Bird feeding tips for the autumn-to-winter transition

People are setting up their bird feeders for winter right now. But with the huge variety of seed out there, what do we offer our feathered friends?

First, understand that no seed will 100 percent keep squirrels away. The only way to not have squirrels in your yard is to move to Mars, and it’s probably a matter of time before they populate the Red Planet, too. 
Here are some of the best foods to offer:

Black-oil sunflower

If you are only going to use one kind of bird food, this is it. More birds eat black oil sunflower than any other seed. Even those tiny American goldfinches will eat it. Sometimes purchasing it in bulk is cheaper than getting small quantities.

Stock up on this nutritious seed in the fall and store it in a cold garage or storage freezer so it’ll be good all winter. Be wary of garden stores or hardware stores offering 50-pound bags for less than half of what anyone else is selling. Chances are good that seed is two years old (or older) and if your neighbor offers fresher seed, the birds will choose it over you. Year-old sunflower isn’t so bad, but after that the nutmeat begins to shrivel and it becomes less nutritious or appetizing. 

Suet

Fat is a lovely thing to offer. Some hunters hang deer rib cages all winter offering a nifty suet feeder for woodpeckers, chickadees and nuthatches. But you can also purchase chunks of fat from the butcher at the grocery store or order flavored varieties from wild bird or garden stores. Birds appear to favor nut-flavored suets, but you can also purchase fruit-flavored  or even cricket-flavored suet. 

Nyjer aka thistle

If you have flocks of goldfinches, redpolls and siskins, nyjer works great for those birds. Most birders offer the tiny seed in tube feeders with tiny slits making it hard for larger birds to take over this feeder. This seed is a bit tricky and not one I recommend purchasing in bulk in the fall. Once the seed is more than six months old, finches avoid it, and it may already be a month or two old when you buy. I purchase it frequently in small amounts. 

White millet

This tiny seed isn’t as attractive to cardinals, chickadees, and titmice but ground-feeding birds will go for it. I’ll scatter millet on the ground for juncos, mourning doves, and tree sparrows. 

Mixes

Some people like to offer a variety of seeds and though a mix isn’t essential, it might be easier for people who don’t want to have a bunch of separate feeders in their yard. Mixes can sometimes have some bonus flavors like dried cherries, nuts and even suet pellets. 

When selecting a mix, make sure you can see it. Just because a mix is labeled “Cardinal Mix” or lists black-oil sunflower seed as the first ingredient is not a guarantee that sunflower will be the main ingredient. Food labeling guidelines for birdseed is not the same as food for human consumption. Look for mixes that are mostly dark in color; those will be full of sunflowers. If it’s mostly yellow or orange it could be mostly corn, millet or milo, which will not be as enticing to cardinals, chickadees, nuthatches, finches and woodpeckers. But it will delight invasive house sparrows. 

Storage tip:

Careful storing any birdseed in your home or anyplace warm. By the time you purchase seed, Indian meal moth eggs and larvae are already in it. This is a bonus for feeder birds, but a bummer to humans when the moths emerge from their pupae and settle in your home. I learned the hard way when I first started feeding birds and stored the seed on the floor of my linen closet. A bunch of the larvae formed their webby chrysalises in towels. If you’re thinking, “ewwwww”… that’s exactly what I said only with far more profanity.

Follow Sharon Stiteler on Twitter via @birdchick

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