Zero to Hero: Food

I wanted to make Wednesdays “Content Wednesday” on a consistent basis.  So many bloggers are doing the same thing in the birding/photography realm…..Wordless Wednesday.  It’s cute and all, but it gets hard for the everyday surfer to find anything fresh other than a new bird on a stick photo.  And, to me, that gets stale faster than Nyjer seed left in the rain.  So, here is my content post for Wednesday….on Thursday.

Zero to Hero:  Food

This installment of Zero to Hero will cover the first of the four basic backyard bird needs….food. Obviously, every bird needs to eat, but is it as simple as putting a bag of mixed seed in a feeder and hoping a Baltimore Oriole will show up? Not, if Orioles don’t eat seeds…..and, they don’t. They are fruit eaters.

What you will ulitimately feed your backyard buddies will depend on a couple of factors. First, just WHO are they? And, second, what is your budget? We will cover feeders in our next installment. For now, we stick to the food types and what these types attract.

Cheap mixes –  These mixes usually contain some good stuff, like sunflower seeds and/or fruit bits, but the majority of these bags are filled with milo and millet (the small round white and red seeds that resemble bb’s).  These fillers are very inexpensive and take up space from the premium feed, making them so inexpensive.  The cheap mixes have their pro’s and con’s.  These mixes are easiest on the wallet, they do attract birds, and they are carried anywhere that sells bird seed.  However, these mixes tend to attract less desirable birds like House Sparrows, Grackles, Starlings, and Pigeons.  They also appear to get wasted because the birds that don’t like the millet and milo in the mixes tend to kick those seeds to the ground while pecking and scratching for the sunflower seeds and fruit bits.  Because of this, you will go through bags of this seed fairly quickly, which may actually offset the cheaper cost in the long run.  Personally, I tend to enjoy controlling the menu a little better.  I am not saying I don’t offer the mixes, I am just more selective about where I offer them.  Which brings me to the specific types of seeds. 

Millet/Milo – These seeds are the bb sized red and white pellets in your store bought mixes.  However, saying they have zero value is a gross understatement.  If you read up on Millet, you will hear a lot about how the undesireable birds waste it.  And, to a certain degree, this is true.  Hell, I even mentioned it 30 seconds ago.  But, Millet is best served on the ground because that’s where the birds that eat it prefer to feed.  Birds that like Millet are:  doves, quail, pigeons, grackles, juncos, buntings, sparrows, even some finches and cardinals.  If you are after diversity, that’s pretty decent.  I wouldn’t recommend this seed if you have a blackbird, house sparrow, or pigeon problem, though.  You will see a lot of your native sparrows (White-throats, White-crowned, Chippings, Swamps, Songs, etc) eating Millet.  I would definitely add it to your arsenal on occasion, but monitor it closely for potential problem birds.  If you develop problematic birds coming in for Millet lunches, just take a break from the seed for awhile.
Sunflower- hearts, black oil, striped – Sunflower seeds are, by far, the most common at a feeder.  And, also probably the most popular.  You could get by on serving a menu exclusively of sunflower seeds.  However, I like a little more diversity.  I have seen well over 30 species of birds in my yard due to Black-oil Sunflower seeds for years.  There is a little to know about the differences in sunflower seeds.  Striped Sunflower has a thick hull which is a tough shell to crack for some birds.  Also, this thicker hull is slower to breakdown when it hits your grass and piles up.  Sunflower Hearts are the lazy bird’s choice because there is no effort required whatsoever…and no mess on the ground.  Just grab a seed and swallow.  However, Black-oil Sunflower is my favorite of the group.  It has a thinner hull than Striped seeds, almost every sunflower lover can crack it, and it actually has a slightly higher oil content than the others.  So, it’s actually a bit more efficient food for our birds.  It is absolutely the centerpiece of my feed, and currently resides in three of my five feeders.
Peanuts – Both shelled and unshelled peanuts are favorites of many birds.  Mockingbirds, woodpeckers along with chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, goldfinches, house finches, cardinals, grosbeaks, and jays all enjoy peanuts.  And, to be honest it is hilarious to watch a smaller bird like a titmouse horse away a whole in-shell peanut and take it to a tree where he plans to store it when, in reality, he just hand-delivered it to a squirrel.  I have watched this a number of times and it just makes me laugh.  Peanuts are a bit harder to find, but are definitely worth the effort.  I have seen a number of photos of birds taken so close with peanuts that when I asked the photographers, they admitted the birds are hand-trained to eat peanuts.  You want great photos?  Get your birds in close with peanuts, and your photo problem is almost completely solved.  You don’t even need a longer lens for this type of situation.

