Thomas G. Barnes, Ph.D. is an extension professor/wildlife specialist for the Department of Forestry, University of Kentucky. Check out his latest books, The Rare Wildflowers of Kentucky and the newly released The Gift of Creation Images from Scripture and Earth at your local bookstore.

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Backyard Birds
by Tom Barnes       #Birds   #Wildlife

Suet is the choice feed for woodpeckers. 

“Tea-kettle, tea-kettle,” sings the little Carolina wren as it crouches in the garden shed waiting for the most opportune moment to sneak from its perch to the suet hanging from the old oak tree.

Nearby, a shy and diminutive Carolina chickadee scolds the gray squirrel with a “chickadee-dee-dee” for stealing the small sunflower seeds that were destined for his early morning breakfast.

A quick glance up in the tree reveals a black and white downy woodpecker “tap, tap, tapping” and a white-breasted nuthatch sneaking here and there down the limb to the feeder where he quickly grabs a seed and escapes to the branch, ascending with the same erratic movements he used to descend to grab this small tidbit of energy.

Over in the garden, the once spectacularly colored canary yellow and black American goldfinch sports the drab olive color of winter, where it bounces from purple coneflower to purple coneflower head, devouring what few seeds remain, and then finding it much easier to eat the small black oil sunflower seeds from the feeder. Towards midday the chickadee and goldfinch get even braver and find that small feeder attached to a window that still has an abundance of food that larger birds haven’t devoured yet. These are the wonderful sights and sounds of the backyard blessed with winter birds.

Much has been written over the years about bird feeding, and you might ask yourself, “What else should I be doing to attract our fine-feathered friends and how do I make sense of all the information (and misinformation) out there on feeding?” The answers are certainly not complicated, and bird feeding is definitely not rocket science. In this article, I will boil it all down to some pretty simple ideas beginning with: It’s all about the food.


You don’t need anything fancy to place feed in for winter-feeding programs. This Carolina chickadee was feeding on black oil sunflower seeds that were placed in an old planter.

Planning the Menu

What you feed is more important than what type of feeder you have. Heck, in most cases you don’t even need a feeder. I simply throw some white proso millet on a flat rock, which results in lots of mourning doves, sparrows and dark-eyed juncos feasting all day long. Let’s face it; there are probably more different types of bird feeders on the market than there are types of birds that will come to the feeder.

They all do the same thing – hold and dispense seed. In most cases, feeders have been designed to solve “potential” problems or to satisfy the human mind. Birds don’t care. Have you ever had a conversation with a tufted titmouse and asked, “Would you rather have your seed available in a tube feeder or a platform feeder?” or perhaps, “Does it bother you to maneuver through the heavy wires around the feeder that were placed there to keep squirrels out?”

This isn’t to say that you can’t have a fancy feeder, but all feeders do is keep some seed dry, store uneaten seeds and dispense seeds to the end user, the bird.

Contained within this first principle is a rudimentary understanding of bird feeding preferences and nutrition. In the winter, energy is the currency of survival. Consequently, the more energy or calories per unit area a particular seed contains, the higher the value to the bird. Enter the small black oil sunflower.


American goldfinches love niger (mistakenly called “thistle”) seed, which can be quite expensive, but they like black oil sunflower just as well.

The Best for Birds

The seed of this lowly weed in nature (yes, the sunflower seed you buy is a commercial cultivar of the lowly annual sunflower you find along the road, Helianthus annuus) is eaten by more species of bird than any other type of seed you can offer.

It has a thin shell with a seed that packs a powerful punch of energy. If you could only feed one thing, I would simply offer black oil sunflower because there probably isn’t a bird that would not come to your feeder with just this one type of seed. I know people that go through 25 pounds of this seed a week! (Do not offer the gray-striped kind because it is larger, has a thicker shell and doesn’t contain as much energy per unit area.)

