For the birds|Feed them, and they will come

Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 23, 2010

Each winter, when food is scarce for birds, more than a million Mississippi residents chip in and feed them.

In 1989, David Watts, editor of Mississippi Outdoors magazine, gave some helpful hints on attracting birds. The words from 20 years ago are just as relevant today.

First, learn what specific birds prefer to eat. Ground feeders like the white-throated sparrows, rufous-sided towhees, brown thrashers, mourning doves, dark-eyed juncos, blue jays and others like sunflower seeds, cracked corn and wild bird seed mixtures. Cardinals, goldfinches, Carolina chickadees, purple finches, blue jays and mockingbirds are frequent visitors to window feeders. They prefer sunflower seeds, peanuts, raisins or wild bird seed mix.

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I have a hanging feeder outside my kitchen window and it attracts cardinals, Carolina chickadees, various finches, tufted titmice and several kinds of nuthatches. I fill it with black-oil sunflower seeds. Watts suggests thistle or niger seeds and wild bird seed mix as well as sunflower seeds for birds attracted to this style of feeder.

Carolina chickadees, woodpeckers (red-bellied, hairy and downy), brown-headed nuthatches and pine warblers will feed from tree trunk feeders. They love suet cakes and peanut butter mixed with oatmeal, grits or sunflower seeds. The peanut butter mixture can also be smeared into the crevices of tree bark in lieu of a feeder.

Sunflower seeds are one of the best choices for any of the feeders and ounce for ounce have as much protein for birds as does ground beef for us humans, Watts wrote. Three kinds of sunflower seeds are available on the market today: gray striped, black striped and black-oil. Any of the three will work, but the black-oil is the most preferred.

Fruit is a winter treat for many birds. Grapefruits, oranges and apples are top choices. Nail a halved piece of fruit to a tree and the birds will pick it clean, Watts says. Other good fruit choices included cherries, bananas, grapes, strawberries and tomatoes.

Most birds also like just about any kind of bread, Watts said. Leftover light bread, rolls or cornbread are particularly enjoyed by blue jays, woodpeckers, an occasional mockingbird or brown thrasher. I once read a tip in a Birds and Blooms article from a woman who fried bacon every morning for her husband and soaked stale bread in the bacon grease to give to the birds. She claimed they loved it.

Watts suggests placing feeders, preferably in threes, near trees or shrubs but in view from a favorite window. Birds feel more secure when they can escape to a nearby tree or shrubs in case a cat or other predator approaches. If this is your first venture with bird feeding, the birds may not find your feeder immediately. It can take some time, but they will find the feeder eventually. Once you start feeding them, continue to do so all winter because they come to depend on your generosity.  Watts says that birds remember the location of consistent food sources.

If nuisance birds like grackles or cowbirds try to dominate your feeders, put out food only early in the morning or late in the afternoon.  Most of the smaller birds that you prefer to attract will feed early or until dusk.  Some birders get frustrated with the large number of sparrows that frequent their feeders and choose to provide corn or thistle rather than sunflower seeds. Sparrows will not eat either of these choices but many of the other desirable birds will. Fruit or beef suet are other choices that the sparrows will shun. Watts also suggests keeping wooden perches on tube feeders and other devices trimmed to a size that will not permit the sparrows to perch.

My grandchildren also enjoy watching the birds when they visit. They like to fill the feeders and help me put fresh water into the birdbaths.  It is critical that we foster an appreciation in our youth for the plants and creatures that share this Earth with us. Feeding the birds is a great way to start.

Miriam Jabour, a Master Gardener and Master Flower Show judge, has been active in the Openwood Plantation Garden Club for over 35 years. Write to her at 1114 Windy Lake Drive, Vicksburg, MS 39183.