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Setting a Table for the Birds

And keep it open all winter long

It’s a great time of year to take up or enhance the hobby of bird feeding, especially since we can watch outdoor birds from the cozy warmth of the great indoors with hot drinks, field guides and binoculars. It’s good for the birds, too. When ice and snow cover everything in sight, providing food, water and grit (bits of sand, stone, or shell that birds need for digestion), may mean survival for our backyard birds.
    How then to best serve the feathered ones? What kinds of foods and feeders? How to manage water? Who might show up?
    A hundred years ago, conservationists promoted simple ways of bird feeding to teach people about birds and the threats to bird life. Overhunting, collecting fads and the feather and caged-bird trades had all taken a toll. Songbirds finally gained protection under the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act (hawks, owls and eagles later).
    Here we are in the 21st century with local stores wholly dedicated to serving wild birds. Home and garden centers and even grocery stores offer foods, feeders and more. It has never been easier to put up a feeding station.

Feeding In Short
    Set out a variety of foods and feeders to attract a wide array of birds. Feeders keep foods high and dry. Basic types are tray or platform feeders, food-dispensing hoppers and tube feeders. Favorite commercial foods include corn, millet, Nyjer, peanuts, safflower, black-oil sunflower seeds and suet. Add nuts, fruit and mealworms to the menu, too. Fresh, clean water — and only plain water — is essential. Birds love heated birdbaths in winter. Provide shrubs, trees and brush piles for shelter. Practice good hygiene: Regularly clean feeders and feeding sites.
    Consider keeping up hummingbird feeders. Three years ago, a Parole couple fed a ruby-throated hummingbird until a few days after Thanksgiving. This year they had one into late October. Migrating hummers, including western species, can show up at our feeders in winter. It is not common, but it happens.

Matching Every Taste
    It often takes a while for birds to discover a new feeder or feeding site. Chickadees — perhaps the boldest of birds — are frequently the first to find my new feeders.
    Foods you offer won’t appeal to all birds. Like Thanksgiving diners, backyard birds have their favorites.
    Give ground-feeding guests what they prefer: white-proso millet. Ground-feeders include small- to medium-sized sparrows like white-throated sparrows and dark-eyed juncos as well as eastern towhees and mourning doves. In the wild, ground feeders go for tiny weed seeds and small fruits. For color, some birdseed mixes use red milo, a cereal grain tossed out by most birds but not ground-feeding mourning doves.
    Nearly everyone’s backyard favorite, the northern cardinal or red bird, is a fan of black-oil sunflower seed, or BOSS. This seed was little known until the 1980s, when Maryland-based U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientist Dr. Aelred Geiss showed that birds preferred it for its high oil and protein content and thin easy-to-open shell.
    Geiss also demonstrated that a tiny black high-oil seed known as Nyjer was a finch magnet. Thus began the era of targeted bird feeding with science to back it up.
    Black-oil sunflower seed also draws arboreal species like Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice and white-breasted nuthatches — often seen poking around trees for insects. Watch how these birds snatch a seed and fly away with it. They’re also attracted to suet, as are downy, hairy and red-bellied woodpeckers. Carolina wrens and many others go for BOSS and suet, too.
    In the wild, animal carcasses in woods can get covered in birds seeking high-energy fat in winter. Typically, we offer feeder birds beef kidney fat called suet. Commercial suet is purified and molded into shapes, either plain or with added ingredients. Hang suet feeders on trees or poles, high enough to attempt to thwart squirrels but in easy reach for restocking. Secure well so animals don’t run away with the goods.
    Expand your menu. Offer Nyjer to house finches and American goldfinches. Lure Carolina wrens with peanuts; for jays buy them in the shell. Cardinals eat safflower seeds, but squirrels don’t. Robins and other birds go for fruit like raisins in above-freezing temps. Live and dried mealworms, too, are a protein treat for many birds.
    Share your Thanksgiving side dishes with our backyard birds. Rinse, air-dry or lightly roast squash and pumpkin seeds. Save eggshells and bake them at 250 degrees for 20 minutes. Break into small pieces to give your birds a calcium boost and some grit. Got nuts? Not salted or sweetened? Serve on platform feeders for a special treat.

Feast Crashers
    Most uninvited guests don’t stay long, but they can be disruptive. Here’s my list: cats, rats, raccoons, opossum, deer, hawks, house sparrows, European starlings, huge waves of blackbirds and grackles. Oh, and squirrels.
    Cats are predators. Keep them indoors. If you attract rats, close your feeders until the rat problem is over. If you have raccoons, bring feeders inside every night. It is a bother but works; you won’t find filched feeders in the woods or a neighbor’s yard. For all the rest, briefly shut down feeders so the uninvited guest finds food elsewhere.
    Roomy brush piles made of shrub and tree cuttings give birds places to dive into and hide from predators.
    So that everyone wins at my feeders, I put ears of corn and sunflower seeds on the ground for the squirrels. Birds dine in peace at above-ground feeders — for a while. Some of the latest squirrel-proof feeder designs are changing the game.

Unexpected Guests
    Once I had a yellow-rumped warbler at my feeders for several winter months. While not a rare bird, it was exciting. A few years ago, I visited a local office park feeder hosting a ­Harris sparrow, a bird from the Midwest. That was a rare one.
    When researching the history of bird feeding, I learned that bird feeders a hundred years ago were often simple shelves called lunch counters affixed with small cut conifers tied up with suet. At Christmas, people added extra food to the little tree and called it the Birds’ Christmas Tree. Other foods were mostly leftovers like bread, doughnut and dog biscuit crumbs and seeds from hayloft and barnyard sweepings.
    Treat your backyard bird guests to 21st century feasts this holiday season. And give thanks to all who worked for bird-protection laws many years ago.

The Droll Yankee Breakthrough

In 1968, New England inventor and bird enthusiast Peter Kilham wondered what to do with a project’s leftover clear plastic tubing. It took him 15 minutes to ­figure it out: make a bird feeder. So was born the Droll Yankee A-6F, the first tube feeder upon which all others are modeled. Tube feeders are now standard equipment for backyard bird feeding.

Birding Resources

Maryland Ornithological Society:
Anne Arundel Bird Club:
Southern Maryland Audubon Society:
Cornell University’s Project FeederWatch:

About the Author
    Local writer and educator Margaret A. Barker coordinated the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Project FeederWatch. Her new book is Feeding Wild Birds in America: Culture, Commerce and Conservation with co-authors Paul J. Baicich and Carrol L. Henderson.
    She’s signing books in time for holiday giving.
• Friday, Nov. 27: 10am-1pm, Wild Bird Center of Annapolis.
• Thursday, December 10: 8:30-11pm during Midnight Madness, Annapolis Bookstore.