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Tips for feeding winter’s wild birds

Courtesy photo by Tom Hodgson. Red-bellied woodpecker

(ChelseaUpdate would like to thank Tom Hodgson for the information and photos in this story.)

One of the chief pleasures of winter in Michigan is to be inside a warm house looking out at the wild birds at the feeder in the yard. You can feel generous and virtuous while staying comfy warm. And you get terrific entertainment all winter, too.

If you’re feeding birds, you might wonder what to offer. The two most important ingredients to bird’s winter diet are food and water. Most of the birds that spend the winter are seed eaters. They have to be, as there is little else outdoors to eat.

By setting up a feeder you are providing a generous, reliable source of food, and the birds will not be hesitant to come and help themselves. Locate the feeders where you can see them. Put several feeders at various heights.

Some birds like to feed on the ground, while others prefer elevated feeders.  Sparrows, juncos, doves, and cardinals readily feed on the ground. Chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, most woodpeckers, purple finches and grosbeaks prefer raised feeders.

The sunflower is the seed popular with the greatest variety of birds. The best is the black or dark oil sunflower. It is less expensive, than the gray striped, higher in energy content, and easier for the birds to crack. Another seed especially popular with finches is niger (sometimes called thistle). It is expensive, however, and niger eaters actually prefer black sunflower seeds during really cold weather because it has a higher energy content.

Courtesy photo by Tom Hodgson. Male cardinal.

Safflower, a white seed slightly smaller than a black sunflower seed, is popular with cardinals, titmice, chickadees and downy woodpeckers.

White millet is a favorite of sparrows, juncos and mourning doves. Avoid most so-called “wild bird mixes” as they contain a lot of filler seeds that are cheap but the birds will not eat. Most end up spoiling on the ground by the end of the season.

Birds whose diets include a lot of insects during the warmer months, will be readily attracted to beef suet. Pure suet containing no seeds seems to be less bothered by squirrels. Suet can be purchased raw, or specially prepared “suet cakes.”

Some people are unsure whether feeding birds is helpful or harmful. Many ask, “should I feed the birds if I will be gone part of the winter?”

Courtesy photo by Tom Hodgson. Male house finch.

Feeding does concentrate birds in one place which makes them more vulnerable to predators, but the extra food may also enable some birds to survive that otherwise would not.

Keep in mind that birds often make the rounds of all the feeders in the neighborhood in a day’s time. If one of the feeders is empty for a few days or weeks because the owners have gone on vacation, they quickly move to those that are still being maintained.

And, you can support these local stores with bird feeding supplies. Many local retailers including Family Farm and Home, Aco Hardware, McCalla Feed, Chelsea Village Hardware, and Farmers Supply all carry feeders and seed.

The meat department at Polly’s Country Market carries raw beef suet.

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