Attracting Birds to your Yard

Even though our South Carolina winters are milder than those experienced by our Northern friends and relatives, many Seabrook Island residents especially enjoy watching birds in our back yards during the winter.   It can, however, be a year round activity.   To increase the number of feathered friends in your yard, there are various things you can do.   The first thought of most people is to install feeders in their yards.  Since different birds like different foods, most people know there are a variety of foods available.  Maybe not so obvious is that different bird species are prevalent at different times of the year so the feed used may also be varied throughout the year.  Information in the Types of Bird Feed section  below was gathered from various web sites and provide a description of the various types of bird feed, the common Seabrook Island birds they attract, and when they should be used.

To attract the greatest variety of birds to your yard, provide several different feeder types that offer a variety of foods. You’ll find that some species are more likely to use one kind of feeder over another. The main types of feeders described by Cornell Lab’s All About Birds – How to Choose the Right Kind of Feeder site are:

  • Tray or Platform Feeders
  • Hopper or “House” Feeders
  • Window Feeders
  • Tube Feeders
  • Nyjer Feeders
  • Suet Feeders
  • Nectar or Hummingbird feeders

In addition to providing feed, birds also need a dependable supply of fresh, clean water for drinking and bathing. Putting a birdbath in your yard may attract birds that don’t eat seeds and wouldn’t otherwise come to your feeders.  Again, Cornell Lab’s All About Birds – Attract Birds with Birdbaths provides good descriptions of various types.

American Robins enjoying a drink from the birdbath – C Moore

As it states, contrary to popular belief, birds often prefer shallow baths close to the ground similar to puddles in nature.  A tray as you would put under a terra cotta pot is an inexpensive but effective alternative / addition to the traditional pedestal bird bath.

It is important for birds’ health and pleasure to frequently clean both feeders and water supplies.  This may require disposal of feed that is no longer healthy.

Habitat is also important to encourage birds.  Wild birds live in a great variety of habitats.

Yellow-rumped Warbler – Ed Konrad

The greater variety or diversity that you create in your backyard can attract more species of wild birds.  Wild birds feel more secure if they have shelter to protect themselves from the elements and predators. Trees and large shrubs are welcome as places to raise and protect their young.  Also consider plants and foliage that produce berries, seeds, fruits, nuts, sap and nectar for year round food, as well as to provide nesting materials.  Shrubs and trees should be selected that are dense enough to support nests, but so birds can move freely among the branches to escape from predators.   Native plants are recommended by many sites.  Plants with red flowers, of course, are known to attract hummingbirds.

Finally, to encourage desirable birds in your backyard, you need to take care to discourage “bully birds” that scare the other birds away or simply eat all the food before the desirable birds can visit.

If you want to become more comfortable identifying those birds at your feeder, Cornell Lab has an online course Feeder Birds: Identification and Behavior.

Types of Bird Feed

Sunflower – There are two kinds of sunflower—black oil and striped.

Carolina Chickadee – Taken at Charles Moore’s home by Dean Morr

The black oil seeds (“oilers”) have very thin shells, easy for virtually all seed-eating birds to crack open, and the kernels within have a high fat content, extremely valuable for most winter birds. Striped sunflower seeds have a thicker shell, much harder for House Sparrows and blackbirds to crack open. So if you’re inundated with species you’d rather not subsidize at your black oil sunflower, before you do anything else, try switching to striped sunflower.  People living in condos or who have trouble raking up seed shells under their feeders often offer shelled sunflower. Many birds love this, as of course do squirrels, and it’s expensive. Without the protection of the shell, sunflower hearts and chips quickly spoil, and can harbor dangerous bacteria, so it’s important to offer no more than can be eaten in a day or two.  Sunflower is very attractive to squirrels, a problem for people who don’t wish to subsidize them. Some kinds of squirrel baffles, and some specialized feeders, are fairly good at excluding them. Sunflower in the shell can be offered in a wide variety of feeders, including trays, tube feeders, hoppers, and acrylic window feeders. Sunflower hearts and chips shouldn’t be offered in tube feeders where moisture can collect.  All forms of sunflower seeds are relished by finches, chickadees, nuthatches, grosbeaks, cardinals, jays and even some species of woodpeckers. This is at the top of the list of all seed for feeding birds. If you want to rely on just one type of seed that is most attractive to the greatest number of backyard birds, hands down sunflower seed is the right pick in any form.

