Notes about Bird Feed
by Jon Friedman
Many books and articles have been written about attracting and feeding backyard birds. Most of these address their subjects in the generic sense, as if we all live in the same region and share similar habitat and, even, have the same bird species visit all our yards equally. I believe that the “rules” that these books and articles stress should just be considered basic beginning guidelines, at best. I suggest to customers that experimentation is encouraged, once the basics are understood. Every yard can offer different arrangements of habitat, feeders and foods. Even in similarly developed suburban neighborhood backyards or more densely populated urban areas. Birders (that is, folks who feed and watch birds) can attract a wide variety of species by using a wide variety of foods and appropriate feeders to dispense those foods.
What not to expect
Having an understanding of the basic needs of birds found in the region will enable most birders to have success in attracting many of the birds that inhabit their region – either as migrants traveling through the area certain times of the year or year-round resident birds. It is unrealistic to expect to attract every bird listed in any field guide. No matter how much you wish you could, it will prove impossible to attract Rosette Spoonbills, Snowy Owls, California Condors, or any of the penguin species to your Southern Arizona backyard. Even if your field guide informs you that Elegant Trogons are regular visitors to our region, it is highly unlikely that you can attract them to your backyard unless you live in their preferred habitat in or near Portal, Arizona, for example. Most of the exotics that make Arizona a well-known birding destination can only be found in their preferred breeding or wintering habitat. That’s not to say that once in a while you may get lucky and see an unlikely species grace your landscape. But, it will take some thought and effort regarding how you set up your backyard feeding station. I have written previously that I had the good fortune of attracting unlikely species such as Yellow Grosbeak, Flame-colored Tanager, Aztec Thrush, Indigo Bunting, and Pygmy Owl to my station. But, these are the exceptions to the rule.
A positive example
One can reasonably expect to successfully attract many of the more “usual suspects” that are seen in your area, either seasonally or year-round. Occasionally, a more exotic species can be found in the Tucson area, especially if it travels in a mixed flock or with similar or related birds. Years ago, I discovered that the best method to find the relatively rare Golden-crowned Sparrows during the winter months is to carefully scan the small flocks of the more commonly found White-crowned sparrows that arrive in winter to feed on the white proso millet and finch mix I put out in dove-proof ground feeders. Knowing that it is easy to attract the White-crowned Sparrows gives me hope that I can spot a Yellow-crowned among them.
Understanding basic needs
Understanding the four main needs that all birds require – food, water, habitat and shelter – will help us successfully realize our goal of establishing a beneficial bird sanctuary, or feeding station at the least, in our own backyards. I have written extensively about these subjects, particularly about providing habitat and water, in previous newsletter feature articles which are available in the birding articles section of the wildbirdsonline.com website. This article will focus more extensively on the types of foods that will attract and feed birds.
What to keep in mind
A general “rule of thumb” to keep in mind is this – The wider the variety of foods and feeders you provide for birds to use, the wider the variety of bird species that can be attracted. And, while I understand that every yard may be different and unique, the generic guidelines I suggest are a good beginning point. As birders gain experience and want to expand their efforts and the rewarding results, they may want to experiment within the parameters of the backyard and add new feeders, change the location of a feeder, etc. Birders know that patience is rewarded, and experimentation may also bring rewarding results.
Foods in general
As stated, the widest variety of foods will attract the widest variety of birds. Approximately half of the avian species we can experience in our backyards or feeding stations are seed eaters. These seed eating birds may include other food types in their overall diet, but seeds are the staple. Red finches and goldfinches may typify seed eating birds in this respect. Insectivores, that are birds that consume insects as a primary staple in their diet, are the next largest group. While insects dominate their diets, at least seasonally, they may also eat other types of foods to supplement their diets. Flycatchers, warblers, and gnatcatchers are good examples of insectivores. Phainopepla, a common flycatcher in the Tucson region, will ingest the otherwise poisonous mistletoe berries when insects are scarce. There are also some birds that specialize in eating fruits and other plant parts. Orioles, tanagers, and many other tropical and neo-tropical species are reliant on fruits in their diets. Nuts, too, are a prized and preferred food type for certain birds. Crossbills, Clark’s Nutcracker, and most woodpeckers consider nuts their primary food. Nectar is also a primary food source for many avian species. Close to home, the hummingbirds are the best example of nectivores. Elsewhere throughout the world there are many other examples of birds who prize nectar as either their primary food or source of energy. Lorikeets and certain other parrots are good examples.
It is important to keep in mind that while most avian species have a preferred or primary food they will eat as the basic staple in their diet, most will eat other food types when their favored food is in short supply or non-existent. The above mentioned reference to the familiar Phainopepla is an excellent example. Woodpeckers and flickers may prefer nuts when available but will consume a variety of insects and/or fruits if nuts aren’t abundant. Flickers actually prefer ants to other insects. I have observed Gila Woodpeckers gulping bees near nectar feeders. In fact, most backyard birders may think that woodpeckers prefer nectar over nuts or insects as they are often viewed at nectar feeders. Cardinals and Pyrrhuloxia enjoy a quite broad diet, rich in various nutrients. While seeds will dominate their daily food consumption, they will indulge in nearly all other food types when they are abundant or available. These examples serve to remind us that even among the birds themselves, there are no hard-and-fast rules which govern exactly what birds eat.
Having a variety of food types, and the correct type of feeders for delivering those foods, gives birds the best opportunities for foraging in your backyard. Out in the wild, finding foods isn’t usually as easy as in your yard. Yet the vast majority of foods consumed by birds annually are the foods that nature provides in the environment. Some types of foods, such as brightly colored fruits, may be readily found and eaten, but most birds have to search within their environment for food items that may not be as apparent. Also, many natural foods found in the wild are usually only seasonally available and some of those foods may be unpredictable, even when they are available. For example, insects may hatch out in great numbers once a year and only be present for a relatively short time. When insects such as mayflies first hatch out, they are extremely numerous, forming thick clouds of frenzied flies swarming through the air. There may be millions of them at the beginning of their season. But as their relatively short season progresses, their numbers are drastically reduced day by day until, within a couple weeks, they have seemingly disappeared. Fruits, too, disappear from the trees – sometimes before they are fully ripe. An advantage that birds have is that they are extremely familiar with the terrain and plants and insects within their home territories and have learned from prior years what to forage for and where to forage, and that prior experience makes their foraging for food a bit easier. Flocking birds have an advantage over solitary birds in locating food as many eyes can search a larger area more effectively than a single pair of eyes.
Identifying and consuming nourishing foods
As birds benefit from efficient foraging, they must also consider not only the easiest and quickest foods to eat but also the most nutritious. Of the many types of seeds that birds eat, including both wild and farmed seeds, some are hard and thick-shelled but very nutritious. Other seeds may be softer-shelled and easier to open but less nutritious. Seed eating birds with relatively thick bills may be more efficient at opening hard seeds but may also be less adept at opening smaller or softer seeds than their thinner-billed relatives. Goldfinches prefer Nyjer thistle seed as their overwhelming favorite. The seed is small and thin-shelled but has a very nutritious nutmeat at the center and the seed is easily opened by the goldfinch’s delicate yet sharp bill. Cardinals and Pyrrhuloxia, by contrast, have much larger and stouter beaks relative to size, and can therefore consume a much wider variety of foods. As a result they are therefore able to find food almost anywhere they are and depending upon what foods are most available and abundant. Harder, thicker-shelled seeds and most nuts that are bypassed by most other birds are easily eaten by the cardinals. In and near nut groves, some birds may have learned how to drop nuts onto the rocks below from high in the air in order to crack them, and then begin the difficult task of getting the nut pieces out of the shell. Cardinals can usually simply position the nut properly in their bills and exert enough tremendous pressure to quickly crack the nut open. Clark’s Nutcracker, nuthatches, and jays all prefer nuts but none can eat them as easily as the cardinals so they have developed various strategies in order to crack the shells open. Some of these birds drop the nuts onto roadways and let the car tires smash the nuts open.
Other means of acquiring foods by raptors
In the wild, some birds have different, and often more difficult times locating and consuming their favorite foods. Most raptors hunt prey animals and/or insects as their main form of nourishment. Hunting is very energy consuming. Unsuccessful hunters may face uncertain fates if they can’t get the nourishment they need on the schedule they need it. Oftentimes the prey can avoid becoming food by evasive action. Many hunters depend on surprise attacks or great stealth in order to insure success. Many raptors, particularly owls, surprise their prey by silently attacking from behind. Marsh species, such as herons and egrets, depend upon stealth and extremely slow movements until in position to “spear’ their prey with their sharp, stabbing bills. Falcons take their prey while in mid-air, on the wing. While in unsuspecting flight the prey bird is reduced to an explosion of feathers in an instant and the falcon is satisfied until its next meal. Harris’ Hawks are the most unusual hunters of all the raptors in that they hunt in a group, like a wolf pack, on the ground. After surrounding a rabbit for example, one of the hawks will flush the prey from underneath a bush and the group of hawks will share the prize.
Even after spending time and energy locating food, consuming the food may be different for different species and families of birds. Cardinals, Pyrrhuloxia and grosbeaks cannot swallow whole large seeds or nuts encased in thick, hard shells. But with their heavy, strong bills they can crack the shells, discard them, and swallow the smaller and nutritious nutmeats contained within. In order to crack the seed or nut open, they must manipulate the shell in their bills to align and position the food so it will crack with the least amount of pressure. Most songbird babies that are still in the nest are often fed an insect diet wholly or in great part. However, parent birds know to pull inedible wings and clip insect legs before allowing the babies to eat those insects. Some insect parts have no known nutritional value and would otherwise be indigestible and unswallowable. So, aside from manipulating the foods, some foods need to be trimmed, especially for the young. Fish-eating birds must learn to swallow fish head first so that their fin spines will easily go down their gullet. The birds must learn to patiently flip the fish, sometimes many times, before it is in the correct head first position for proper ingestion. Many adult songbirds will predigest their food and later regurgitate that food into their babies’ gullets.
In the wild, nature provides many more seeds, grains, edible plant parts, and other foods for birds to forage or hunt. By contrast, we are quite limited as to what we offer birds in our backyards. Birds depend upon their wild foods for the solid basis of their diets and add to that when they visit our feeders. So, it is important to provide high quality and very nutritious supplements to their wild, natural diets. In fact, that’s exactly what we are doing when we set up our bird feeding stations – supplementing their natural diets.
The most commonly used seeds used in backyards across the country are the sunflower and millet seeds. They are used singly and as the basic ingredients for most mixes. Even within these two seed groups, there are distinctions and choices to be made. Within the sunflower seeds, the most popular single seed with the majority of seed-eating birds are the small black oil sunflower seeds. These are the smallest in the family and have the thinnest shells to remove, so about 70% of the seed-eating birds prefer this highly nourishing seed. It is highest in fat, which translates into quick energy for birds. These seeds are the highest in protein as well. The shell of the seed has a distinct cleavage and birds can manipulate each seed in their bill correctly so that when pressure is exerted the outer shell breaks into two halves which the birds let drop. They retain the softer, oiler nutmeat within the seed. Most seed-eating birds consume seeds in this manner. Gallinaceous birds, like quail, swallow the seed whole and their crop and digestive system break the entire seed down to the point where it is digestible. Because this particular sunflower seed is extremely high in oil, combined with the fact that Americans are eating healthier by using sunflower oil in their cooking, there is stiff competition in the sunflower market. Whereas the overwhelming majority of sunflowers were traditionally and historically grown to be used as bird seed, the demand by humans for healthier cooking oils has contributed to the increased value of these seeds in recent years.
