Friday, January 28, 2022

Feeding Birds, Part V: Water

Evening Grosbeaks at my birdbath

Birds need water. Most of the species that visit our feeders also come to birdbaths, but also some species we never see at feeders. Some of the best photos I’ve ever taken of warblers...

Blackburnian Warbler

... and a really cool video I got of a Pileated Woodpecker were taken at birdbaths or in nearby branches.   

Pileated Woodpecker at my birdbath

I have several birdbaths I set out as soon as the snow melts in spring, and there they stay until serious freezing in fall. I have one old-fashioned pedestal bird bath, but I’ve noticed that more birds prefer coming to the ones I have on or near the ground, which much seem more natural. 

American Robin at my bird bath

Northern Flicker at my bird bath

Birds are very conscious of even subtle sounds, and find dripping water attractive, so one of my birdbaths has a solar-powered recirculating fountain. 

Pine Siskins at my bird bath

I also have a nice mister that hooks up to my hose, but even though it uses very little water, I don’t like wasting water at all, even in Duluth where the supply from Lake Superior seems endless. I usually only hook the mister up during warbler migration when I’m paying attention and taking photos. The other problem with the mister is that whenever it’s running, squirrels nibble on the hose unless I’m watching.  

Water’s importance doesn’t end with the cold weather. This November, when a Rufous Hummingbird turned up in my neighborhood, I kept three different hummingbird feeders outside. Two were the type with moats in the center where we keep fresh water to prevent ants from crawling down the hanger and reaching the sugar water. When the temperatures were below freezing, I kept two identical feeders indoors, swapping them out before the sugar water froze. No ants run about in November, but I kept the moats filled with fresh water anyway. I didn’t catch the hummingbird drinking from them, but every time I set out a room-temperature feeder, in flew a chickadee or two specifically to grab a drink from the moat. 

Black-capped Chickadee

In winters when we have stretches of freezing temperatures before the ground is covered with snow, sometimes I think to set a bowl of water on my window platform feeder for an hour or two. Chickadees quickly notice and grab quick drinks, and other birds figure it out from them. I never do this when it’s extremely cold—if the water steams, I bring it right back in. Ice can form on bird feathers, so sensible ones avoid it anyway. 

Many people use heated birdbaths to provide drinking water. Very few birds use them as a hot tub—I’ve only heard of a few instances ever where birds bathed in heated bird baths and then flew out into the frigid air with their feathers icing up. In every case I’ve heard of, those birds were starlings, but combined with my normal reticence to waste electricity, that’s been enough to keep me from using heated birdbaths at all. 

If water is so important for birds, how can I feel comfortable providing so little in winter? One of the reasons I can see 10 or 15 bird species in my backyard every day in the dead of winter when the only mammals I spot are deer, rabbits, and squirrels is that bird bodies are so much better designed to conserve water. Our human bodies are particularly wasteful, squandering so much moisture with every exhalation that on the coldest days, ice quickly forms on beards, mustaches, and scarves or other clothing we put close to our mouths or noses. On the coldest days, we can see little puffs of steam coming out of deer mouths, and I’ve seen them with a bit of ice build-up near their noses and mouths. 

The avian respiratory system is much more efficient, which is why birds live and fly about at elevations where very few mammals could survive. And with entirely different kinds of lungs that hold onto water more efficiently, they lose much less moisture as they exhale. 

They still need some liquid, of course. I suspect one of the reasons my chickadees have such a strong preference for live or frozen mealworms over dried ones is for the moisture they contain. I’ve watched chickadees and other small birds flutter up to dripping icicles to take a quick sip and seen chickadees and a lot of other birds eating snow. Intriguingly, one snowy day while I had my Rufous Hummingbird, I watched her darting about, snapping up falling snowflakes. Yet as familiar as she was with hummingbird feeders, I never once saw her taking water from my feeders’ little moats. 

