We feed birds because it brings us pleasure and helps create a bond with some of nature's most fascinating creatures.
Carrol and Ethelle Henderson have been feeding birds at their Blaine home for 45 years. This retired biologist who loves watching and photographing birds makes sure his bird feeders are visible from inside windows.
"Feeding the birds is a very comforting and rewarding experience," he says. "It allows us to observe bird behaviors and their activities up close. It's something families can share and enjoy year-round.
"Even if you can't get outside for a hike, you can watch birds coming and going at your feeders. And if you're interested in photography, keep your camera handy — you never know what might show up."
Truth to tell, we feed birds more for our own enjoyment, to bring birds in close, because birds are seldom reliant on feeders. Instead, they continue to find most of their calories out in the natural world.
"There's a lot of variation in bird seed, and it's best to offer quality food in our feeders. The 'junk foods' like red millet and cracked corn found in cheap mixes will bring in house sparrows and other birds that will chase away the songbirds you want to attract," Henderson added.
Feeding birds: Getting started
Many customers of the Cardinal Corner stores in Newport and West St. Paul that Pam Kaufenberg and her sister have run for 35 years come in with questions about getting started in feeding backyard birds.
"I tell them to first get something that will feed many different kinds of birds, either a tray or a hopper feeder, since these have room for more than a few birds at a time. And then they'll want a seed that appeals to a wide variety of birds, so we usually recommend golden safflower.
"All birds — except maybe blue jays — enjoy golden safflower, and squirrels don't seem to like it, a good thing."
She suggests that customers gradually work up to having three or more feeders in close proximity, because this attracts more birds. These might include a hopper feeder, a suet feeder and either peanuts for blue jays or nyger for finches. A source for water is also important to attracting birds.
"You can beat the squirrels by placing feeders on poles at least 10 feet from any structures or trees they could jump from, then by adding a squirrel baffle to feeders hanging from branches or on a feeder pole.
"It's really very easy to feed birds and it's a pleasure, like giving yourself a gift every day."
Getting started: A second view
At Wild Birds Unlimited, the wild bird store on Ford Parkway in St. Paul, Tom Trapp starts new customers out by recommending black oil sunflower seeds, noting that this is the most popular with the most species of birds. Another choice could be a good seed blend or a blend of seeds and fruits.
"The way we look at it, having more kinds of seed is analogous to having a summer barbecue party — the more foods you offer your guests, the happier they are," he notes.
What kind of feeders? He recommends starting with either a hanging feeder tray, a hanging hopper feeder or a hanging tube, after considering the pros and cons of each. Once familiar with this setup, next steps might be offering nyger seed for finches, and/or suet and/or peanuts in the shell — these last two appeal to many winter birds. Other options are peanut pieces and freeze-dried mealworms.
"And maybe the best tip for winter birds, beyond the food, is to provide open water, either via a heated birdbath or a heating element in an existing birdbath," Trapp says. "This allows birds to drink without having to melt snow in their mouths," which uses up calories they need for basic survival.
Across the calendar
Laura Erickson, well-known author and birder, feeds birds in Duluth in every season. Here are highlights from her feeding regime:
"In winter, I offer seed (mostly sunflower and nyger), suet and peanut butter. In March, as migratory sparrows arrive, I'll scatter white millet on the ground, never more than they'll eat in a day, to avoid rodents and spoilage.
"In early May I put out sugar water, orange pieces and grape jelly for orioles, and keep them out as long as orioles, catbirds and/or thrashers are visiting. I take in the jelly if ants or bees become a problem or if birds are bringing their chicks to the feeders — young birds need protein, not carbs. Early May is also when I set out the hummingbird feeders.
"Since bears can be an issue [in Duluth], I stop offering sunflower seeds after spring migrants have passed through, then offer them again in the fall, but I have to take feeders in at night until winter."
Erickson offers millet again in the fall for migratory sparrows, and keeps the hummingbird feeders up until late in the year. Suet feeders go back up in the autumn and she maintains a tray seed feeder at her second-floor office window year-round, sometimes adding mealworms to the mix.
End window kills
The Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Roseville sees the damage caused when birds run into windows, something that happens all too often around our homes. Even if a bird seems to recover, it often will fly off to die out of sight, due to a concussion or internal damage.
We need to try to prevent such collisions. The center recommends UV-reflective decals (WindowAlert is a good brand) to make problem windows visible to birds. Feeder placement is important. Remember the "3 or 30" rule: Place feeders 30 feet or more away from windows, or closer than 3 feet, to either give birds time to veer from windows or not pick up enough speed to harm themselves.
Even with precautions like these, birds might still run into your windows, especially if rushing to escape a predator, says Tami Vogel, communications and development director for the center.
If you find a bird lying on the ground or deck after running into glass, it needs medical attention.
"We recommend bringing all injured birds to a licensed rehabilitator," Vogel says. This includes the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center; for those outside the metro area, call the center (651-486-9453) and someone will call back soon with contact information.
Bottom line: Smashing into windows kills hundreds of millions of birds every year, and those of us who feed birds should do everything we can to prevent such strikes, and to get care for any birds that do hit windows.
Keep it clean
It's important to keep your feeders clean and the food inside them free of mold. In wet weather, molds and bacteria easily form on birdseed in feeders or on the ground beneath them, and these can be fatal to birds.
After rainfall or snowstorms, check the seed in your feeders to make sure it's not clumping.
If it is, it's wet, and should be tossed in the trash. Then feeders need to be dried and refilled with new seed.
Birds drop a great deal of seed and hulls on the ground under feeders, and this needs to be raked up or swept up regularly. Again, toss this debris in the trash.
Here are some more tips:
Clean feeders using a solution of one part chlorine bleach to nine parts water, scrubbing out any corners and crannies. Be sure to rinse well.
Then dry feeders thoroughly — out in the sunlight is best, to kill bacteria.
Use feeders that have domes or roofs to help keep seed dry.
Clean hummingbird feeders at least weekly before filling with fresh nectar.
Clean out birdbaths daily, and even more often during nesting season (a single bathing robin can turn the water muddy).
St. Paul resident Val Cunningham, who volunteers with the St. Paul Audubon Society and writes about nature for local, regional and national newspapers and magazines, can be reached at email@example.com.