CORVALLIS, Ore. – Backyard bird feeders can help birds get enough food to maintain sufficient body heat during cold weather and October through April is the ideal season to feed birds because their natural foods are not abundant.
Knowing what and what not to feed wintering birds, however, and the best place to put feeders can make a difference in how well they survive the coldest months, according to Nancy Allen, faculty member in the fisheries and wildlife department at Oregon State University.
"Once you start a winter feeding project, be sure to continue until spring, when the birds' natural foods are available again," she said.
When you begin feeding birds, Allen suggests putting out a seed mix in an open place to see what kinds of birds are attracted and what seeds are pushed aside.
"Black oil sunflower seeds are the most popular food for wild birds that use feeders, such as chickadees, white-crowned sparrows and evening grosbeaks," she said.
She advises avoiding commercial wild mixes that contain a lot of milo or millet, which most wild birds won't eat, although unwanted species such as starlings and rodents are likely to show up.
Nyjer seeds (sometimes called thistle) are favorites of many finches. Peanuts, either kernels or in the shell, are attractive to jays, chickadees and nuthatches, but must be roasted; raw peanuts contain toxins harmful to birds. They also attract squirrels.
Another popular bird food is suet, which is fat processed from cows and sheep. It attracts insect-eating birds that need animal fat for energy. Woodpeckers, chickadees, bushtits and nuthatches are especially fond of suet.
You can buy suet cakes at specialty shops or make them at home. Details on how to make them are in the OSU Extension Service publication EC1554, "Feed Wild Birds."
Foods to avoid feeding birds are bakery goods such as bread, donuts, cookies or crackers. They do not provide the nutrition birds need and can mold easily, making the birds sick or killing them. To avoid mold in bird food, store it in a hard plastic or metal resealable container. This also helps keep the food dry and mice and rats out. A five-gallon container with a tight-fitting lid stored on a shelf is ideal.
Placement of the feeder also is important, Allen said.
"Put your feeder where a cat cannot ambush and squirrels cannot jump to it,” she said. “Make sure it is five to six feet off the ground and six to eight feet from nearby vegetation and that escape cover is within 10 feet.”
Also in the EC 1554 publication are details and diagrams of feeders; advice on where to place feeders in quiet, undisturbed areas; how to protect them from squirrels and jays, which intimidate other birds; and how to keep feeders clean to avoid spread of salmonella and other avian diseases.