Rufous Hummingbird

Roger Tory Peterson wrote that birds were the most vivid expression of life, and water is indeed the stuff of life, so it seems miraculous that such high-powered dynamos conserve water so wondrously. Birds provide so much beauty to our eyes and ears, and so much inspiration for the poetry and art that touch our souls that it’s truly miraculous that their migrations, their lives, and their bodies have inspired so much scientific inquiry, expanding our minds as well. 

Canada Warbler at my bird bath 

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Feeding Birds, Part IV: Mealworms

Black-capped Chickadee peeking in my window waiting for mealworms

Of all the food items I give my backyard birds, mealworms are the one so attractive to birds that they make it relatively easy to entice chickadees and even a few Red-breasted and White-breasted Nuthatches to alight on my hand to take them. 

Handfeeding mealworms to a Black-capped Chickadee

Mealworms are beetles belonging to the species Tenebrio molitor—a member of the “darkling beetle” family, Tenebrionidae. They are probably native to the Mediterranean—the oldest archaeological records of them can be traced to Bronze Age Turkey, but they’re absent from archaeological finds of ancient Egypt. They’ve colonized much of the world thanks to human trade, almost certainly originally as freeloaders in grain, pretty much like Norway rats and house mice. They aren’t pests here in America except where grain is stored. 

Like most insects, mealworms have four life stages, starting as virtually microscopic eggs which hatch into larvae—the part of the life cycle we call mealworms. Hatchlings are too tiny to see, but over the coming weeks they molt 9 to 20 times, each time bursting out of their sturdy, golden skin as a whitish, soft-skinned, slightly larger grub whose skin quickly hardens and turns soft golden brown.  


When they’re as big as they get, they’ll molt one final time a pupa, shorter and much more flattened than the larva, looking like a tiny curled-up dragon, whitish at first but turning soft brown. 

Photo from Wikipedia user Dominik Hoffmann

Like butterflies in a chrysalis or moths in a cocoon, pupae do not eat anything at all. Three days to a month after pupating, the adult beetle emerges, quite pale at first but quickly becoming black. In my experience, mealworm beetles never open their wing covers to fly at all, so are easily contained in the same bucket as the larvae. The adults eat pretty much the same food as the larvae, as far as I can tell, and mate, females producing as many as 500 eggs before dying. 

Photo from Wikipedia user Sanja565658

In deserts and forests, this ground-dwelling species feeds on plant tissue and dead insects, becoming a pest if it finds its way into stored grain, but as with Norway rats and house mice, people have found a lot of important uses for mealworms. In 1968, they were among the first terrestrial organisms to travel to and circle the moon aboard Zond 5 on a Soviet space mission. In 2015, studies showed that mealworms can degrade polystyrene into usable organic matter, though so far this hasn’t been commercialized. 

Over the world, they’re commonly used as fish bait and pet food for reptiles, fish, and birds, and in many places are also raised for human consumption. In May 2017, mealworms were approved as food in Switzerland, and in 2021, dried mealworms were authorized as novel food in the European Union after the European Food Safety Authority assessed the larvae as safe for human consumption. 

Mealworms are very nutritious. Every 100 grams of raw mealworm larvae provide 206 calories and 14 to 25 grams of protein, along with potassium, copper, sodium, selenium, iron and zinc, essential linoleic acids, and a greater vitamin content by weight than beef. 

Red-breasted Nuthatch

I first learned about mealworms as a bird rehabber in the 1980s. They were especially important for feeding baby birds and nighthawks of all stages, and my educational Blue Jay Sneakers loved them, so I used to buy them in batches of about 20,000 at a time. I kept them in ice cream buckets with a couple of inches of oatmeal, adding slices and peelings from apple, carrot, or potato to give the mealworms all the moisture they needed. To make the mealworms even more nutritious for baby birds, I added a quarter cup or so of a commercial mix for hand-feeding baby birds. 

The mealworms were shipped in burlap bags filled with wadded-up newspaper. When a shipment arrived, I quickly transferred them to my buckets to minimize the amount of newsprint they consumed, which I figured could not be good for the mealworms or the birds that ate them. In nice weather, I did this on my picnic table. Little by little, neighborhood chickadees and jays figured out what I was doing and would come right down to watch and grab some for themselves. 

