It’s not just a dog eat dog world out there. We’ve all seen our backyard birds get downright nasty over their food. What and how you feed in your backyards may help bring a bit more peace at the feeders, and more importantly, the choices you make for attracting wild birds to the yard can also affect how well the breeding season goes for some species.
Perhaps the best choice you can make for your backyard birds is creating a bird friendly habitat. Keeping the pet cats indoors to watch bird television from the safety of the window should be the first order of business.
Although it is easy to put out a few feeders around the yard and fill them up when the mood strikes, this can have deadly consequences, but not, as you might suspect, because the birds grow to rely on the feeders. In fact, Dr. David Bonter, project leader for Project Feeder Watch at Cornell Lab of Ornithology, reports that the vast majority of nutrition in a bird’s diet comes from the foods they forage naturally. Everything you offer them at the feeders is simply supplemental. For this reason, he suggests planting native trees and shrubs like dogwoods, vibernums, or evergreens. These will provide natural foraging opportunities, shelter to the birds, and often ample locations for building their nests.
If you choose to supplement with feeders, you must be committed to caring for them. Just one small, strategically placed feeder near the living room window is lovely for us and easy to maintain, but not a good choice for the birds that squabble over it. Make no mistake, bird fights can and do turn deadly. Offering several varieties of feeders spaced around the yard with plenty of perching is a smarter choice.
Proper and regular cleaning of the feeders is critical, because birds are highly susceptible to infections from the bacteria that grow in areas where they congregate. Salmonella is not just deadly to humans, but is also deadly to birds and is transmitted through their fecal matter. According to Dr. Bonter, this common problem was evidenced this winter in large die -offs of Pine Siskin and Goldfinch at bird feeders around the country. Baby birds that have not fully developed their immune systems are highly susceptible to these bacteria, particularly when their parents walk around at contaminated feeders and return to the nest many times each day.
Cornell Lab of Ornithology recommends washing all feeders thoroughly every two weeks with a 10% Bleach, 90% water solution, using a scrub brush to remove all dried feces. It is also important to allow the feeders to air dry entirely before refilling them, because mold will produce toxins that are also deadly to birds.
Debbie Zombeck, supervisor of the Aviary at the North Carolina Zoo says, “Cleaning the waste below and around the feeders is just as important as cleaning the feeders themselves.” Removing the feces and old food on a regular basis should become a part of any bird feeding project. Halley Buckanoff, Director of the Wildlife Rehab Center of North Carolina, suggests placing landscape cloth below the feeders that can be picked up and washed thoroughly in an area away from the food.
All of these experts agree that regular relocation of all feeders several times each year is the best way to cut down contamination from excess fecal build-up. If you see fluffed, lethargic-looking, or dead birds in your yard, cleaning and relocating all the feeders should take place immediately.
Once you’ve committed to supplemental feeding, how do you choose the appropriate diets? Buckanoff calls feeders the “drive-thrus of the bird world.” Most of the foods are high in fat and not great nutritionally. She finds the cheaper brands of mixed seeds are often filled with red milo and other grains that very few species of native birds eat. There is then a greater amount of waste under the feeders. She prefers the Morning Song Bird Watcher’s Blend because it has no fillers and offers something edible for most native species. Zombeck suggests buying supplies from specialty shops like Wild Birds Unlimited, where the food is fresh and professionals are on hand to offer sound advice.
Dr. Bonter says Cornell does not endorse any particular company, although they are definitely not in favor of using any “super processed” products. Fresh foods without fillers are best. Often companies add colors and preservatives to make diets more attractive to the consumer. But, no one knows how this affects the birds. He says, “Stick to simplicity. Go with good-old locally grown products that are grown within a hundred miles of you, if possible.” He buys simple seeds from “the local mom and pop store,” choosing items like black oil sunflowers in the shell or thistle seed.
Perhaps the most important items native birds require during the breeding season are bugs. The buying of mealworms to feed backyard birds has become quite popular. Unfortunately, bugs are only as nutritious as the food they are eating. Therefore, the bugs birds forage naturally from the wild are much better for them. Choosing to turn off the bug zappers and break out the repellant lotions is one of the best things you can do for your backyard birds. If you are having trouble in the garden, consider looking up organic repellant options rather than spraying pesticides. Every bug you kill is likely an important and nutritious meal for the chicks your feathered friends work so hard to raise.
For more information on bird diets and all things bird, visit Cornell Lab of Ornithology website or take the time to shop at a local Wild Birds Unlimited if you have one near you. You won’t be disappointed and your backyard birds may not thank you, per say, but they will be a whole lot of fun to watch when they bring their chicks to your feeders for the first time.
All pictures were provided by Amanda C. Sandos. Special thanks to Dr. David Bonter, Debbie Zombeck, and Halley Buckanoff for taking the time to offer their knowledge and advice.