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What to Feed our Feathered Friends

Male Northern Cardinals.
Male Northern Cardinals.


by Brian Moran

People who feed birds have a significant advantage over those who don’t. While many of your neighbours bemoan the  colder weather and dread the ‘white stuff,’ you can watch attentively as feathered visitors settle in for what lies ahead. You will be entertained; perhaps learn a thing or two about identification and behaviour; and of course, offer a helping hand to your local birdlife during the tough times ahead.

While you can use just about any feeder on the market to achieve your goal, and any feeding is better than no feeding at all, there are advantages to selecting good quality products that will withstand the harsh conditions. Once you start, don’t let your birds down, as they now depend on you.You also need to consider the competition, espe- cially squirrels, and plan for cat attacks

I use several styles of feeders, each one having its own particular advantage.At minimum, you should have two. One will dispense seed and the other will offer suet. Suet ‘cakes’ can be purchased anywhere that sells feeders. They are also found in dollar stores. Suet ‘cakes’ are typically housed in wire frame holders.

You can also ask your local butcher for pieces of scrap beef fat to feed the birds.These can be hung on a tree or a line and are often placed in a mesh bag. If the butcher wants to charge you for what is in the waste bin – find another butcher. Make sure not to ask for ‘suet,’ which is a prepared product used for cooking, because you will pay for that. If you’re handy, take a small, round log and drill a number of one-inch (2.5-centimetre) holes that can be stuffed with beef scraps. This can be hung like any hanging feeder.

I like to use two types of seed: black oil sunflower seed and a quality mixed seed that has little or no milo, oats, cracked corn or mil- let. Pigeons and blackbirds love these varieties, which are low-cost fillers for the producers, but most other species pass them by. Many commercial outlets sell low-quality mixed seed that is a waste of money – even on sale – as most species simply toss it on the ground looking for the odd choice seeds inside. Shop around and check stores specializing in nature- related products. If you only have one seed feeder, you can use mixed seed, but add more black oil sunflower seed to the blend.

I have addressed the issue of squirrels in the past, but the problem of dealing with them persists. Online searches provide information on the subject, including squirrel-proof feeders. Any of the ‘Squirrel Buster’ feeders created by Brome, a Canadian company, work effectively to discourage squirrels. They are as foolproof as they come.

If you have marauding cats in your neighbourhood, be aware they will make a regular stop in your yard if you have feeders. Be careful about placing feeders too close to covering that will conceal them. I have found birds frequent my feeder mounted to a one-inch diameter (2.5- centimetre) pole more than any other. They like the elevation and cats have no hope of striking there.

Seasoned feeder watchers develop an interesting rapport with their feathered neighbours. They often recognize individual birds based on a particular aspect of plumage, such as their colour pattern or habits. A male cardinal at a friend’s feeder always approaches from a certain direction and leaves by flying over his house towards the yard next door. It usually comes both early and late in the day, giving its sharp call note before arriving so he knows when it’s coming.

Black-capped chickadees are a perennial favourite, often becoming extremely tame. They love sunflower seeds, but will also go for suet and shelled peanuts. Both suet and peanut feeders encourage chickadees, nuthatches and woodpeckers to spend some time at the feeder as they work at their meal. With seeds, birds are often present for only a short time before flying off.

Downy Woodpecker.
Downy Woodpecker.


In addition to our resident birds, such as house finches, house sparrows, woodpeckers and chickadees, each fall we wonder what surprises lie in store.Will this be another year for redpolls, or will siskins make an appearance? In years when the acorn crop is good, more jays stay behind; and every few years we are visited by pine grosbeaks from the north. They will eat sunflower seeds, but love dining on leftover crabapples and berries. And who knows, there might be a rarity that stops by for a few days or spends the entire winter. Creatures with wings are full of surprises. Good birding. n

Brian Morin is the publisher of Ontario Birding News, a newsletter for birding enthusiasts. He has been actively involved in watching and photographing birds in Ontario for more than 40 years.