In the 1990s, mealworms became increasingly popular among people with nesting bluebirds—they worked out ways of making bluebird feeders and boasted about how many mealworms a single bluebird could carry away to feed its young. Unfortunately, as nutritious as mealworms are, birds need more variety than any single species can provide—now sensible bluebird lovers limit the number of mealworms they provide each day. I’ve never lived in bluebird habitat, so never tested out any bluebird feeders. I kept offering live mealworms when a pair of chickadees were raising young in my yard last summer, but despite my monitoring, only a couple of times did I see them taking a mealworm to the nest. The parents used the mealworms as quick pick-me-ups between searching out more varied and nutritious caterpillars for the chicks. 

Black-capped Chickadees nesting in yard

Mealworms are expensive in small quantities, and a lot of birds eat them, so it would be prohibitively expensive and complicated for me to feed huge amounts to wild birds. I put them in small window feeders where I can enjoy watching the variety of birds coming to them. If they discover them, robins take a lot, and small woodpeckers, including Red-bellieds, also love them. In spring when I noticed robins grabbing 10 or 15 at a time to feed their nestlings, I knew it was time to cut back for the season. Robins never noticed them last year when I kept offering them throughout my chickadees’ nesting cycle—they didn’t spend much time in that part of my yard.  

Robin stocking up on mealworms to bring to his nest

Like people, most birds associate bird feeders with seeds and suet, and when you first offer mealworms, it can take time for birds to notice. The ones that spend time near your feeder notice and figure them out most readily when the mealworms are wriggling. When the temperature is below 10ยบ F or so, the mealworms stop moving within a second or two of being put outside, and don’t move very long even when the temperature is in the 30s or 40s. But once birds figure them out,  they check the feeder and are perfectly happy with frozen mealworms.   

Black-capped Chickadee

Now a lot of stores sell dried mealworms, which is simpler and more economical while ostensibly providing the same nutrition. I scatter a handful of dried mealworms on my window feeder every morning on top of the main food, Fiery Feast, and a bit of millet and Nyjer seed. My chickadees and nuthatches clearly prefer fresh mealworms, still wiggling or frozen solid, taking them over anything else I offer. Then they take the peanuts and other nuts from the Fiery Feast. I’m not sure if the loss in weight in the drying process makes dried mealworms feel flimsy compared to live and frozen ones and to larger seeds, if they are less palatable, or if they lose food value compared to lives ones, but my chickadees and nuthatches do take them before eating the other seeds in my feeder. 

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Many people prefer offering dried mealworms to live ones for good reasons. They’re more economical, don’t require any maintenance, and aren’t wriggly. I’m not squeamish about hardly anything—my worst problem with live mealworms is when I start paying attention to them as helpless little individuals, feeling sad and guilty about their fate. The one time I do feel a bit squeamish is when a chickadee breaks protocol and instead of grabbing one to eat on a tree branch, it hunkers down and eats it right in my hand. Chickadees don’t swallow mealworms whole but rather peck at them, frequently wiping their goopy bills on the nearest branch or finger. There is just one word for that. Yuck. 

Black-capped Chickadee eating a live mealworm.

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Feeding Birds, Part III: Peanuts and Peanut Butter

Blue Steel the Blue Jay

Every morning when I check my feeders, I bring out some peanuts in the shell and set them on my platform feeders. I whistle, and within minutes, sometimes seconds, any Blue Jays or crows within earshot fly in. They often make eye contact with me, though I usually go back into the house before they come down to the feeders. 

Blue Jay

I love that they know my whistle, and I suspect that they recognize me specifically out of all the people in our neck of the woods and consider me fairly reliable as far as humans go, but they’re not like a few of the Blue Jays I’ve had in the past who would approach close enough for me to take lots of photos before they expected me to put food out for them. I got plenty of close-ups in the summer of 2020, and so no longer have a compelling reason to want them to lower their natural guardedness around humans. 

