Friday, March 14, 2008

Watching and Feeding Wild Birds

Photo of Pine Siskin by David Powell. Niger seed is a favorite of this small finch.

The stereotypical birder, or birdwatcher, is an elderly, eccentric woman dressed in very odd attire. However, recent birdwatching demographics belie this myth. Today’s birder may easily be a teenager, middle-aged, or senior, male or female, rich or poor. There is no question that birding is big business worldwide, with an estimated 46 million bird watchers in the United States. Of this total, 88% consider themselves backyard birders. In New Mexico, 28% of the state’s residents participated in bird related activities in a study conducted in 2001. How does that add up economically? In 2001 (the last year for which figures are available), birding generated $32 billion in retail sales, $85 billion in overall economic output, $13 billion in state and federal income taxes, and 863,406 jobs were created!

To some, the thrill is traveling to special locations in search of unusual birds. To others, gaining insight into bird behavior is most gratifying. But, to the vast majority of bird lovers, the greatest pleasure is derived from attracting birds to their back yards. Some birds are naturally bolder, and easy to attract, like the ever-present Steller’s Jay and their smaller cousin, the Western scrub-jay. These colorful birds can become regular visitors to your back yard through frequent feedings of raw peanuts, still in the shell, one of their favorites. They also like whole and cracked corn, and will eat black oil sunflower when all the other, more desirable seeds are gone.

Black oil sunflower is without doubt, the all-around favorite for many birds. It has a high meat-to-shell ratio and a high fat content. It is small, and thin shelled, so even small birds can easily crack and eat. This type of seed can be offered in a platform type of feeder, or simply spread along a deck rail. Striped sunflower seeds are larger, and have thicker seed coats. If you are using bird feeders made from hardware cloth, striped sunflower will clog the openings.

Many ground feeding birds, such as mourning dove and dark-eyed junco prefer white millet or red milo. Beware of commercial seed mixes. Often, these are a blend of sunflower, plus a high proportion of less desirable filler seeds. Birds pick through the mix, feasting on the prized sunflower, and leaving the rest. You can make your own birdseed mix to suit the birds in your back yard. Combine 25 pounds of black oil sunflower, 10 lbs. of white proso millet, and 10 lbs. of cracked corn.

Smaller birds, like the pine siskin and lesser goldfinch simply adore niger, or thistle seed. This can be offered in a hanging, tube-type feeder or a cheesecloth bag which holds the seed but is loosely woven to allow the bird to pull the seeds from the bag. These types of feeders permit the smaller birds to avoid competition with jays, black-headed grosbeaks, and woodpeckers which take over platform feeders.

Some people feed only during the winter, which attracts good numbers of birds, and also helps birds survive the rigors of cold, icy, and snowy weather. However, year-round feeding bolsters the wild bird population and provides hours of entertainment to the watcher. Because naturally produced seeds are uncommon in the spring and summer, mixed flocks of birds visit feeders filled with oil-type sunflower seeds in the growing season. Chickadees, jays, nuthatches, and mourning doves will visit daily. Young birds, often with clumps of down still attached, follow their parents, begging. Seeing an adult black-headed grosbeak stuffing food into the incessantly begging, flapping youngster is a thrill to new or experienced birdwatcher alike.

Your neighborhood birds are not completely dependent on you for a food source. They visit several feeding sites daily and waste little time at an empty feeder. Occasional periods of emptiness are unlikely to result in starvation.

Just like the birds that you want to attract to your yard, other less desirable birds, and even avian and mammalian predators will be attracted to your yard. Fortunately, species such as house sparrow, starlings, and rock pigeons are not very numerous in the Jemez Valley. At some point in your bird feeding activities though, a sharp-shinned or Cooper’s Hawk will visit. The primary diet of these two forest dwelling hawks is small birds, and the abundance of songbirds in your back yard provides a food source for the hawk as well, who coincidentally, also needs to eat to survive. If this becomes a big problem, remove your feeders for a few days. The hawk will get hungry, and move on to another area.

Squirrels, although fun to watch, are persistent, and can seem to outsmart every human built squirrel baffle. One way to distract them is to feed them peanuts or dried ears of corn in a location far from the bird feeders. There are a number of commercially available non-lethal squirrel deterrents that can help to reduce damage from this furry, agile mammal.

Bears often become a problem in New Mexico’s mountain communities during the summer and fall, particularly during drought years when little natural food is available. To deter bears: bring all of your feeders in each night; hang all feeders at least 10’ above ground and 6’ away from tree trunks; clean up spilled birdseed; and don’t hang your feeder on your front porch. If you do see a bear, do not approach it.

The family cat is one of the biggest avian predators, killing millions of wild birds each year. Ground feeding, ground nesting, and fledgling birds are at the greatest risk. While kitty may be very well fed, cat’s natural instincts cause them to hunt other animals. If you do own a cat, keep it indoors to reduce the senseless loss of bird lives. For more information about cats and wildlife, visit Cats Indoors, created by the American Bird Conservancy at

No comments: