Monday, February 9, 2009

Feeding birds


I have my three favorite bird feed types-black oil sunflower seeds, niger seed, and suet. The rather expensive niger seed, known as "black gold" by birdseed sellers, is a favorite of goldfinches, siskins, and redpolls. This seed comes from a cosmos-like yellow flower native to Ethiopia, where it is a major export crop rivaling coffee and spices. Niger seed is sometimes mistakenly called thistle seed because goldfinches like thistle and they like niger seed, but the seed is unrelated to thistle plants.

The black oil sunflower seeds bring in the other birds-chickadees, tufted titmouse, both nuthatches, blue jays, cardinals, juncos, and an occasional song sparrow. The downy and hairy woodpeckers peck at the suet. I purposely avoid other seed mixes that include corn and other filler. These seeds are not as favored by the winter songbirds and can create a nuisance of other birds, such as blackbirds, doves, and some sparrows.

I feed birds because I enjoy seeing them in the winter. My personal bird feeding creed is that I do no harm and not create a nuisance. A few weeks ago I spoke with a woman from central New Hampshire who was being harassed by a flock of 30 wild turkeys at her feeder. The turkeys are attacking her as she approaches to fill the feeders. I suggested that she return the unopened bag of mixed seed with cracked corn and instead use black oil sunflower seeds. Turkeys like corn. Maybe they will disperse if the corn is gone. Our state wildlife agency encourages people not to feed turkeys. It can lead to greater diseases and predation and increase in human conflicts. The story above confirms the latter. The New Hampshire Fish and Game Department also urges everyone not to feed white-tailed deer, for similar reasons.

My feeders go up in November and come down in late March. Birds are better able to find natural foods-cones, seeds, berries, and insects--the rest of the year. Also, black bears wake and emerge in early April from their winter slumber. They are hungry and bird seed seems to be just as tasty as some ants beneath a fallen log. Perhaps we like to see bears in our backyard, but a "fed bear is a dead bear." Bear attacks on bird feeders become statistics and lead to controls of "nuisance" bears.

A way to keep birds in our yards throughout the year is to provide good habitat. Native shrubs (in New Hampshire this includes sumac, viburnums, dogwoods, blueberries) for food, flowers for nectar feeding hummingbirds, and thickets, brush piles and dead trees for cover.

The red-breasted nuthatch pair is back at the feeders today, enjoying the suet and sunflower seeds. No squirrels, turkeys, or bears in sight!

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