My personal friendly Blue Jay getting a payoff

During migration when I have lots of jays, I put out peanuts in a donut-shaped feeder designed specifically for that purpose. Chickadees take advantage of that, too. 

Black-capped Chickadee

Birders and bird guides used to always have peanuts on hand in our cars when we went up Highway 2 heading north out of Two Harbors and drove toward Ely. There was one specific spot where we’d stop. The moment we got out of the car, in flew a Canada Jay, and if we had any peanuts to offer, that sentinel would take one right out of our hand and immediately, more jays would fly in. 

These birds, nicknamed "camp robbers" for obvious reasons, follow large mammals such as wolves and bears to steal chunks of food whenever possible. They don’t limit this to predators—they’re also nicknamed "moose birds" because they sometimes alight on the backs and heads of moose to pull off ticks. This isn’t done out of mercy—a big fat tick engorged with moose blood is chock full of high-quality protein. Our species may be more colorful than wilder mammals, and most of the food we provide is less nutritious, but opportunistic jays take what they can get. 

Florida Scrub-Jays also love peanuts, though it's now illegal in most places to feed them anything. That's a little ironic, because the individual scrub-jays who mooch from people tend to be the best at survival. Peanuts have a lot of nutrition, but the main reason these scrub-jays are more successful is apparently more related to their curiosity and adaptability. 

Joey and Florida Scrub-Jay
My son Joe at Lake Kissimmee State Park in 2006, when visitors were still allowed to feed Florida Scrub-Jays.

Corvids aren’t the only birds who appreciate peanuts. When I set a few into our old dining room window feeder, jays were invariably the first to grab them, but sometimes a chickadee managed to carry one away—usually just half a kernel out of the shell or at most a single-kernel peanut still in the shell. 

Black-capped Chickadee

One of the funniest things I’ve ever seen a chickadee do was to look over all the peanuts in my feeder and grab the biggest one. And it was huge—one with three kernels within the shell. Tragically, that was before I was photographing birds. 

Chickadees average about 11 grams. For this blog post, Russ just weighed the peanuts we have on hand right now. 100 2-kernel peanuts weighed 310 grams, averaging 3.1 grams each. We only had 10 3-kernel peanuts, averaging 3.6 grams each, fully a third of a chickadee's weight. The single heaviest one weighed over 4.5 grams, over 40 percent of a chickadee's weight. As I recall, the one the chickadee grabbed seemed easily that huge. So this peanut was a major burden for a tiny bird whose wings aren’t designed to lug heavy cargo. When the chickadee flew off, it immediately lost altitude, barely making it to the very bottom of a nearby lilac bush. It turned to face the outside of the bush, where I could easily watch it from the window. It pecked a tiny hole in the shell and kept pecking away. With just about every peck I could see that it had grabbed a tiny bit of peanut in its beak, so it was taking in calories during the whole time it was working, even as much of the shell remained. 

The chickadee stayed in the exact same spot for at least an hour and a half as its flock flew off on their regular neighborhood route and returned three or four times. When the chickadee finally finished its feast, it seemed stuffed. It hopped to a higher branch and preened a bit, waiting for its flock to return before finally taking off with them. 

Black-capped Chickadee

All the peanuts I give birds are purchased at a grocery store. Peanuts sold for human, pet, and livestock consumption must be tested for extremely dangerous aflatoxins, but those sold for wildlife consumption don’t have to meet any standards. There is some evidence that at least a few unethical growers and distributors sell peanuts that failed aflatoxin inspections as wildlife food. 

Birders hardly ever carry peanuts to feed the Canada Jays at the Sax-Zim Bog anymore, now that there are several feeding stations that offer peanut butter. 

