I live a few miles from the heart of one of the country’s largest cities, in a typical suburban house with at least one distinction from the other look-alikes on my street.
The Audubon Society has certified my half-acre property as a bird habitat.
Sure, it didn’t hurt that the backyard is largely wooded, with mature pines, oaks and maples to help turn my land into a community for cardinals, doves, robins and many other species.
But it’s not just the trees—my neighbors also have many—that attract scores of birds each day, all year long. They come because of what else is provided—the same necessities that any human needs to survive: food, water and shelter.
Supply enough of each—in a pesticide-free environment containing native plantings—and, if you live in Pennsylvania, Northern Virginia or Portland, Ore., your place might qualify for Audubon Society recognition as a bona fide bird habitat. (It comes with a metal sign to place in the front lawn—plus bragging rights.)
If you live elsewhere you won’t receive a sign, but you still can attract birds—lots of them—to enjoy the sights, sounds and activity they provide.
Putting out seed is the easiest way to attract birds. To lure the largest variety, spend a little more for black-oil sunflower seed. It’s not its flavor that lures flocks en masse—“birds don’t have a sense of taste,” explains Steven Saffier, Audubon At Home coordinator in Pennsylvania—but the thin shells of highly nutritious “oilers” can be easily opened by virtually any beak. Striped sunflower seeds are less nutritious and their thicker shells are harder to crack by house sparrows and blackbirds. This is something to consider if you want to avoid these so-called “trash” birds—invasive species that crowd out native birds, or aggressive birds that chase others away.
Safflower is a favorite among cardinals and eaten by grosbeaks, chickadees and doves, but also has a thick shell. Saffier prefers to mix equal parts of safflower with black-oil sunflower to keep away trash birds.
The very worst seed, he notes, are inexpensive “mixtures,” whose low-quality fillers such as red millet and oats are spurned by many birds. Expect flighty feasters to pick and choose the choice (and scarce) sunflower in mixtures, leaving most of it untouched or spilled onto the ground.
Fats and fiction
Suet cakes are a welcome food supplement year-round—especially among woodpeckers, bluebirds, chickadees and cardinals—that becomes crucial for all types during the winter. Made of a hard fat (usually from slaughtered cattle and sheep) that’s mixed with seed, grains, nuts or food, suet provides a highly concentrated type of energy that helps birds develop a blubber-like protective layer in winter that helps maintain body heat.
Other bird-attracting food sources:
Scraps of rendered beef fat, sliced from pieces of meat, are usually either sold for a song or trashed. Ask your butcher or grocer.
Slice apples, grapes or berries into seed-sized pieces. Birds can’t chew but have excellent vision and are attracted to the bright colors of these foods that closely resemble the fruit from holly, dogwood and other trees.
Peanut butter is a valuable fat source in winter, but during warmer months it melts outdoors and quickly grows rancid. Shelled or unshelled peanuts are better in warmer months.
Bread—perhaps the most popular people food for birds—can be dangerous. Outdoors, bread quickly becomes moldy and when ingested can cause a deadly lung disease in birds.
Depending on the bird species, tray or platforms feeders will attract the widest variety. However, they offer no protection against weather—and without good drainage, wet seed fosters fungal growth and bacteria. Tube feeders also have mass appeal and keep seed dry and clean; those with perches above feeding ports are specifically designed for goldfinches and chickadees, which feed upside down. Finches, jays, cardinals, buntings, grosbeaks, and sparrows like “hoppers” or the classic houses, while thistle feeders are for small birds such as goldfinches and redpolls.
You can also just place food on the ground—on a flat rock, in a pot saucer, or on the grass for ground-feeders such as doves, sparrows, juncos and wild turkeys.