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Feed the birds—for less. November 6, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Do you love attracting chickadees, cardinals, bluejays, titmice, finches, juncos, woodpeckers, nuthatches, and other entertaining birds to your feeders in winter? Are you feeling a pinch in your wallet that’s causing you to have second thoughts about buying all those bags of birdseed? Here’s how you can bring in the birds without breaking the bank.

The trick is to realize that you don’t need all those fancy mixes. We’ve never had a winter visitor who wouldn’t eat one (or both) of just two kinds of seed: black-oil sunflower and millet. Just today, our friend Ben and Silence Dogood were following our good friend Delilah’s advice and buying rechargeable, ultra-bright halogen lanterns on sale at Tractor Supply. We appreciate our faithful battery-powered Coleman lanterns, but they’re best for finding our way around. Certainly not bright enough to read, cook or knit by without risking severe eyestrain or worse. Now, next time our power goes out, our rooms will be bright enough so we can enjoy entertaining and/or useful pursuits day or night.

But I digress. Point being, after adding two lanterns to our shopping cart, I turned to Silence and asked what else we needed. “Chicken feed and birdseed,” she replied. Well, the chicken feed—scratch grains and egglayer pellets—was easy enough.

But the bewildering array of birdseed mixes had us scratching our heads, as always. Most of the cheaper mixes have lots of cracked corn, proso millet (those round orange seeds), wheat, and even soy, all of which which most birds pass up. (Imagine being served a meal of mixed sauerkraut, liver, cream of wheat, and Brussels sprouts. Yes, you could eat it, but who’d want to?!)

And the pricey mixes seem to add high-end ingredients based on their people appeal rather than their bird appeal. (Not unlike canned dog and cat food named for luscious human meals. Our friend Ben doubts that those cans really hold anything resembling prime rib au jus or chicken Cordon Bleu, or that the dogs would care.)

After what seemed to our friend Ben to be a mind-numbingly long search among the miles of displays, Silence gave a triumphant cry. “Look, Ben! Look at this bag of beautiful millet!” The millet (small, round, white seeds, not larger orange ones like proso) did indeed look plump, fresh, and clean. “Now we just need a bag of black-oil sunflower seeds, and we’ll mix them when we get home!” And that’s what we did, storing the seed mix In a large lidded tin pet-food canister. We also tossed in some shelled sunflower seeds that Silence, who’d been busy cleaning out the fridge, thought might have gotten a bit stale, lurking as they were at the very back of a shelf. Waste not, want not, and shelled seed commands premium prices in the birdseed aisle.

If you love goldfinches and host them year-round like we do, you may be saying “But hey, I thought goldfinches ate Nyger (aka niger) thistle!” Fans of cardinals might be wondering about safflower seed, a supposed cardinal favorite. But the truth is that, while cardinals, unlike most birds, will eat safflower seed, it’s not their preferred seed (that would be black-oil sunflower). And in our backyard trials pitting Nyger against black-oil sunflower for goldfinches, the finches completely ignored the Nyger and devoured the sunflower seeds. Save your money.

If you’d like more great tips on how to save money and attract birds to your backyard, we have to give a shout-out to our friend Deb Martin and her new book, Secrets of Backyard Bird-Feeding Success (Deborah L. Martin, Rodale Inc., 2011). Deb shares hundreds of sensible solutions for feeding the birds on a budget, including which native plants will attract birds. We especially love this approach, since it requires no further expense or effort on your part.

Deb was interviewed by Irene Kraft in our local paper, the Allentown, PA Morning Call, this past Saturday (October 29, 2011). We urge you to read the article, “Bird Feeding on a Budget,” online (www.themorningcall.com) to preview some of Deb’s tips and proven advice. (She lives on a big wooded lot, and we can guarantee that she’s tried every single tip she recommends in her own backyard.)

We confess that the tip we found most intriguing was Deb’s habit of saving the seeds at the bottom of bagel bags, crumbs from bread, bits of cereal and crackers, etc., and freezing them. She also saves bacon drippings, beef fat, and etc. and freezes that. Then, when cold weather arrives, rather than buying those seed-enhanced suet blocks, she pulls out her stash of seeds, crumbs and fat from the freezer, melts the fat, mixes in the seeds and crumbs, and voila! Free homemade suet blocks. The article didn’t say how Deb shapes her homemade suet blocks, but given the standardized dimensions of most suet feeders and the ubiquitous blocks you buy to pop into them, we’d suggest saving the empty plastic forms from a couple of storebought suet blocks, then pouring your homemade suet mix into them and popping them back in the freezer ’til they’re set.

Another tip Deb shared that we totally approve of is saving and rinsing the seeds of cantaloupes and other melons, then drying them on newspaper before feeding them to the birds. We don’t actually do this, since our chickens get all our melon rinds and seeds, which they adore, saving us the trouble of rinsing and drying seeds. But having seen how much the chickens love melon seeds, we can believe they’d be a treat for some backyard birds as well, and again, they’re free! 

Thanks, Deb, for another great birdfeeding book. For all you bird-loving cheapsters out there—like us!—we suggest that you head to your local bookstore or Amazon or B&N.com and get your own copy of Secrets of Backyard Bird-Feeding Success. Given the price of most birdseed mixes out there—not to mention the contents—you’ll recoup the book’s price with your first bag of seed!



1. pixilated2 - November 7, 2011

I grew LOTS of GIANT sunflowers this summer, and while they were thrilling to see at 12 to 14 feet tall, and I’ll admit it, a bit nostalgic, they were a dud with the birds! I hung two giant heads out by my dinning room window, my favorite bird viewing spot, and nothing. Not one bird, not a even a squirrel has bothered to bite. I will be taking them down and buying some black oil sunflower seeds! Oh, and I will be saving some to plant this spring!!! Thanks for sharing this, Lynda
PS: The larger millet and milo in the other mix is a favorite of the doves who frequent our place, but then, smaller millet is a magnet for imported English Sparrows. Some harbor ill feelings towards the IES, which is another reason safflower seed became popular with backyard birders. It is a quandary. Guess I’ll just stick the black oil sunflower seeds… That is, AFTER the plague of STARLINGS LEAVE! ;(

Starlings, gack! You’re right about the doves eating the proso and cracked corn; I guess I never think of them because I don’t like them (little pinheads). I’ve hung sunflower heads before and gotten the same results. If you grow the black-oil sunflowers next year, please tell us what they look like in bloom!

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