Safflower – As a type of birdseed, safflower seeds are slightly smaller than black oil sunflower seeds but similar in their tapered shape.  They are white seeds and are high in protein, fat and fiber that can provide superior nutrition to many different backyard birds.  While safflower may not be the first seed choice for backyard birds accustomed to more familiar fare, once the seed is introduced, they can grow fond of it.

Carolina Chickadee in Tray Feeder with Safflower – D. Morr

Bird species that regularly feed on safflower seeds include: Carolina chickadees, House finches, Mourning doves, Northern cardinals, and Tufted titmice.  Other bird species may also sample safflower seeds if they are made available, but the best feature of these seeds is not the birds that eat them, but the birds that won’t. Safflower seeds have a bitter flavor and a different shape than other types of birdseed, and grackles, blackbirds and European starlings will typically leave these seeds alone, making them an ideal addition to feeding stations where these “bully birds” might dominate feeders. Many squirrels will also avoid safflower seed and will not disturb feeders where safflower is offered.    Because many birds that prefer safflower are larger species that require adequate perching space, safflower seeds are best offered in large hopper, tube or platform feeders.  Any feeder that can accommodate whole sunflower seeds will also be suitable for offering safflower seeds.  Since the birds that eat this seed are resident year around, this feed is also served year around.

Wild Birdseed Mixes: This is often the “mystery mix” you’ll find at grocery stores or on sale at the local discount store. It’s usually a mix of lots of millet, cracked corn and very few sunflower seeds. The basic problem with these feed-all mixes is that they’re not discriminating and may attract mostly undesirable birds and night critters, such as rats and raccoons. Birds prefer white millet to red millet. But FYI, if you do get a wild bird seed mix and see little red seeds, make sure it is red millet and not milo.  Birds will eat red millet, but milo (Sorghum bicolor) is a filler seed used in cheap bird seed mixes.  Most birds will not eat milo, aside from grackles, cowbirds, starlings, western jays, and game birds such as pheasants, quail, and wild turkeys.  There are many different types of birdseed mixes. Inexpensive mixes typically contain large quantities of milo and millet, as well as smaller amounts of cracked corn, sunflower seeds and other seeds or grain. Wheat is a popular filler addition but has little nutritional value for birds. These mixes can be useful but birders may see large quantities of waste as birds seek out favorite seeds in the mix.

Red-bellied Woodpecker eating from a mixed seed feeder – C Moore

More expensive mixes often have more popular and desirable seeds, such as more sunflower seeds or even sunflower hearts, pumpkin seeds and nuts or nut hearts. These mixes may even contain bits of dried fruit, dried mealworms or other exceptional treats for birds.  There are also varieties available that are already shelled resulting in less trash to clean below the feeders but have an associated higher price but you are not paying for the weight of shells which are not eaten.  Because these mixes attract birds that are around year round, they can be used in feeders all year.

Nyjer Seed is the top seed for Finches.  Although House Finches are in the area year round, the American Goldfinch is here primarily in November through April.  The rarer Purple Finch is seen in January through March.  Nyjer seed is sterilized by intense heat to prevent germination of any additional seeds that may be part of the mix.  A type of oilseed, Nyjer is a popular birdseed because after sterilization it will not sprout if spilled and because it is an exceptional energy source for backyard birds.  The basic nutritional components of Nyjer are 35 percent fat (25 percent minimum), 18 percent protein (16 percent minimum), 18 percent fiber (20 percent maximum), 12 percent sugar (18 percent maximum), 12 percent moisture (maximum).  Because of this composition, Nyjer is especially popular as a winter bird food, when birds require foods with more oil and a higher calorie content so they can store fat to survive colder temperatures. The high protein content in Nyjer is also useful for regenerating feathers when birds molt in the late fall and early spring.  Song Sparrows, Mourning Doves and Pine Siskins will also eat Nyjer Seed.