Not to be overlooked in the sunflower market are the large striped sunflowers and sunflower hearts. Long considered to be the ultimate sunflower for both the bird and human markets was the large gray-striped sunflower seed. This very large seed was favored by the cardinals, grosbeaks, and other stout-billed birds as well as for the large pet market trade. The medium and large parrots all preferred this seed. It was also the seed of choice for humans. At the baseball stadiums, the seating areas were littered with thousands of these shells to be cleaned up after each game. These seeds were large enough to satisfy even human appetites. However, several years ago the largest variety of this seed disappeared off the market entirely. This particular seed strain was developed by a long-time California farming family, who held the rights to it. When the family retired from the farming business, they retired the rights to grow this seed as well. While other interested parties tried unsuccessfully to buy the rights and continue production, the family refused and this seed became no longer available. Smaller versions of this largest-of-all sunflower seeds were developed but the bird market did not respond as favorably as the human market, so these seeds are rarely seen.
Instead, the large gray-striped sunflower seed has been replaced with the large black-striped sunflower for the birding market. This seed is only slightly smaller but its shell is considerably thinner. It is still thick enough to cause problems for the smallest seed-eating birds like red finches but stout enough for the cardinals, Pyrrhuloxia and grosbeaks. This particular seed is a key ingredient for our exclusive cardinal mix.
Sunflower hearts, the kernel or nutmeat at the center of the larger seeds, is a favorite for folks to use when feeding birds as the shell is already removed leaving nothing but the fatty, nutritious nutmeat. There is absolutely no waste involved in providing this seed. For this reason they cost more than seeds with shells on but there’s the advantage of no littering of shells on the ground. Folks who are concerned about maintaining as clean a feeding area as possible prefer using this seed. People with very close neighbors like those who live in apartments, condominiums, and townhouses tend to prefer using sunflower hearts, too.
The millet family of seeds is used by humans and birds throughout the world. In Ethiopia, white proso millet is a staple of the human diet and used creatively in many ways. White proso millet is usually considered the highest quality for nutritional reasons and, in bird seed mixes, is usually the second most important ingredient after sunflower seeds. All the millet seeds are rather tiny and round in appearance, but give consumers more bang for the buck in that a pound of millet will contain far more seeds than a pound of any other seed, with the possible exception of Nyjer thistle seeds. Increasingly in the West, millet is gaining popularity with humans and can easily be found in health food stores and is used as an ingredient in cereal mixes and breads. I buy hulled, dehydrated, and organic white proso millet in my local market and freely add it to some of my favorite recipes.
Golden brown German millet is also used extensively in the bird food market, but as a distant second to the white proso variety. About the same small size as the white millet, it has a slightly off-white, or tan color. Rarely is it a true deep brown. Probably due to supply and demand issues, this seed is not always as readily available as its white relative and oftentimes is priced considerably higher. For those reasons it is not as popular as the white millet. It seems to be a secondary preference for the birds as well.
Red millet is also used in human and bird foods, although from the bird’s point of view, it would be their third choice in terms of favorability. True to its name it is a red seed with some brown undertones.
Rape seed is also popularly found in seed mixes. Like the millets, it’s a small seed that is far more popular with the smaller seed-eaters. Also known as canola seed, this seed is grown more for the human market where its cold-pressed oil is sold as canola oil, a healthy alternative to corn and other vegetable oils. Rape seed is also very tiny, round, and black in color. While birds do and will eat it, it is not as popularly accepted as the millets. I think this is due to the extremely hard and relatively thick shell for such a small seed.
