Peggie "BirdGal" Flierl (Wild About Birds owner) provides answers for questions frequently asked by her customers:
• Bird Seed Facts
• Helpful Hummer Hints
• Our Favorite Myths
• The Truth about Thistle Seed
• Feeder Pest FAQs
• Miscellaneous FAQs
• Habitat Tips
BIRD SEED FACTS
Black Oil Sunflower seed is the most popular seed in the feeder! It is preferred by over 50 species of wild birds. You have probably noticed your backyard birds picking the sunflower seed out of the feeder and scratching the rest of the seed on to the ground. Black oil has a very thin shell making it easy for even the smallest birds to crack open and it has great nutritional value due to its high oil content.
Backyard Bird Mix is blended exclusively for Wild About Birds. It contains black oil and striped sunflower seed, sunflower chips, peanut hearts, and white millet – absolutely no filler! If you have ever purchased a mixed bird seed at a grocery store or super store, you probably noticed that your backyard birds picked the few sunflower seeds out of the mix but did not eat the rest. Most inexpensive seed mixes contain filler seed (milo, cracked wheat, canary seed, flax, etc.) which reduces the price of the seed but is not liked by wild birds and rarely eaten. Fill your feeder with Backyard Bird Mix and you’ll notice the feeder birds (cardinals, chickadees, titmice, etc.) picking out the sunflower, safflower and peanut hearts. They will scratch the millet on to the ground but Millet is not a filler seed and will be eaten by ground feeders like doves, sparrows, and towhees.
Nyjer (Thistle) Seed is another black, oil seed but much smaller than sunflower. It is imported from several different African countries and India. It is sterilized upon entry to our country and although it may sprout under your feeder, it will not grow. It is not related to our roadside thistle. It is the seed preferred by gold finches. House finches, pine sisken, and purple finches will also eat nyjer seed from a special finch feeder with tiny holes. Read more about thistle seed below.
Safflower Seed is a white, oil seed similar in size to black oil sunflower. Cardinals and titmice are easily attracted to safflower seed. Most people buy safflower to discourage black birds who will not eat it. Because it has a bitter taste, most squirrels do not like safflower, either. We mix safflower and black oil sunflower together and add a bit of striped sunflower seed to create our Cardinal Mix.
Sunflower Chips are hulled striped sunflower seeds. Chips are great to use in a window feeder because there are no shells to make a mess on your sill. You can mix them (fine chips) with nyjer seed and feed them out of a finch feeder. They also make a good Shell Free Mix when blended with peanuts, and hulled white millet.
Peanuts whole in the shell or split out of the shell are favorites of woodpeckers, blue jays, and titmice.
Corn can be fed to the wild birds and other critters either on the cob, whole (off the cob) or cracked. Corn should be offered on or near the ground.
HELPFUL HUMMER HINTS
Mix 4 parts water with 1 part table sugar (example:1 cup water, ¼ cup sugar). Boil the water to retard fermentation and please do not add food coloring! The red color of the feeder will attract the hummers and the food dye may be harmful. Store extra nectar in your refrigerator. Change the nectar every few days. It will ferment quickly in warm weather.
When to Put Up the Hummingbird Feeders
Ruby-throated hummingbirds, the only species found east of the Mississippi, usually return to the Cincinnati Tri-State area in late April/early May. I always hang my hummingbird feeders out on April 15th. While you’re at it, put out orange halves at the same time to attract orioles!
Where to Place the Feeders
In the beginning you should place your feeder where the hummers can see it from the air. They are attracted to the color red so, if necessary to make your feeder more visible, add red ribbons or material that will be easily seen. Once the hummingbirds have found your feeder, then move it to a location suitable for optimal viewing by you and your family.
Keeping Ants & Bees Away from the Feeders
Ant traps (moats) are available and are very effective at keeping ants from crawling into feeders. Bees are another problem! I have had success keeping bees away from my feeders by applying Avon Skin-So-Soft to the pole and areas of the feeder not near the feeding ports. Feeders with bee guards are available and keep the bees from getting IN the feeder but won’t keep them from getting ON the feeder. They are, of course, attracted to the sweetness of the nectar.
Why Do Hummers Fight?
Hummingbirds are very territorial. Often you’ll see a male hummer sitting on a branch keeping guard over one feeder. As other birds approach the feeder he “buzzes” them off. One solution is to hang up more than one feeder in different areas of your yard.
When to Take the Feeders Down
We are asked about this often in early fall. The simple response is that you don’t take it down until the hummingbirds have all migrated!