White Proso Millet – This pale tan or whitish lightweight seed is a bargain for feeding the birds, as one bag will contain many more seeds than an equal sized bag of larger seeds such as sunflower or safflower. Furthermore, millet provides essential nutrition to backyard birds.  Many species of birds prefer millet, including both large and small seed-loving species. Birds that eat millet include: Carolina wrens, Eastern towhees, House finches, Painted buntings and Sparrows.  If White Millet is spread on the ground, it will also be eaten by Mourning Doves and Towhees.  Unfortunately, starlings and house sparrows also enjoy millet.  A caged feeder will keep out most undesirable birds.  In addition, some birders feed white millet in April through October when Painted Buntings are more prevalent.

Hummingbirds – The most common species is the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird

Ruby Throated Hummingbird at feeder – D. Morr

which is seen year around in Charleston but in lesser numbers in the winter.  Black-chinned Hummingbirds and Rufous Hummingbirds are occasionally seen in Charleston County in November through February.  Therefore, keep your hummingbird feeder fresh all year-round.  Mix 1 part sugar with 4 parts water and bring to a boil to kill any bacteria or mold present.  Cool and fill feeder.  Extra sugar water may be stored in a refrigerator.  Red dye should not be added.

Orioles – Baltimore Orioles begin arriving in September and are seen through April in Charleston County.  Orioles are known to enjoy orange slices, grape jelly and mealworms offered from tray-style feeders. Nectar feeders can also be used. Boil two cups of water; add 1/3 cup of sugar; cool and fill the feeder. Orange does seem to help attract them so an orange feeder is nice but putting out an orange can be helpful as well. Many people find that the orioles really like the grape jelly is best. Any store bought grape jelly will do though we hear they prefer Smuckers! You can mix the grape jelly with water to make it stretch a bit farther. Combine one part grape jelly to one part water in your blender and mix until it has the consistency of thick juice.  Set orange halves in a shallow dish of water to discourage ants. Change out your orange halves every day. They dry out quickly and can grow mold, which is harmful to birds.  Be patient and keep the foods fresh, replacing them once a week or so and be sure to keep your feeders clean, too!

Suet – Suet  was once something we stocked our backyard feeders with only in the winter months. Present day suet use is much broader – and more beneficial to birds. In spring, it meets the increased energy demands of nesting birds. In the summer months, it provides a good substitute for insect-eating birds, especially in years when insects are not very plentiful. In fall, suet helps wild birds store fat to prepare for migration or the coming winter. And of course, in winter, suet replenishes depleted stores of energy and nutrients, to help birds survive the long, cold months.  Bird suet is made from fat – oftentimes rendered animal fat. This doesn’t exactly conjure up a picture of healthy dining. But, fat plays a very important role in both human and avian diets. Along with protein and carbohydrates, fat is one of the three dietary sources of calories – or energy. Fats are concentrated forms of energy and, per unit weight, provide more than twice the caloric energy as protein or carbohydrates of equivalent weight. This is very important for birds because their metabolisms are extremely accelerated. Fat energy helps them sustain activity levels longer between meals. So, bring out the suet!  Plus, today’s suet is formulated with much more. It offers ingredients such as seeds, fruits, and insects. You can even get melt-resisting varieties for less mess in summer or suet made from vegetable fat, which tends to resist rancidity better than animal fat varieties. These diverse blends make suet more palatable to a greater variety of species, and they also provide better overall dietary benefits than rendered animal fat alone – any time of the year. Find suet in the form of cakes, balls, or logs in most stores that sell bird seed.

Variety of birds enjoying Peanut Suit

Peanut nuggets while not a suet per se have been successful in attracting a variety of wild birds. This high energy treat is good for attracting songbirds and it comes in a resealable bag.  It is used in a specially designed nugget feeder that is kept up year round.  Unlike suet, it doesn’t drip or go rancid.

