Septmeber 4, 2013: Bird Menu and Dining Etiquette

~by Virginia Rhys Anson, OFS

What do you feed a bird when you invite it to dinner? Spaghetti? Hamburger? Chicken? Ooh, no! Never, never ever feed a bird to a bird. Well, a hawk and other birds of prey may eat another bird, but never ever serve bird to your backyard guests.

Birds need high energy food, especially in the winter, to keep them warm. If you want to invite your winged friends to dine with you, you’ll have to serve seeds, fruit, and suet.

Birds like a variety of seeds. But, just as people have different tastes, some birds like one cuisine and others prefer a different menu. If you wish to have brunch with blue jays, you’ll need to serve cracked corn, peanuts, and sunflowers. Sunflowers are also the favorite food of cardinals—those lovely birds that add a splash of red to a backdrop of winter’s white. Now, if you invite the mourning dove family over, you would be wise to serve a dish buckwheat, millet, milo, thistle, peanut hearts, cracked corn, and, of course, sunflowers. Actually, sunflowers are treasured by many bird breeds. You likely will not go wrong with a feeder full of sunflower seeds.

Feeding birds is not at all complicated. Many stores sell premixed bags of seed that satisfy most of the birds that you will attract to your yard. Many of these mixes include the favored sunflower seeds.

Although your feathered visitors will eat seeds year round, it is helpful to vary their diets for the different seasons. During the warmer months, especially summer, birds enjoy an occasional treat of fruit. They welcome such delicacies as oranges, berries, watermelon, and apples. Just toss them onto the ground—a little at a time, though, so that the fruit doesn’t spoil. Oranges—halved, of course—can be wedged in trees. It is also possible to purchase special hangers designed to hold fruit, particularly apples.

Better yet, how about planting fruit bearing trees and bushes outside? Red twig dogwoods produce white berries, and some evergreen bushes don lovely red or purple berries that birds like to eat. The evergreens produce their fruit even during the winter.

Winter can be a challenge for birds. During the colder months, a bird needs to increase its metabolisms and fat layer in order to stay warm. An extra treat of suet will help build the fat layer, which acts as insulation against the cold. Suet is usually made of beef or sheep fat and can be found in grocery stores. Remember, though, to take it away during warmer weather since that it will not turn rancid. However, there are prefabricated suet cakes that are designed to withstand warmer temps without spoiling.

Now that you have your menu planned, where are your guests going to dine? More than likely, it won’t be at the dining room table. Some bird breeds, such as the red-winged back bird and northern oriole, prefer to eat off of the ground, while the purple finch and tufted titmouse like hanging feeders. And others, the black-capped chickadee comes to mind, are comfortable with both. Woodpeckers and northern flickers sup readily on suet.

Hanging feeders and platforms are suitable for many birds, including ground feeders. Quite a bit of the seed from these feeders gets knocked on the ground—and not just by birds. Squirrel thieves contribute to the spillage. But not to worry. Ground feeders, rabbits, and squirrels will clean up the mess.

A platform feeder, one of the simplest styles, is constructed from a piece of wood about 20 inches square that sports a lip around the edges. It is usually placed on a pole or window sill. The window sill earns my vote. Tis such a treat to watch the birds up close. You just need to sprinkle seed on the platform and wait for your friends to dine.

Hanging bird feeders are probably the most popular. Such a myriad of styles awaits, from a simple rectangular feeder to one that looks like a gazebo to one that looks like a miniature house. There are even feeders especially designed to keep out raiding squirrels. Okay, to inhibit them. I’m not so sure that a feeder exists that is totally successful at thwarting their industrious nature.

Some people see squirrels as pests and do everything possible to discourage them. But, as are the winged fauna, squirrels are nature’s creatures. They are only trying to survive. Besides, their antics are such a delight. So our house harbors a two feeder family–one that discourages the squirrels’ marauding instincts and one at which they can freely dine. By providing both, the squirrels and birds will be happy dinner guests. I’ll let you in on another little secret. Squirrels also help the ground feeding birds by knocking extra seed out of the feeder.

Feeder in place, now you can enjoy watching the chickadee feasting on millet and canary seed. It flits from the feeder to the bird bath for a sip of water. The sun feels warm on its back as it nibbles away. A paw takes a swipe at chickadee who flies off, sounding an alarm for its flock. The neighbor’s cat is on the prowl and barely misses having our chickadee as its main course.

Predators, especially cats, can be quite problematic for birds. If you use a feeder, be sure to place it near bushes so that the birds can escape and hide if they sense danger. It is a hoot to watch a fairly large flock of birds take off as one unit when sensing a potential danger.

When you are dining with your winged friends, don’t forget hummingbirds. They need a different type of food—the sweet nectar of flowers–and not seeds. As a delicious alternative, these tiniest of birds will eat sugar water instead. Hummingbirds prefer the color red. Feeders especially designed for them have red elements. Even though you have probably seen red liquid in their feeders, it is not necessary. In fact, it’s better if the liquid isn’t colored at all since some dyes can make them sick.

Hummingbird food is such a cinch to make. Mix one part sugar—yes, regular sugar—with four parts of water. Simply stir them together until the sugar is dissolved and the water becomes clear. Then simply fill the feeder. In order to keep the food supply safe for the hummingbirds, change it weekly. These tiny creatures can sense stale sugar water and will avoid those feeders.

We’ve been talking so much about food for our dinner guests, that we nearly forgot a very important part of the avian diet—water. Birds need it for drinking and bathing. Splashing in a puddle of water keeps their feathers healthy and reduces their chances of getting parasites, such as mites, that can make them sick.

With the vast array of bird baths on the market, just the right one adds a distinctively decorative element to a yard. Catering to their preference, be sure that the water you provide for your feathered guests is less than three inches deep. The birds that live in our backyards don’t like deep water. Although, I have successfully attached my winter water dish to the porch rail, about seven feet above ground, the general guideline is to locate the water container about three feet above the ground and fairly close to bushes. If a predator is on the prowl, birds need to be able to escape quickly.

During the winter, it is harder to give the birds a fresh supply of water that doesn’t freeze. It is possible to purchase heaters that sit in a birdbath and plug in to keep the water melted. Likewise, an occasional pitcher of hot water poured into the birdbath quite handily melts the ice—at least for a short bit. However, keep in mind that birds do have very strong beaks and can chip pieces of ice to “drink.” If a layer of snow should caps the birdbath, leave it there. The birds can eat it for water. Remember that nature doesn’t warm the water for birds in the wild. It is not wise to make them too soft or too dependent on us. They need to remain strong in order to survive.

Oriole, mourning dove, chickadee, robin, and, yes, squirrel—quite entertaining backyard guests.

So simple to attract them. So soul soothing to gaze upon them. Enjoy.


Virginia Anson grew up in the shadows of Sandia Crest in New Mexico. Family camping trips may have sparked her passion for nature. She holds an A.S. in Electronics Technology, a B.A. in Writing, an M.F.A. in Creative Writing, and a certificate in Wildlife/Forestry Conservation. Her book, Mother Earth’s Caretakers, targets middle school youngsters and is published as an e-book for Kindle. Virginia is a Vietnam Era veteran of the U.S. Air Force, and her volunteer endeavors see her as a lector, Eucharistic minister, and sacristan in her parish and as a habitat steward for the National Wildlife Federation. She especially cherishes her life in the Secular Franciscan Order, following in the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi.

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