Feeding the Birds?
With increased interest in birding, there has been a huge expansion in the number of people attracting wild birds to their yards by the placement of seed and suet feeders. Suet is the hard, white, saturated fat surrounding the muscular loins of beef, lamb and pork. While diet conscious humans may cringe at the thought of consuming such stuff, the birds have no such hang-ups. Their bodies seem to instinctively recognize suet as a concentrated form of storable energy (fat has twice the calories of carbohydrates) and that is all that matters to them when they are trying to cope with the elements. Bird feeding started out as a way to help small birds survive during the cold winter months and it has done a lot to make our urban and suburban environments much more bird friendly. Many people, however, now put seed out year round and my feeling is that it may not be the best idea to provide food in the spring and summer months.
We sometimes forget that, in a natural environment, seed is usually not available during the breeding season. This is when most plants are flowering and they typically don’t go to seed until much later in the summer or fall. At the same time that plants are not producing seed, there is an explosion of insect life. Thus does Mother Nature assist the parent birds in their instinctive tendencies to feed insects to their young. This is important, because the growth rate of nestlings is so rapid that they need protein in a much more concentrated and digestible form than can be had from seeds. A nice, big squishy bug or worm fits the bill (no pun intended) perfectly. Providing abundant seed at a time when it would not normally be available in large quantities may be screwing up nature’s balance.
Digesting hard seeds, nuts and grains is a little bit tough when you have no teeth, so birds have developed specialized digestive systems to deal with it. Have you ever noticed clusters of finches and sparrows at the edges of roadways and gravel paths, particularly in winter when seeds are the only food source? They are picking up and swallowing tiny bits of gravel. This gravel accumulates in an organ at the bottom of the throat, called the “crop”, where it mingles with previously ingested seeds. The thick, muscular walls of the crop grind everything together, providing the initial digestive breakdown of the food in much the same way as chewing. Well, this system may not be fully developed and operational in the young birds in the nest.
Some seed-eating species have adapted to the needs of the nestlings by partially digesting the seeds and then feeding the young through regurgitation, but with four or five ravenous mouths to feed, the temptation may be too great for the harried parents to resort to the quick fix. One spring I recall sitting in a friend’s backyard and watching a mother Starling that had a nest full of babies in the eaves of the house, rummage through the feeder time and time again to pull out a peanut and fly up to feed it to the kids. Granted, the mother was selecting the item with the highest protein content, but I couldn’t help but wonder if the young were getting the kind of nutrition from this that is so vital to them at this stage of their development.
There is a song with the line “Summertime, and the living is easy ‘” Well, this song could well be sung by our wild bird population. With abundant natural food, spring and summer is the easiest time to survive and raise a family. Large amounts of seed available during this season, is not only unnecessary, but may actually be harmful. I usually suggest to friends, as a general guideline, to take feeders down or leave them empty from April 1 to September 1 every year.
There are other ways to attract birds to your garden in the spring and summer. Birds love water, particularly running water. You will be amazed at how popular a birdbath with a drip spout or a running water fountain will be with your feathered friends. Hummingbird feeders are a very popular fixture in many yards during the summer. Even feeding these marvels of adaptation has limits though. Hummingbirds migrate very early. Typically most of them are gone by August (except for the non-migratory Anna’s Hummingbird). By leaving a feeder up too long, you may be unwittingly encouraging the birds to linger much later than they normally would. This, in turn, could affect their migration pattern, and have them too far north with a very scarce food supply. As a guideline, I usually suggest putting up a hummingbird feeder from March 1 to August 1 only.
By the way, tray type bird feeders, unless they are kept relatively clean, can make backyard birds much more susceptible to disease. It relates to the feeding habits of some species, particularly the finches. If you watch a feeder for any length of time you will notice that certain birds approach mealtime in different ways. Chickadees and nuthatches employ a basic “hit and run” technique, where they will fly in just long enough to grab a morsel (most often a sunflower seed) and then hightail it to the nearest bush or tree to hammer open the tasty treat against a branch. Juncos and other types of sparrows like to stay on the ground underneath the feeder and pick through the spillage.