Last among the smallest seeds commonly used in some bird mixes is flax seed. Flax is also admired by humans. It is recognized as equitable to fish oil supplements and therefor has a large health-conscious following. Flax is also the source for one of our more valuable fibers – linen! It is a small seed, dark brown in color, somewhat flat and pear-shaped. Regular finch mixes are usually composed of all or most of the above mentioned smaller seeds and they can used in virtually any feeder design, including Nyjer thistle feeders, as the seeds will pass through even the tiniest of seed food ports.
Perhaps the healthiest of all seeds is hemp. It has more uses and benefits than virtually any other seed. I think of it as preventive medicine for birds. However, probably due to its increased cost and prohibition, it has not been used much in bird seed mixes for over 70 years. In the U.S. politicians have long confused hemp and cannabis, and effectively banned the cultivation and research of both plants with passing of legislation outlawing both plants in the 1930’s. While the rest of the world has long recognized the importance of both plants to humans, it is only in very recent years that U.S. laws have begun loosening up enough to allow new research and allow the importation of this seed. While growers in several states have successfully petitioned the government to begin growing hemp to fill the growing demands for the wide variety of uses this plant offers, hemp seed from Canada has been the only available source to bird seed manufacturers. Hemp, long considered the most important and essential of all seeds in bird seed mix, was the primary ingredient of Hartz seed mixes for birds until the 1939 prohibition. Today, American farmers are in the infancy of producing a promising new crop that will greatly influence both human and bird uses for this seed.
Safflower seed is another very healthy seed to provide to birds. Pressed for its high-quality oil, it is familiar to American consumers and a staple in many kitchens. For birds, it has the advantages of providing most of the same nutrients as do the best of the sunflowers, but with less fat. Fat, as mentioned earlier, translates into quick energy for wild birds. But fat can be a death knell for pet birds like parrots. So safflower is a preferred seed for cage birds which can’t expend as much energy as free, wild birds. It is an almost pure white seed in color and of medium size – slightly smaller than the smallest sunflowers but larger than most other seeds in any given mix.
The most popular seed sold in America, and certainly in our store, is Nyjer thistle. It is not a true member of the larger thistle family and as such, was renamed in recent years. Nyjer more scientifically classifies this seed and the spelling was altered to help with correct pronunciation. As far as the family of North American goldfinches is concerned, this is not only the king of seeds, but the only seed they consider worth consuming. Of course, in the wild the goldfinches do eat other plant materials such as grass seeds and certain flowers, along with a complement of certain insects. But, at backyard feeding stations, Nyjer thistle attracts these brilliant yellow songbirds much like iron filings are attracted to a strong magnet. There simply is no other better seed for them.
Nyjer thistle is a tiny, slender, black seed much smaller than a single grain of rice. The extremely tiny nutmeat inside the shell packs a nutritional wallop and rush of energy that enables goldfinches to quickly dehull the shell and eat their fill of this miraculous food source. Nyjer is banned from cultivation in the entire western hemisphere as it is considered a noxious weed and cattle react badly when eating it. As a result, all Nyjer thistle is imported into this country from two other countries where its oil is the common cooking oil – Ethiopia and India. In fact, both of these countries subsidize this important oil to insure even the poorest of the poor have access to high quality cooking oil. Its more expensive price tag reflects the larger growing, shipping, distribution, sterilization and importation costs. In the past two or three years, there’s a growing movement among American farmers to produce the pure Nyjer our goldfinches crave without getting into the legal and scientific questions that surround the cultivation of pure thistle.
Most of the other bird foods commonly used and that we keep in stock have been covered in previous articles that can be found in our website archive of newsletter articles. Most noteworthy among those foods are no-melt suet doughs, peanuts, seed and/or nut compressed blocks or cylinders, nectar, and insect meal.
Hopefully, this article will give the reader a somewhat more detailed or expanded understanding of birds’ feeding preferences and some thoughts related to their foods. Foraging, feeding techniques, finding foods, avoiding poisonous foods etc. are just some of the skills that birds must master in order to survive and thrive.