The second choice for seed, white proso millet, would be for the ground feeders like dark-eyed juncos, sparrows and mourning doves. While a good many of the ground feeders like this seed, be aware that cowbirds, house sparrows and grackles also relish these tasty morsels. Furthermore, the ground feeders also like black oil sunflower as well. Since this is an agricultural grain and many of these species are associated with this habitat type, there are some things not to feed because they are not highly preferred except by birds many consider pests. These include grain sorghum or milo, corn, wheat, oats and rice. Another no-no is bread crumbs (unless of course you like European starlings).

Seed choice number three would be safflower. This is considerably more expensive than other types of seed, and the diversity of species that will use it isn’t large, but in general squirrels don’t like it and it appears to be a favorite for northern cardinals. Chickadees and tufted titmice also seem to have developed a taste for this seed.

The last seed choices are what I call specialty items because they appeal to a small suite of species. For example, suet (and suet mixed with insects or fruit or nuts or everything but the kitchen sink) is hardened fat that you mostly put out for woodpeckers and a few other species such as Carolina wrens. Primarily finches of all types use niger, a very expensive seed.

You should be aware that once you get into the business of bird feeding, it can be expensive and you will be amazed at how much these creatures can consume! My advice for purchasing seed is to think big and buy in bulk. For example, I can get a 50-pound bag of black oil sunflower for about $18 at some of the large feed stores. Don’t be taken in by bird feeding specialty pitches that say their seed is better. It all comes from the same place, and it all tastes the same. Just make sure the seed isn’t moldy.


Providing for Birds

Northern cardinals will eat safflower seeds or sunflower seeds.

You will attract more birds if you provide a source of cover, natural food and water (especially water) in your yard throughout the year. This is a no-brainer. I get goldfinches at the feeder because I have goldfinches that nest in my trees, and every summer and fall I watch the adults teach the youngsters to eat purple coneflower seeds from the flower garden. So come winter they are already habituated to eating good food at the Barnes’ diner.

Similarly, I treasure watching the Carolina wren in the winter at the suet feeder. I am confident it is the same bird that nested in my daughter’s watering can on the deck during the summer. The best principle to remember when providing habitat for wildlife is to get rid of your lawn and replace it with gardens that come alive with color, patterns and textures, which provide both food and cover for birds. In the winter, water becomes critical for birds and they need to drink and bathe (yes, even when it is frigid outside), so  a simple method of providing this valuable resource is to put a shallow pan on the ground and stick a small heater in it to prevent it from freezing.

Finally, the diversity and numbers of birds that will visit your feeders will be dependent upon the weather. Bright sunny days will bring fewer birds because they can find food in their normal travels. Nasty, frigid, snowy days with dreary skies bring the little buggers into the feeding station. The greatest benefit to feeding on these days is that the reds of the cardinals, blues of the blue jay, black and white tuxedos of the dark-eyed junco, and the sweet brownish-orange of the Carolina wren provide a source of bright color that certainly brings warmth to your heart and soul.

This brings me to dispel one of the current myths of bird feeding: Once you begin feeding you cannot stop.

Garbage, hogwash, nonsense.

Think about it for a second. The birds were able to exist without this supplemental source of food before and they can continue to survive without it. They don’t become dependent on the food, although during times of severe weather it certainly does help them.

However, if you take off on that long-awaited cruise to see the tropical gardens of Hawaii for a month, don’t feel bad if you stop feeding. Just fill up the feeders when you get back, and as Kevin Costner said in the movie Field of Dreams, “If you build it, they will come.”

I hope you enjoy the month of February, which is considered to be National Bird Feeding Month by the National Bird Feeding Society.

Editor’s Note: February 18 through 21 is the Great Backyard Bird Count, a way for “citizen scientists” to provide important bird population data. Check out for further information.


(Photos By Tom Barnes. From Kentucky Gardener Volume III Issue I.)



Posted: 02/09/11   RSS | Print


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