Safflower – This is a more expensive seed, but fits in great when you have an issue with grackles, starlings, and squirrels.  None of these are reported to like the taste of Safflower seeds.  And, supposedly, cardinals, finches, and doves like it better than sunflower.  I have tried Safflower before, and admit I had no issue with grackles.  But, I did find the doves almost attacking the feeder; trying whatever they could to sit on the feeder.  And, it seemed as though they got a little more aggressive around the other birds, too, but this is completely my impression and an unfounded opinion.  My House Sparrows ate it when I was told they wouldn’t.  And, I don’t have a squirrel issue because I “baffle” all of my feeders (more on baffles when we talk about feeders).  You will also be advised to mix Safflower in gradually because it’s kind of an “acquired taste” when birds are used to sunflower seeds.  I don’t buy that, either.  I switched to Safflower after letting the feeders run dry for a couple days, and the birds came right in again.  My main issue was the feeder I use doesn’t hold Safflower well.  A lot of the seeds fell out and onto the ground.  Not a big deal, but as mentioned, the seed was more expensive than sunflower, and I would rather feed the finches and songbirds instead of the doves. 
Nyjer vs Thistle – Here is a fun seed if you like American Goldfinches.  It’s expensive when compared to sunflower seeds, but well worth it.  5 lbs of this seed can last a long time, helping to offset the cost increase.  I vow to never have less than a Black-oil Sunflower feeder and a Nyjer feeder going at all times.  This seed, however, requires a special feeder.  It is a very tiny, black seed that readily falls out of any feeder not designed for it.    This is NOT our native thistle seed.  Nyjer seed is imported from Africa and India.  It produces a little, yellow flower when it germinates.  This is an invasive weed that should not be allowed to spread in your yard.  However, germination is extremely rare since the seeds are “sterilized” before entering the country….just something to be knowledgeable of.  If you are in the wintering grounds of Siskins, Redpolls, and Purple Finches, you will see them readily taking food from Nyjer feeders…..sometimes in some HUGE flocks.

Cracked Corn – Another interesting seed if you want Grackles, Starlings, and squirrels.  But, if you have pheasants or quail running around your area, it may be worth the gamble.  It is also on the cheaper side of the scale of bird seed.  Sparrows, Towhees, and Jays will also take to Cracked Corn.

Flowers that produce seed – You want the gift that keeps on giving?  Landscape your yard with Black-eyed Susans, Coneflower, Sunflowers, ornamental grasses, daisies, and about anything else that goes to seed.  Year after year, birds like finches, cardinals, chickadees, and sparrows will flock to these flowers after they bloom.  Goldfinches will hang upside down in the wind to take sunflower or coneflower seeds.  Just this year I went to a local park and voluntarily trimmed back their susans and echinacea.  Next year, or the next, I should have a bed or two of these seed producers.  They naturalize (spread) very well on their own, too.  I don’t think I need to talk budget here.  You just can’t beat FREE!
Nectar – Of course, you sense I am heading to the hummingbirds here.  Just about any red, purple, and pink flower will bring them in for a look.  And, if that flower is a bit tubular and produces nectar, you have another winner free of charge year after year.  Every year I see hummers going after my impatiens in the fall because of the color, but you just can’t beat a butterfly bush for annual, repeat visits.
Fruits –  House finches, orioles, cardinals, blue jays, chickadees, mockingbirds, robins, thrashers, and woodpeckers will all eat fruits.  Apple and orange halves will attract any and all of these birds in time.  Fruits can be expensive if you are only using them to feed the birds, but if something goes slightly spoiled, put it out and watch the birds come to dinner.  Don’t overlook grapes and bananas, too.  Before putting it in the trash, set it out for the birds.
Berry trees/shrubs – Another great way to attract diversity is to landscape with fruit-bearing trees and shrubs.  Any of the berry bushes, like raspberry or blueberry, will not only produce food for your cereal bowl, but also bring in all of the fruit lovers.  Again, if you are planning to use the fruits for you, the cost is essentially free to feed the wild birds in your backyard.  But, when in bloom, you had better get to gathering because you’re in a race against the birds to gather what you can.  While you are at work, the birds are dining on your bushes….lol.  However, you can also plant Dogwood trees, Crabapples, and/or Winterberries.  Sure, you won’t eat any of these, but your birds will love them.  And, you get flowers and shade for your landscape.
Bread crumbs – A lot of people toss these out for the birds.  However, I no longer would recommend feeding bread to the backyard buddies.  Not many of the seed and fruit eaters will come in for the bread.  That leaves the sparrows, starlings, and grackles….all birds you don’t want stopping by regularly.  These are aggressive birds that will overtake the nesting sites of the songbirds and other native species.  Eventually, you have a yard full of these as the others are driven to other places of residence.

This about wraps up the food section of Zero to Hero.  We may delve back into these from time to time, but rest assured you now have the basics.  Offer  these foods from time to time and get that camera ready because you will find all sorts of common and uncommon birds starting to come around more often.  Keep Chuggin’.


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