mice, put out only the amount of seed eaten in a day. Spilled seed on the ground not only attracts rodents but can be a health hazard to birds if it molds. Sunflower seed hulls contain a toxin that prevents some plants from sprouting or developing deep roots. You could buy more expensive shelled seed, use a seed tray under the feeder, experiment with plants such as daylilies, tickseed or coneflower under the feeder, rake or vacuum the seed hulls, build a bird feeder patio, or just have a bare spot.
Assuring the health of your feathered guests requires regular maintenance. A commonly overlooked component of backyard feeding is a clean, pure water source. Bird mites and other microscopic critters living on birds and dust contaminate water so, if you supply water, clean the bowl frequently to avoid picking up salmonella and other nasty bacteria on your hands. Wash the container and your hands well away from any food preparation or bathroom areas. Throw away seed stored in trashcans from the previous season. Tainted seed can cause illness in your backyard diners. Fresh birdseed is less likely to mold.
Do birdfeeders help or hurt wildlife? Studies show they are merely supplemental food sources. Cornell University has done extensive research in the area, including a 30-year study of backyard birds that has taken advantage of all those bird feeders out there.
Through feeding backyard birds, you bring nature up close to observe the fascinating nuances of our indigenous bird life. You may discover how to differentiate a male from a female woodpecker by noting the amount of red on the head. You might delight in seeing the gradual change of the drab olive goldfinches during non-breeding times to the spectacular bright yellow breeding colors of approaching spring. You may even glimpse a male cardinal’s courtship of feeding his ladylove a seed right at your back window. While you enjoy the natural history lesson, the birds are benefiting from a boost in their diet. With proper care, backyard bird feeding can be a win-win situation, and that is something to crow about.
Author and Naturalist Suzanne Holland is the Visitor Services Manager at Hidden Oaks Nature Center in Annandale, Va.