Meal worms – Many birds eat insects, and adding mealworms to your feeders is easier than you think. Whether fresh or dried, these insects will be a nutritious snack that will be especially appreciated by summer birds with hungry nestlings to feed.  Any insectivorous bird is likely to enjoy a treat of mealworms but Eastern Bluebirds are the most common bird associated with eating mealworms.  Mealworms can be fed to birds as live insects or in dried or roasted forms. The live insects are much preferred, and the movement will help attract hungry birds, but birds at feeders will eventually discover dried mealworms as well.  Live mealworms should be offered in a shallow dish with straight, smooth sides, such as a plastic or glass container or a specialized mealworm feeder with a solid bottom and high enough sides to contain the insects. These larvae can climb out of rough containers, and even sides of smooth containers should be at least 1-2 inches deep so they cannot escape. Dried or roasted mealworms can be offered in separate containers or mixed in with seed, suet or fruit for more balanced nutrition.  Because mealworms are not complete nutrition for birds, it is best to offer them in limited quantities only. Filling a small dish once per day can provide sufficient mealworms to give birds a treat or to offer parent birds a helping hand with finding enough insects to feed their young, without leaving leftover insects that can attract pests or rodents.

Discouraging bully birds

For those of us who feed birds, there’s nothing more frustrating than a flock of so-called bully birds descending on our backyard feeders. Not only do they eat the feeders clean in minutes, but their aggressive behavior also can discourage some of our favorite songbirds.  That’s why controlling these species is one of the most common concerns among many birders.  Bully birds include blackbirds, grackles, pigeons, European starlings and house sparrows. The last three are non-native species and are not protected by law. These hungry avian invaders are often attracted to a yard by the cheap wild birdseed mix or suet that’s made available on the ground or in easy-access feeders. If you’re one of the people frustrated by the behavior of bully birds in your backyard, don’t give up the fight. Here are some solutions that will help you keep these pest birds at bay, so you can continue feeding the birds you love.

  • Avoid corn at feeders, which bully birds love. Offer nyjer thistle to bring in plenty of finches instead.
  • Lock Out Bully Birds – Because virtually all bully birds are larger than more desirable birds, you can adapt your feeders to accommodate only smaller species. Try enclosing the feeders with large-mesh hardware cloth or chicken wire with openings big enough to allow smaller birds to pass through (a 2-inch opening should do). This will exclude the large bully birds. You can also purchase caged-in tube or tray feeders at your local bird, hardware or garden store. Just be sure to get one with the feeder portion located several inches inside the cage, so bullies can’t reach the seed with their long bills.
  • Outwit Starlings – European starlings have a fondness for suet. Foil them by hanging the suet up and under a domed squirrel baffle. Starlings are reluctant to go underneath any kind of cover and usually will avoid the hard-to-reach meal. A special starling-proof feeder, in which the suet can be eaten only from underneath, is also available in bird stores.
  • Keep It Clean – Some backyard birders have the greatest problems with bully birds that eat the cast-off seeds below hanging and post feeders. Pigeons are notorious for gathering in flocks underneath feeders for their meals. The solution for this problem is to collect the fallen seeds in a deep container, such as a plastic garbage can or pail, that the pest birds cannot or will not get into. You can make a hole in the center of the container and place it right on your feeder pole.
  • Selective Feeding – Generally, bully birds prefer bread, corn, millet, wheat and sunflower seeds. To get rid of them, supply food they won’t eat. To feed finches, fill hanging tube feeders with only nyjer seed (thistle). For cardinals, chickadees and nuthatches, provide safflower seed in hopper or tray feeders. If you do this, grackles, crows and blackbirds generally will look elsewhere for the foods they like.

Article submitted by: Judy Morr

Photos submitted by: Ed Konrad, Charley Moore, Dean Morr

Author: sibirders

SEABROOK ISLAND BIRDERS / “watching, learning, protecting” Seabrook Island Birders (SIB) are residents, renters and guests of Seabrook Island, SC who have an interest in learning, protecting and providing for the well-being of the incredible variety of birds that inhabit Seabrook Island throughout the year.

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