'Tis the season for winter bird feeding

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By Deb Quantock McCarey

Contributing reporter/Nature blogger

I'm dreaming of a White Christmas, one filled with the sightings and songs of backyard birds. 

I'd like the treetops to be glistening with some Hairy and Downy WoodpeckersHouse Finches, Chickadees,  White Breasted Nuthatches, and a Mourning Dove, all of which are birds that I am told stay here over the winter.

And, I'll be listening for the tweets of Blue Jays, plus pairs of stately Cardinals

Since 'tis the season to celebrate life, the crowd of Sparrows for now can stay, 'cause they aren't going to fly away any time soon...especially if there's seed ornaments hanging on my wrought iron arbor. 

Well, at least that was a take-away from my recent trek to Trailside Museum of Natural History to hear Irene Flebbe, the Naturalist who led the mid-December free workshop, Winter Birds at Your Feeder.


On a cloudy afternoon, the birding 101 lesson took off with Flebbe Id'ing birds at the second floor observation window, as the mixed flock of birds lunched at Trailside's ongoing edu-demo of "squirrel proofed" bird feeders.

She also pointed out that a birds first choice is food found in nature -- trees, shrubs, flowers, grasses, insects,  and awater source, so what we do is considered supplemental. 


According to Flebbe, and the bird experts at Cornell Lab of Ornithology's All About Birds site, the seed that attracts the widest variety of birds to a backyard feeder is sunflower seeds, black oil and striped.  The black oil seeds, also called "oilers," are thin shelled and easy to crack open for most birds.  The inner kernel has a high fat content, which is great for winter birds.  Striped sunflower seeds have a thicker shell, and are much harder for House Sparrows and blackbirds to crack open.

Conversely, Safflower has a thick shell and is hard for some birds to crack, but it is the absolute favorite seed of the Northern Cardinal.  Most squirrels will not eat it...especially if you place the seeds out of reach on a platform/hopperfeeder, or a tray/platform feeder.  Although, Flebbe pointed out that some sources are saying that squirrels, as well as House Sparrows and European Starlings have developed a taste for this seed. 

Nyjer Seed (or thistle) is an all-time favorite of Gold Finches, and a few other species of birds, and generally speaking, isn't favored by squirrels, but some still will eat it.  And, if extra seed scatters under the feeder, mice will forage it, and likely increase in population.


Another possible squirrel deterrent, says Flebbe, is to add bird pepper (capsicum), which can be purchased online, or at specialty pet stores.
"Birds have a very poor sense of taste and smell, so they do not know they are eating hot pepper.  However squirrels have a very highly developed sense of taste and smell, and it burns their mouth and they hate the smell," she explained.  "Typically when we did that here we would add it into the bird seed for several weeks, and usually by the third week, the squirrels did not eat at the feeders anymore, and after that, we did not add it, unless the squirrels came back."

Of course, most birds like peanut pieces, "but it is one of the most expensive bird feeds, so most people only offer them once and a while as a treat," Flebbe said, adding that a good seed mix will attract all birds, but you have to look at the ingredient list, to ensure it doesn't include Milo seeds, which isn't eaten by most of the birds in this region.  "If you notice here we have an upside down suet feeder, where the cake is in a cage at the bottom, so only birds that can eat upside down come to it.  So that is a way that you can avoid sparrows eating your suet." 

For fun, some backyard bird enthusiasts try serving up small quantities of shelled and cracked corn on a tray feeder, which can attract birds such as Cardinals, Crows, Blue Jays and Doves. 

So, in the spirit of the season...Santa baby, slip a Suet feeder under the tree, for me.  Been an awfully good gardener this year.  Santa baby, so add in a suet cake or two,yoo hoo, and a heated bird bath will do, so hurry down the chimney that night! 

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Don Nekrosius from Oak Park  

Posted: December 18th, 2014 5:24 PM

Aha, the Squirrel Stopper bird feeding pole! We have installed it here in south Oak Park and it works like they said it would. No more squirrels chowing down where the song birds should. EXCEPT: Two days into our new feeder, a Cooper's hawk and then a kestrel showed up. Holy Rapacity, the poor song birds all but disappeared. Nature red in tooth and claw indeed. What's more beautiful, a nuthatch, a chickadee, a cardinal or a Cooper's hawk, a kestrel?

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