Many of you have been told in the past that if you don’t take the feeder down, the hummingbirds won’t leave. Believe me, that is an old wives’ tale! Hummingbirds, like all migratory birds, instinctively know when to return to their wintering grounds. No amount of hummingbird feeders is going to prevent their migration. Now, there have been documented cases where a hummingbird will get stranded. I read one account about a ruby-throat that was harbored in a lady’s sunroom all winter after getting “lost” during its migratory trip south. But these are rare occurrences indeed!
Your feeders are stop-over spots for the birds migrating from further north. During migration, hummingbirds are building up fat reserves to help them make that last push across the Gulf of Mexico. It’s about a 500-600 mile flight and the little guys do it non-stop; it takes them about 20 hours!
My suggestion is that you leave your hummer feeders up until 1-2 weeks have gone by during which time you have seen no hummingbirds. This could be as late as mid-October here in the Cincinnati Tri-State area; it would not hurt to leave the feeder out until October 31st. This will ensure that all the ruby-throats migrating from North America have the energy required to get to their wintering grounds in Mexico and Central America. We want them healthy so they can turn around and return to our feeders next Spring!
OUR FAVORITE MYTHS
MYTH: Hummingbirds migrate on the backs of geese.
This is either just an old wives’ tale or a Native American myth, but it isn’t true. Hummers are excellent flyers. They can easily handle the 500-mile non-stop flight across the Gulf of Mexico.
MYTH: Hummingbirds will not migrate if I don’t take the feeder down.
Again, this is not true. Migration is an instinct triggered by length of day. All migrating birds leave when their “internal clocks” tell them to whether you have feeders out or not. By the way, you should leave your hummingbird feeders up until a week goes by without seeing hummers. This will ensure a constant supply of nectar to help the migrants keep their fat reserves up as they pass through your area from further up north.
MYTH: Birds become dependent on feeders and will starve if I stop feeding them.
Studies have been conducted that indicate that birdfeeder availability during the winter in the colder, northern states probably improves the survival rate of chickadees, but overall, birdfeeding does not affect birds’ survivability. Because birds have wings, they instinctively forage for food visiting many locations during the day searching for different sources. Birds never become dependent on one source and most studies have shown that birds with easy access to feeders only use them for 20% of their daily rations. If your feeders are empty or you stop feeding, they will seek out other sources. Birds are creatures of habit and remember where they have found food in the past. But because they are creatures of habit, when you start feeding again, it may be awhile before the birds include your yard on their foraging route.
MYTH: In the winter, birds’ feet will stick to metal perches.
Birds do not have sweat glands, so their dry feet will not freeze to metal perches in the winter. I have, however, heard reports (2 in 6+ years) from customers who have birdbaths near feeding stations and they observed birds sticking to metal poles where they had landed to dry off after bathing on sub-zero temperature days.
MYTH: If I find a baby bird, I should not try to return it to its nest because if I touch it my scent will cause the parents to abandon it.
Birds have a very poorly developed sense of smell and their instincts to care for their babies is very powerful. Your scent on the babies or nest will not drive the parents away. Read more below.
MYTH: Don’t feed peanut butter to the birds. They will choke on it and die.
This probably is not true but I have read at least one report that claimed straight peanut butter could harm birds. I do not feed peanut butter to the birds without mixing it with corn meal to make it less sticky so that there is no chance of a bird choking. For a very special treat loved by all the birds try the following peanut butter recipe!
1 cup peanut butter 1 cup flour
1 cup shortening 4 cups corn meal
Mix ingredients by hand until consistency of cookie dough. Add more corn meal if too sticky/soft. Add more peanut butter and/or shortening if to dry and crumbly.
THE TRUTH ABOUT THISTLE SEED (It's Not!)
Did you know that the seed sold to feed goldfinches isn’t (and never has been!) thistle seed? It is nyjer seed. The label often given to this small black seed — thistle — is not only confusing, it’s incorrect. The nyger plant, with its yellow flower, is not related to the purple-flowered thistle, the large, hardy weed quite unloved by farmers and gardeners alike.
Nyger plants have been grown in Ethiopia, Myanmar and India for centuries, where probably three-fourths of the crop is crushed and used as edible oil. The name may have come from the river Niger that flows for some 2600 miles through the northern parts of the continent. Recently the name “nyjer” has been trademarked and should be used to identify seed sold to feed goldfinches.