Canada Jay

I’ve been feeding peanut butter in my own yard ever since we moved to Duluth. My husband made the peanut butter feeder I’m now using from a broken birch limb (most wood would probably work as well) about 3 inches thick and maybe 18 inches long. He used a wood-boring drill bit to make a bunch of holes maybe 1 or 1 1/2 inches in diameter, the best 1/2 or 3/4 inches deep. We hang it with covered wire tied into two eyelet screws fastened on opposite sides near the top of the feeder. 

Pileated Woodpecker

At the Sax-Zim Bog, where feeders are in some jeopardy from theft, vandalism, and wildlife damage, people just smear chunks of peanut butter on tree bark or dead limbs. Once in a rare while I do that in my yard, but my squirrels end up with more of it than the birds do. 

Boreal Chickadee

Canada Jay

You need to be a little careful about what kind of peanut butter you buy for birds. Don't use good "natural" peanut butters because the oils separate, making it goopy, and don't use any peanut butter with artificial sweeteners. I always get chunky, but I'm not sure birds have a strong preference. 

I have never, ever worried about bird tongues getting stuck on peanut butter. Indeed, one of the best photos I've ever taken was of a Pileated Woodpecker with its tongue all the way extended, taking peanut butter from my feeder. 

Pileated Woodpecker tongue!

 In winter, peanut butter gets pretty hard, so there's no risk of it sticking to anything. Mixing it with cornmeal or other gritty stuff does not protect the peanut butter from spoiling in hot weather and may hasten the process, so I usually offer peanut butter just during winter and migration, when birds finish it off before it can spoil. I’ve watched birds feeding at it a lot and they seem to do just fine. 

Gray Jay

Monday, January 24, 2022

Feeding Birds, Part II: Suet

Pileated Woodpecker

Back in the 1970s when I started birding, you could go into just about any grocery store, ask the butcher for suet, and get as much as you wanted for free. They usually asked if you wanted real suet, which is the raw, hard fat found around the loins and kidneys of lamb, mutton, or, best of all for bird feeding, beef. If you didn’t know or care, butchers gave you mostly fat trimmings, which the birds seemed to like just as much as suet. 

Hardly any grocery stores do their own butchering anymore. Those that have fat trimmings on hand charge for it, and charge much more for real suet. It’s simpler and more profitable to sell it to bird food manufacturers. 

Some people who know how much birds need fat don't bother with suet. Deer hunters sometimes set out a whole rib cage for birds. In some cases, neighbors don't like looking at that, but some kind hunters save theirs to donate. The Friends of the Sax-Zim Bog set these out in various feeding stations, making it much easier for people to see Boreal Chickadees, Canada Jays, and other cool birds, and also the occasional Pine Marten or ermine. (I apparently have poor predator karma. I never seem to be there when those cool mammals show up.)

Canada Jay and Hairy Woodpecker

No matter how we offer raw fat, it should only put out in winter—raw suet, fat trimmings, and the meat and fat clinging to deer rib cages grow rancid when the temperature gets above freezing. 

My mother-in-law and I put our raw chunks of fat in the homemade suet cages my father-in-law made using pieces of scrap wood and hardware cloth.

White-breasted Nuthatch at suet

For a while, we also put suet in the plastic mesh bags onions came in, but in the 90s a “For the Birds” listener told me a heartbreaking story: she came home from work to find a dead Red-breasted Nuthatch on her suet, its foot entangled in the mesh. That not only made me stop using those bags outside but also got me into the habit of cutting onion bags into small pieces before throwing them out. 

I didn’t learn about rendering suet until I read John V. Dennis’s A Complete Guide to Bird Feeding in the late 80s. Rendered suet stays fresh much, much longer than raw suet but involves heating the suet or fat trimmings until they're a hazardously hot, clear liquid, with everything that isn’t pure fat rising to the top. That must be skimmed off and discarded. Then, while the purified fat is still liquid, pour it into a square or rectangular cake pan and let it cool, when you can cut the white solid into whatever size squares or rectangles work for you. 

Many people who go to all that trouble take it to the next level. Before the suet solidifies, they add various ingredients such as sunflower chips, peanuts, bits of fruits, or dried mealworms. I only rendered suet once in my life. It didn’t seem right to spend more time preparing food for wild birds than I do for my husband and kids. 