The disease problem arises from the “all-you-can-eat smorgasbord” table manners of certain types of finches, such as the House Finch, the House Sparrow (despite the name, not really a sparrow but a member of the finch family), and the Pine Siskin. These species will often park their butts right in the seed tray for minutes at a time as they feed. Being in one spot for so long, there is naturally going to be some defecation in the seed tray. The feces gets mixed in with the seed and, if allowed to build up, eventually leads to a proliferation of Salmonella bacteria in the tray. This in turn puts all the birds that subsequently feed, at risk of fatal Salmonella poisoning. The Pine Siskin is one species that, in British Columbia, has been particularly vulnerable to this kind of malady over the last few years. It’s just one of those little ironic twists of life that, in trying to help the birds survive, one may, in fact, be unwittingly contributing to their demise.
The long, clear plastic tube feeders are relatively safe for the birds because usually there is nothing underneath the perch where the bird sits to pluck the seeds. Thus the feces falls to the ground. The feeder types that may foster this type of poisoning are the ones that dispense seed onto a narrow, flat tray on either side of the feeder. For this style of feeder it is very important to keep the seed tray clean to curtail the possibility of Salmonella poisoning. This can be done by brushing out the tray once or twice a week and getting rid of any seed that appears to be contaminated with feces, or mostly husks, or wet, or caked. It is also a good idea to take the feeder down on a regular basis for a good washing with soap and water or a mild bleach solution that will kill any bacteria.
Another note about feeding. Anytime you have a bunch of food out there, be prepared for uninvited guests. The abundance of seed around feeders tends to attract squirrels in the daytime, rats and mice at night, and, because of the concentration of songbirds, the occassional hawk that treats your feeder like the drive-thru window at McDonald’s. Although there are steps you can take to limit this activity, it can’t be eliminated entirely (hunger has a way of making God’s creatures very persistent). Rodents can be prevented from climbing into the feeder by installing a “squirrel guard”. Available at most of the local bird feeding stores, this guard is a polished sheet metal cone or cylinder, that installs just underneath a pole feeder, or just over a hanging feeder, and it is virtually impossible for the critters to climb on it or around it. They may still visit the ground underneath the feeder to pick up fallen seeds but you can make this less attractive by not allowing the spillage to build up. As far as the hawks are concerned, there’s not much you can do except enjoy Mother Nature in action.
One more word of caution with regard to feeding the birds. If you like to feed the ducks, geese and other waterfowl at the local park pond, it should be hard, unprocessed grain. Their digestive system was designed for this type of food, and soft processed grain products such as bread can cause dysentery.
Feeding our wild bird population is a very enjoyable and rewarding pastime. There is a lot of entertainment and knowledge to be had from observing feeding behaviour and it is a great way to enhance your identification skills. If you want to get started one of the best places to visit is the nearest Wild Birds Unlimited store. You can call 1-800-326-4928 for the location nearest to you or check the white pages of the local phone directory. There are about four locations around the Lower Mainland. At the store you will find a very large selection of feeders, various types of food and a very knowledgeable staff with lots of ideas, suggestions and tips for maximizing your bird feeding enjoyment. Each location also carries a wide range of birding publications, equipment and accessories. You can put your name on their mailing list to receive a quarterly newsletter and you can also visit them on the Internet at www.wbu.com.
There is a great wild bird store in Victoria called the Victorian Bird House. The store has a wide selection of bird food, feeders, accessories, books, CDs, and gifts for birders. It is also western Canada’s largest independent online supplier of wild bird products. You can visit them at:
The Victorian Bird House
2493 Beacon Avenue
Sidney, BC V8L 1X9
Phone: (250) 656-5064
E-mail: [email protected]
Another store with a great selection of wild bird feeding supplies, books, CDs, optics, accessories and gifts is the Wild Bird Habitat Store in Chilliwack. If you happen to be in the Fraser Valley, the are definitely worth a visit at:
Wild Bird Habitat Store
8810 Young Road
Chilliwack, BC V2P 4P5
Phone: (604) 792-1239
Fax: (604) 792-3436
Sunset Books of Menlo Park, California has published a excellent guide called “Attracting Birds”. It is a succinct but very well designed and illustrated book crammed with useful ideas, tips and “how-to” instructions for making your yard a haven for wild birds. It includes ideas for feeders, houses and baths, seed preferences of different species and garden planting and landscaping ideas to attract birds. A very worthwhile publication. Sunset Books does not sell the book directly but it is available for about $25 Cdn. at many retail book stores, wild bird specialty stores or online at amazon.com or barnesandnoble.com.