Nyjer has had its problems through the years in ways other than what it is called. By 1985, the majority of nyjer seed imports arriving on the east coast were found to contain “dodder.” To devitalize this noxious weed, steam treating for 15 minutes at 212°F was made a mandatory “condition of entry.” Nearly 10 years later, importation came to a dead halt when nine noxious weeds and eight disease-associated weeds were identified. To devitalize any weed seed that might be present, the steam-treating temperature was raised to 250°F.
With a new name and undesirable weeds no longer a problem, nyjer seed continues to be the preferred food of a backyard favorite—the American goldfinch.
FEEDER PEST FAQs
Dear BirdGal, What can I do to get rid of the grackles and blackbirds that raid my feeders? Ann
Dear Ann, Change the seed you are using! Grackles and blackbirds will not eat safflower. Safflower is a small white seed similar in appearance, but smaller than, black oil sunflower seed. Like sunflower seed, safflower is an oil seed. Cardinals, titmice and other songbirds love safflower! Also, most squirrels do not like safflower because of its bitter taste. BG
Dear BirdGal, What are those moths in my birdseed and how can I get rid of them? Grossed Out in Milford
Dear Grossed Out, Birdseed isn’t processed like human food and isn’t subject to the same guidelines. The seeds are harvested, lightly cleaned of debris and then packaged. Insects have laid eggs in/on the seeds in the field and some of those eggs end up in the bags. When the weather warms up in the summer those eggs are going to hatch. The biggest problem of all is the meal moth. It starts out “webby” and worm-like (larvae) then morphs into the moth. If the moths get into your house they will make a bee-line for your pantry and invade all your grain based dry products, lay eggs and start the cycle all over. So, during warmer months, buy smaller amounts of seed more frequently and store seed in a container with a tight fitting lid in the garage or in a shed. BG
How to Deal with Birdfeeder Pests
There are several birds and mammals that most backyard naturalists consider pests around the birdfeeding station. Most nuisance critters – squirrels, raccoons, possum, deer, starlings, blackbirds, grackles, house sparrows – can be controlled by restricting access to feeders or changing to a different seed.
Feeder Access Restriction
You can prevent mammals from raiding your bird feeder if you locate it properly. Pole mounted or pole hung feeders should be placed at least 10’ away from a “launching pad” because squirrels can jump about 810’ horizontally. Then, in order to prevent mammals from climbing the pole, you must fit it with a baffle. There are can-shaped baffles, conical-shaped baffles and flat circular baffles. In my opinion the can-shaped baffles are the most effective. Baffles should be placed at least 5’ off the ground to prevent squirrels from jumping over them and accessing the feeders. There are oversized baffles to prevent raccoons from climbing feeder poles, too. If you insist on putting your feeder in a tree, the only way a hanging-feeder baffle will be effective is if it is large enough to cover the whole feeder and the feeder is hung at least 8-10’ from the tree trunk or other “launching pad”.
Controlling Pests with Bird Seed
Grackles and blackbirds are such voracious eaters and arrive in such numbers that they can empty your sunflower seed feeder in one afternoon! The good news is that neither bird likes safflower seed. Safflower is a white oil seed similar in size and shape to black oil sunflower seeds (refer to “Seed Preference ChitChat“). To rid your backyard of these pesky birds, replace your sunflower seeds with safflower seeds in your feeders until late fall when most blackbirds and grackles move further south for the winter. A side benefit of using safflower seed is that most squirrels do not like the bitter taste and they, too, will stay away from the feeder!
If starlings and house sparrows are the problem, it is probably because you are using a mixed seed. Both these birds prefer the millet found in most mixes. You can eliminate starlings and house sparrows by switching to either black oil sunflower or safflower seed. If starlings are a problem on your suet feeder, purchase an “upside down” suet feeder. Woodpeckers and other desirable birds have no problem feeding upside down, but starling can not hang on very long in that position, so become less of a nuisance.
There are several different feeders on the market now that are designed to eliminate nuisance mammals and birds. Some feeders have cages around them to allow only smaller birds access to the seed inside. Some feeders close when the weight of a squirrel lands on the perches. There are also feeders with domes that can be lowered so the larger birds and squirrels can not get inside.
If you are having trouble with pesky creatures in your backyard, talk to the “backyard birdfeeding experts” at Wild About Birds. We’ve got baffles, critter proof feeders and specialty seeds that can help you eliminate unwanted birds and mammals from your birdfeeding station.