As bird feeding grew increasingly popular and bird feeding stores started sprouting up here and there over the whole country, it became an easy matter to buy suet cakes and feeders to put them in. Newfangled suet cages use plastic-covered wire rather than bare hardware cloth, which is a big improvement—I don’t think bird tongues are nearly as moist as ours, so aren’t likely to stick to frozen metal, but I like to be on the safe side. 

Pileated Woodpecker tongue!

There are several kinds of commercial suet feeders, and different ways of setting them out. Some smaller ones that hold just one suet cake have suction cups to hook them up to window glass. Chickadees, nuthatches, and Downy Woodpeckers immediately came to mine, but it also drew some surprises. Back in November 2003, a Pine Warbler showed up.

Pine Warbler at my suet feeder

In May 2004, during a frigid cold snap, some Scarlet Tanagers came right up to my window to feast. 

Scarlet Tanager at suet

And that tiny window feeder turned out to be a favorite of one of my Pileated Woodpeckers, too. 

Pileated Woodpecker

My father-in-law nailed his homemade suet feeders into his trees. Some people do that with commercial suet feeders, or tie them to a tree trunk or deck beam. 

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Most suet feeders are designed to be hung on poles, tree limbs, or hooks. Some are designed to hold one or two square suet cakes; others hold various cylindrical suet cakes. 

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Chickadee siblings

My favorite suet feeder right now is made of recycled material, holds two suet cakes, and has an extension at the bottom, ideal for large woodpeckers to brace their tails. All my woodpeckers visit it, but especially my Pileated Woodpeckers. 

Pileated Woodpecker

I haven't found commercial suet cakes that are 100 percent suet in years. They all have various ingredients now, and like bags of mixed bird seed, commercial suet cakes can have more cheap fillers than nutritious ingredients. I don't buy ones that contain much cornmeal, oats, or other grains and seeds. Suet cakes with nuts, fruits, or mealworms provide more protein and fat, which birds need. Unfortunately, those better suet cakes often seem to attract more starlings than native birds. So I usually stick to cakes that are mostly suet, bought from a bird-feeding store that I trust. We lowly humans may be healthier if we avoid too much fat, but my backyard birds thrive living off the fat of the land. 

Boreal Chickadee

Sunday, January 23, 2022

Feeding Birds, Part I: Bird Seed

Black-capped Chickadee

The first thing most people think of when they hear “bird feeding” is bird seed. But there are many kinds of bird seed, some much better than others. The basic mixtures sold at many stores may be less expensive than bags of sunflower or white millet but are not economical—you’re paying much more per pound for the seeds birds actually eat. The rest is cheap filler, which mostly goes uneaten, rotting to eventually contaminate the good seed. As far as cheap bird seed mixtures go, just say no. 

Red-breasted Nuthatch

I do buy one seed mixture, called Fiery Feast, but it’s very expensive—I only use it in my small office window feeder. It contains sunflower chips, tree nuts and peanut parts, all laced with capsaicin pepper. Woodpeckers seem to find the spicey taste appealing. I've had Pileated and Red-bellied Woodpeckers and Northern Flickers in my window feeder since switching to Fiery Feast.  

Crappy pictures of a Pileated at my window feeder

Pepper plants have evolved to attract birds while triggering pain sensors in mammal mouths, because healthy birds are the animals that most effectively disseminate pepper seeds. My other feeders have squirrel baffles, but squirrels can easily jump into my window feeder from a couple of different directions on my roof and from my nearby spruce tree. Just tasting the seed is bad enough for them, but apparently standing in it gets enough capsaicin on their feet or belly fur that I think they get a painful reminder when they groom themselves, because it didn’t take many visits for them to stay completely away. Don’t feel too sorry for my squirrels—I put plenty of peanuts out for them every morning. 

Blue Jays at feeder
I count 24 Blue Jays crowded into this feeder with black oil sunflower!

