Christmas Dinner for the Birds

white-breasted-nuthatch_lavetaco_20100320_lah_0134As we gather to give gifts to one another, it’s only natural for birders to offer special treats for the birds. There are lots of options.

The best all-around feeder-filler is black oil sunflower seed. It’s high in energy and easy for small beaks to crack open. It’s enthusiastically consumed by chickadees, finches, nuthatches (such as this White-breasted Nuthatch at right), jays, grosbeaks, blackbirds, and many more species. Plus, these seeds are readily available at a reasonable price.

pine-siskin_blkforest_20100424_lah_3335More expensive, but especially attractive to Pine Siskins, is Nyjer seed. These tiny black seeds (also called thistle) are imported from Africa. You’ll need a special feeder with smaller holes, or a fabric “sock” sold for the purpose. One advantage is that the seed is treated to prevent sprouting—you’ll have no Nyjer weeds to pull in the spring.

If you want to indulge your winter birds, put out a block of suet. This high-energy food attracts many birds that normally eat insects. You can buy a pre-formed cake for $1 to $2, or stock up at the butcher counter. Suet is simply beef kidney fat—you can often get it cheaply or even free for the asking. (Here in Colorado, hunters use the same fat to make sausage from venison and elk meat, so the demand is higher than the supply.)

stellers-jay_blkforest_20100424_lah_3670Both you and the birds can have a lot of fun with peanuts. Lately, I’ve been feeding the Steller’s Jays in my yard at the same time every morning. They’ve come to expect my handouts, and will even come and tap on the kitchen window if I’m not prompt enough for their liking. I love to line up the peanuts on our balcony railing. One jay in particular will come along and heft every nut, carefully replacing the rejects on the narrow wooden edge before flying off with the biggest prize.

This is the time for some other foods that might be too expensive to offer year-round. Raisins (soaked to soften them), grapes, and other pieces of fruit can please birds that normally dine on berries, but it might take some time for these new foods to be accepted.

If you really want to splurge, and the weather isn’t too cold, pick up a container of meal worms at the local pet store. I’ve had trouble in the summer with these beetle larvae broiling in the hot sun; I’m sure they don’t survive freezing either. Pick a warm day and make sure they’re either eaten or rescued by sundown. Remember these are live “worms” with a tendency to crawl away. A smooth, steep-sided dish (such as a shallow plastic deli container) will keep them on the platform feeder.

To decorate your yard and feed the birds at the same time, try stringing popcorn. Forego the butter and salt, and expect squirrels to take more than their share. Another option is to roll a pinecone in peanut butter (or lard) to make it sticky, and then roll it in birdseed. Sunflower seeds are appreciated, but safflower makes a prettier pinecone.

muffin_nih_notOne thing you should not feed the birds is bread. Sugary pastries (such as stale donuts) and white bread are as bad for the birds as they are for people. Birds that fill up on the empty calories in such offerings will turn up their beaks at more nutritious foods. A healthy diet is critical at this time of year, when birds need all their strength to survive harsh winter weather.

Not only are they lacking in nutrition, but breads get moldy easily, especially in the damp outdoors. That mold can be fatal to the very birds we’re trying to help.

So, save the Christmas baking for the people, and stick to “heath foods” for the birds. They’ll reciprocate by providing us with the pleasure of their presence.

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