If you feed birds, you're in good company. A 1985 report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services estimates that 86 million Americans provide food for wild birds. That's one out of very three people in the country! As a nation we spend over a billion dollars on bird seed each year. Yet ornithologists have no conclusive evidence that feeders are beneficial to wild bird populations.

So Why Do So Many People Spend So Much Money to Feed Birds?

Because it's fun!

In much of North America, winter is a difficult time for birds and for bird watchers, too. Days are windy and cold; nights are long and colder. The lush, berry-laden vegetation of spring and summer has withered and blown away, and most insects are dead or dormant. Birds must find enough food during the short winter days to fuel their internal furnaces all night, and bird feeders can help. Furthermore, bird watchers who set up backyard feeders don't need to venture outdoors to see birds — they can stay indoors and watch the show.

If you've never fed birds before, and maybe even if you have, you might wonder what foods are best to put in your feeders. The shelves of most grocery stores are loaded with bags of mixed seeds — but are they the food of choice? Probably not.

Choosing Seeds

Birds eat a variety of foods, including fish, reptiles, insects, rodents, and berries. These items are difficult to provide in feeders, however! Fortunately for bird watchers, most winter birds feed primarily on seeds, including those of shrubs, trees, weeds, and grasses. Seeds are inexpensive, easy to store and package, and much more convenient to handle than worms and mice.

Different kinds of birds prefer different types of seeds, but if you're looking for one seed that will attract the greatest number of species, the answer is sunflower. Several studies have shown this high-energy food to be favored hands-down by the majority of species that visit feeders. In fact, if you fill a feeder with a standard mix — a blend of sunflower and other seeds such as milo, millet, oats, wheat, flax, and buckwheat — you'll see many birds kicking out the small seeds to get to the prize. Black oil sunflower is best; striped sunflower seeds are bigger and have thicker seed coats, making them tough for small birds to handle and crack.

At the same time, certain species do prefer seeds other than sunflower. Blackbirds, for example, like corn, while doves are attracted to both corn and millet. But remember: feeding habits of birds vary by region, season, and even among individuals. Therefore, you'll probably find exceptions to the "rules."

Some people save the seeds from squash and melons. These are relished by many bird species, sometimes more than black oil sunflower. They should be spread out on trays and air dried before they're placed in feeders, and if dried sufficiently, can be saved all summer for use the next winter. Smaller birds may have a tough time breaking open vegetable seeds, but if they are chopped up with a food processor, most birds can eat them with ease.

Other seeds attractive to birds include safflower, the food of choice for cardinals, and peanuts, which are eaten by all birds except for woodpeckers. Experiment — see what your birds like best!

Some folks throw out scraps of stale bread, cake, or doughnuts for their feathered visitors. There's probably nothing wrong with this, but be sure the foods are not moldy, or they may be harmful to birds. (Table scraps may also attract large flocks of starlings and house sparrows or even rats.)

Whatever seed you decide to provide, be sure to store it in tight, waterproof containers. Metal containers will prevent rodents from gnawing their way into your food supply.

Providing Suet

Suet, an animal fat, is attractive to many insect-eating birds such as chickadees, woodpeckers, and nuthatches. Suet is strictly a wintertime food, as it turns rancid when temperatures rise above 70 degrees Fahrenheit. According to recent studies, birds prefer plain, inexpensive beef suet over commercial suet cakes. Suet can be tied or wired to trees, placed in wire baskets or onion bags, or pressed into holes drilled into a small log. Suet is a high-energy food and is especially favored by birds wintering in cold locations.

It's best to offer seeds and suet in separate feeders, rather than providing seed-filled suet cakes. Many seed-eating birds do not like suet; furthermore, birds can become covered with the fat when trying to pick seeds out of the mixtures. The grease may cause feathers on the birds'faces and heads to become matted or to fall out, exposing bare skin to cold weather.

Feeder Maintenance

Feeding birds does not require much effort, but some maintenance is necessary. Bird feeders should be cleaned at least once a year by scrubbing them with soap and water, then dipping them into a solution of one part bleach and nine parts water. Be sure to rinse feeders well and to dry them thoroughly before filling them with seed. The only other maintenance chore is to rake up seed hulls in the spring. Decomposing hulls will kill your lawn and might spread disease to your feeder birds.

Reprinted with permission. Copyright Cornell Lab of Ornithology. September 1992, Number 1. Cat. No. 211.