The single seed that appeals to the most birds and is most nutritious is sunflower. The type most people are familiar with because it’s grown for human consumption is called linoleic, and has a thick, striped shell. Long ago, this was the type most often sold for bird feeding, too, so packaging seldom used to specify what type of sunflower seed it was.  

Varied Thrush
This Varied Thrush visited a friend's feeder for black oil sunflower seeds. I think striped sunflower would be too hard for it to open.

The type of sunflower grown primarily for pressing the seeds to extract sunflower oil, usually called “black oil sunflower seed,” started being used more and more for bird feeding in the 1980s. This type has more fat than the white-striped type. Birds metabolize oils and fats better than we humans do, and especially in winter, when calories for fuel are essential, black oil sunflower seed is ideal, but it’s also excellent year-round. Black oil sunflower seed has a thinner, easier-to-open shell than striped sunflower seed, meaning birds expend fewer calories eating it. Chickadees, grosbeaks, and finches can easily open either kind, but blackbirds and House Sparrows have a much easier time with the softer shells of black oil seeds. Where these are a problem, it can be wiser to find striped sunflower seeds. 

Because sunflower shells of either type are not edible and collect in and under feeders, feeding sunflower seeds involves cleanup. As the shells collect and thaw, even for short periods, they begin to rot, fostering disease organisms which contaminate fresh seed, too. This can sicken birds, especially those feeding on the ground. Siskins and redpolls are particularly susceptible—every April we start getting serious warnings about bird feeding because of this. It’s irresponsible to feed sunflower in winter without shoveling or raking out the shells, especially as snows thaw.  

But what do we do with those moldy shells? Sunflower seed shells contain alleopathic compounds which are toxic to grasses and most cultivated garden plants, so they shouldn’t be mixed in with compost we’re planning to use for our gardens unless we have a lot of better yard and food waste to mix in. And no matter how we dispose of it, we need to keep birds out. In most urban areas, including Duluth, people are supposed to keep compost enclosed to keep rats out. That works to keep birds out, too. 

To avoid all the work involved with disposing of shells, or in apartment complexes or other situations where there are rules about bird feeding, many people use sunflower seeds that were already taken out of the shells, called sunflower chips or hearts. These are a main ingredient in many “no mess” bird feeding mixtures and are very popular with birds, but without the shell, they’re susceptible to rot, so it’s important not to put out more than birds can eat in a day or two, especially during wet weather. 

Common Redpoll

Besides black oil sunflower seeds, I buy two other kinds of bird seed. Nyjer seed, often called thistle, is great for finches but expensive. It’s not native to America and to prevent it from becoming a noxious week, it’s heated at high temperatures so it won’t germinate. If it’s heated too long, birds hardly touch it. Buying it in clear bags so you can make sure the seeds are shiny black may help you identify bags birds are more likely to eat. I have a couple of Nyjer tube feeders, which have very tiny holes compared to other tube feeders, and also pour a small amount on my platform feeders when I have a lot of redpolls, siskins, or goldfinches visiting. I mostly fill those feeders with sunflower, which helps keep the Nyjer in the feeder, though a bit does work its way through the screened bottoms. Since the birds that eat Nyjer feed on the ground as much as they do in feeders, they seem to use it up as fast as it collects, but we rake or shovel beneath those feeders anyway as sunflower shells collect.  

Hoary and Common Redpoll and Pine Siskin

Juncoes and other native sparrows feed heavily on white millet. I used to scatter that on the ground in a few places where these birds gather, and I'd still be doing that if I lived in an isolated spot in the woods.  

Fox, White-throated, and White-crowned Sparrows

But ever since rats invaded our neighborhood, I’ve stopped doing setting out bird food on the ground. I pour a bit of millet on my platform feeders each morning when I have a lot of juncos, as I do this winter. My platform feeders have screened bottoms, so some tiny seed falls through to the ground, but it’s a small amount that seems to get eaten up quickly by the juncos eating beneath.  

Dark-eyed Junco