Imagine hosting a winter Sunday dinner for three dozen members of your extended family. It is a mishmash of personalities, politics and gastronomic preferences. What to serve?
You’ve got uncle Roy the meat-and-potatoes guy at the table, along with cousin Donna who reminds you constantly that she has every food allergy known to medical science (and a few they have yet to discover), and brother-in-law Don who has been touting the blessings of the Paleo diet, plus aunt Martha who is lactose (and children) intolerant, cousin Tom who is one of those evangelist vegans who should wear a scarlet “V” on his sweater, and grandma with her aversion to anything spicy (which means any seasoning beyond salt and pepper), and an assortment of kids who just hate broccoli.
While attempting to please everyone at that gathering of humans is a culinary fool’s errand, the many folks who entertain a horde of birds at the backyard feeders each winter have a better option than preparing 15 different covered dishes for the finicky family. You can serve the birds a seedy casserole of mixed feeds that will offer most something they like, and many backyard feeder operators elect to go this route — the smorgasbord in a bag. Or you can pick the entrees based on the birds you hope to attract, and proceed with the banquet.
Bernie Place from Wild Birds Unlimited on Monroe Street said that many of our feathered guests have very distinct tastes. Although they won’t refuse just about any offering when food is in such short supply over the winter, if you give them a wine list, there will be certain labels that have them flapping their wings in approval.
“A lot of people want to attract certain species of birds, and at the same time many of them want to keep certain other species from taking over and dominating the feeders,” Place said. “You can’t control what shows up, but you can increase the opportunity to bring certain birds in to the feeders by the types of feeds you put out.”
Place said chopped tree nuts, peanuts, and sunflower seeds are at the top of the menu for blue jays, while woodpeckers have a preference for suet and nuts. Nuthatches are regular visitors to Midwest winter feeders, and they like sunflower chips. Goldfinches and Pine siskins have a taste for nyjer seed.
“They all seem to have their favorites, but a bird that is hungry won’t be so picky,” Place said. “When we have really cold weather, these birds will eat three to four times the normal amount. The availability of their natural foods has been very limited due to the very cold spells we’ve had, so this has been a pretty busy bird-feeding season, so far.”
Sunflower seeds, one of the mainstays of the backyard menu, come in two varieties — black oil and striped. The thin shells on the black oil sunflower seeds make them easy pickings for any seed-eating bird. The striped sunflower seeds have a thicker shell that makes them a tough meal to crack open for sparrows or blackbirds.
Sometimes European starlings, an invasive species that was introduced to North America around 1890 in some ill-conceived effort to bring in all of the birds mentioned in Shakespeare’s works, tend to dominate the feeder. They are aggressive and show up in a mob, but Place said careful feed selection can minimize the interest of these backyard bullies.
“If starlings become too much of a nuisance, use straight safflower seed. Many songbirds love it, but starlings don't,” he said. “There are also certain types of feeders that deter the starlings.”
Place added that he receives a good amount of calls about less common winter visitors to the feeders, such as Carolina wrens, robins, and bluebirds. “People will ask about what to put out for those species that they don’t usually see,” he said. “Those are not seed-eating birds, but they will all go after suet or suet nugget types of foods.”
There is an emphasis on putting out as much protein and fat in winter as possible. Items such as white bread or stale crackers just don’t have the calorie count that birds need to combat the bitter cold.
“In the coldest part of the winter, we direct people to the high protein and high fat stuff and things that are packed with energy,” he said. “Nuts and peanuts and suet cakes are really popular for that reason, and live meal worms are also very good.”
Place said one innovation in the bird feeder world has helped keep the squirrels and other four-legged critters from raiding the food pantry — hot pepper feeds. Suet, suet cylinders, and loose seeds laced with hot pepper are a turnoff for the furry brigade, but no problem for birds.
Experts stress the importance of supplemental feeding for many birds in the winter months, especially when extended periods of snow cover denies them access to potential natural food sources.
“Feeding the birds helps them bridge the gap between when their natural food sources run out in the fall, and those food sources regenerate in the spring,” Place said. “We feed the birds to help them through those lean times, plus it gives us a way to enjoy nature up close. With bird feeders, we can reconnect with nature right out the back window.”
Audubon estimates that more than 40 percent of Americans feed backyard birds on a regular basis, and the organization stresses the importance of keeping feeders clean so parasites and other contaminants don’t proliferate.
WILD GAME DINNER: The Great Northern Sportsman's Club will hold its 19th Annual Wild Game Dinner on Jan. 26 at St. Clements Hall, located at 2990 Tremainsville Road. The dinner will feature venison, elk, alligator, moose, smoked pheasant, and turtle soup, with beer and soft drinks included. There will also be gun raffles and games of chance. Doors open for the event at 5:30 p.m. and tickets cost $35. For tickets or more information contact Robb Spaulding at 419-514-7258. Tickets are also available at the door.
Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6068.
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