Dear BirdGal, What do I do if I find a baby bird in my yard? Rick
Dear Rick, If the baby is a nestling, make every attempt to put it back in the nest. Don't worry, your scent will not cause the parents to abandon the nest or the babies - that's an old wives' tale! If the baby is a fledgling, leave it alone. The parents are probably nearby watching their baby as it learns to fly. If, in either situation, you must take the baby in, place it in a shoe box lined with soft tissue paper and keep it warm. Do not try to feed it! Cincinnati area residents call Second Chance Wildlife (875-3433) for further instructions. Others, call your local State Wildlife officials for more information. Check out this website for additional information http://www.ornithology.com/rehab.html. BG
Dear BirdGal, I bought a new birdfeeder recently but the birds haven't gone near it. What's wrong? Alice
Dear Alice, You first must make sure the birds can see the new feeder as they fly through your yard. Birds do not have a highly developed sense of smell so they locate food by sight. After they have located the feeder and are actively using it, you can move it to an area better for your viewing and they will find it. It might help to sprinkle a little birdseed on top of, underneath and around your new feeder to help the birds locate it. If the new feeder is an addition to a well-established birdfeeding station, you may have to take the old feeder(s) down for a few days to "force" the birds to use the new one. Once they have accepted the new feeder you can put the others back in place. BG
Dear BirdGal, Should I take down all my nesting boxes? P. from Terrace Park
Dear P., No! In the fall, after the nesting season is over, you should remove any old nests you find in your bird houses and sweep out the inside of the box. Then line the bottom of the box with 3-4 inches of dry grass. This will insulate the box for any birds that might use it for roosting on cold winter nights. BG
Dear BirdGal, Is it important to provide water for the birds in winter? Alice in Milford
Dear Alice, Yes, and you should purchase a heated birdbath or place a de-icer in your existing birdbath because unfrozen water can be hard for birds to find in winter. Birds need water to drink and to keep their feathers clean to provide insulation in cold weather. You may also notice that in the winter, your heated birdbath may attract unusual species – those that don’t usually visit your birdfeeding station! BG
Dear BirdGal, Is there something special I can put out to attract insect eaters to my feeders in winter? Michelle
Dear Michelle, Sure, you can attract insect-eating birds like chickadees, nuthatches, titmice and woodpeckers to your feeding station with suet and/or peanuts, both good sources of protein. Suet is simply the fat removed from processed beef. Unrendered suet can be obtained from your butcher, but it must be handled properly or it can become rancid. Commercial suet cakes have been rendered and mixed with various seeds and require no special handling. Either type of suet can be offered in wire baskets or mesh bags. Peanuts or woodpecker nut-mixes can be added to your current birdfeeder or placed in a peanut feeder (wire mesh feeder). You can also try the following recipe to attract insect-loving birds! BG
1 cup peanut butter
1 cup shortening
1 cup flour
4 cups corn meal
Mix ingredients by hand until consistency of cookie dough. Add more corn meal if too sticky/soft. Add more peanut butter and/or shortening if too dry and crumbly. Stuff treat in suet logs or place in small containers (margarine tubs, tuna cans, etc.). Peanut treat can be made in large batches and frozen for use throughout the winter months.
Dear BirdGal, I saw the strangest new bird in my yard late this summer. It looked like a cardinal but it had a black head. What kind of bird was it? Perplexed
Dear Perplexed, I hear about bald cardinals (the head looks black because the skin shows) every year at this time. The head is the one area of the bird’s body it can not reach for preening and removal of parasites. Feathers destroyed by mites will fall out leaving the bird temporarily “bald”; the feathers will grow back during the birds normal molt (see molting article in this issue of BirdChat). BG
Hi BirdGal, I saw the oddest thing the other day in my backyard – I witnessed a female cardinal feeding a baby bird that definitely WAS NOT a cardinal. Wassup with that? Confused in Milford
Dear Confused, you saw exactly what you say you saw! My guess is that you observed a cardinal feeding a cowbird, convinced it was her baby. Cowbirds are parasitic brooders. Female cowbirds lay their eggs in the nests of other species. When the baby cowbird hatches, the host parents raise it as if it were their own. I have witnessed this phenomenon many times in my own backyard. BG
Hey BirdGal, Will the birds become dependent on me if I start feeding them this fall? What if I go away for a few weeks during the winter, will they starve? Just Curious
Dear Curious, Studies have been conducted indicating that birdfeeder availability during the winter in the colder, northern states probably improves the survival rate of chickadees, but overall, birdfeeding does not affect birds’ survivability. Because birds have wings, they instinctively forage for food visiting many locations during the day searching for different sources. Birds never become dependent on one source and most studies have shown that birds with easy access to feeders only use them for 20% of their daily rations. If your feeders are empty or you stop feeding, they will seek out other sources. Birds are creatures of habit and remember where they have found food in the past. BG
See our Habitat Tips page.