Garden Variety: Getting started feeding birds during cold months

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A blue tit and a great spotted woodpecker perch on a bird feeder.

Feeding birds is a fun way to benefit wildlife and attract these creatures to your yard for your viewing pleasure. Winter is an especially good time to get started by feeding the cardinals, chickadees, titmice, finches, juncos, woodpeckers and other species that are year-round or winter residents in Kansas.

Food type, feeder type, and placement of food and feeders are all important for success in feeding birds, but the options can be overwhelming. Also, many guides to feeding birds are defined by the species and fail to account for seasonality. Novices are unlikely to know what birds they want to feed and when to put out specific types of food for them.

Fortunately, birds are less picky than experts sometimes make them out to be, and a few simple tips can get you headed in the right direction. Here’s how to get started feeding birds in winter easily and effectively:

Start with black oil sunflower seeds as they appeal to a wide range of bird species. Black oil sunflower seeds have a solid black shell as opposed to striped-shell sunflower seeds that are preferable to humans. Black oil sunflower seeds have a higher fat content than striped sunflower seeds and are more attractive to most birds.

After you get more experience feeding birds, you may wish to venture into safflower seeds, niger thistle seeds, or seed mixes. The birds that feed on these will also feed on black oil sunflower seeds, but it add to the experience. Avoid inexpensive mixes that contain milo, wheat, and oats, as few birds like these grains and you will end up with a lot of waste.

For feeders, start with a tray feeder that sits on or just above the ground, or build something similar with a piece of plywood or other scraps. When there is snow cover, sunflower seeds can simply be tossed onto the ground. Juncos, chickadees, nuthatches, red-winged blackbirds, mourning doves, sparrows and other species will be most attracted to ground feeders. The only time when ground feeders should be avoided is if outdoor cats are present or prevalent, as it can make birds easy prey.

Next, try a tube feeder. There are several styles. For greatest durability, use one with metal parts over plastic. Use black oil sunflower seeds to fill it. This should attract cardinals, finches, titmice, nuthatches, chickadees and other species. Use a shepherd’s hook to hang the feeder, or hang it from a tree branch, post or other available structure. You may wish to hang two tube feeders at different heights to see the difference in birds that visit them.

Placement of tube feeders is important, especially starting out. Put the feeder(s) near a shrub or protected area, so birds are less vulnerable. You can move them to an area for better viewing once the birds have gotten used to the feeders and are using them. If placing near a window, put it within a few feet to keep birds from flying into the window at takeoff.

A squirrel baffle — a contraption that looks like a lampshade — can be placed on the upright portion of a post of shepherd’s hook to keep squirrels from climbing and robbing feeders. If feeders are hung in trees, opt for squirrel-proof models.

Next on the list to try are suet feeders. These are little cages that hold suet cakes, which you can purchase or make yourself. Suet feeders attract woodpeckers and northern flickers primarily, although nuthatches, chickadees and other species may feed on them also. Suet feeders may only be utilized in the coldest weather, especially when natural food sources are available. Place suet feeders at least five feet off the ground and near a tree for best results.

Feeding birds comes with a little bit of maintenance. Feeders should be cleaned periodically to avoid buildup of pathogens and disease. If only feeding in the winter, clean feeders when you take them down at the onset of spring. Wash with soap and water and allow to completely dry before storing. If feeding year-round, clean feeders about once every three months.

Seed waste should also be cleaned from the ground periodically. Seeds will mold and can contribute to the spread of disease.

— Jennifer Smith is a former horticulture extension agent for K-State Research and Extension and horticulturist for Lawrence Parks and Recreation.


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