Cages around your feeder are very effective at keeping those chunky grabby monkeys out
First of all, we need to address two things – deterring certain types of birds, and those toothy little darlings, squirrels.
We’ll start with squirrels. We know they can be a pain (an understatement for some) but we also know many of you adore their furry faces and their comedic ways. There is no denying they can be a costly bugbear, and we get that you’d want to keep them away, but the truth of the matter is that there is no dead cert way to restrict squirrels AND let all the birds eat at the same time. There are some insanely clever devices out there that certainly have a good go at it, though, and whilst some folk have reported a decrease or thankful absence of squirrels since, others have fed back little change for the same product and, indeed, a seeming increase in their tenacity, all at the same time as losing bird footfall.Weighted feeders close off food areas when they detect anything heavier than your average songbird, so the squirrel can still try (and they will) but in the meantime your birds can’t get to the food either, which may put them off from coming back. Cages around your feeder are very effective at keeping those chunky monkeys out but they also keep out larger birds, which may not be ideal for some, and smaller red, fox, or flying squirrels have been known to, well, squirrel their way in. Spinners are pretty effective, it has to be said, but people have still reported diehard squirrels flinging themselves at the tube with such force that food rattles out of the bottom and they just eat from the ground. Electric shock systems just seem a bit too “Experimenter” for us…
A good rule of thumb (which only works if you have the space, of course), is position your feeders on a pole at least five feet high and at least seven feet away from any other object, as that is outside the range of most squirrels’ leaping prowess. It will depend on your geography and the abundance of squirrels in your locale, when it comes down to it. I live in a part of the world that has no squirrel activity, there are plentiful nut-filled woods nearby. Others are not so lucky. The only advice we can offer is if you do suffer from squirrel bombardment, do your research, but be aware of the downfalls and weigh up how that matters to you. Some people have even changed food type such as swapping out the tastiest feed for lower quality food, or replacing it all with safflower seeds which has “worked”, but then you need to think about the nutrient repercussions for your birds, or which birds you don’t mind never seeing again.
This is where your food choice can come in very handy
Which leads us to the second thing – unwanted birds. In an ideal world all birds are wanted, but, like squirrels, we are aware of the issues some face. Many of you just want to feed your garden birds and find that larger birds like pigeons, starlings, blackbirds and grackles will just gobble it all up in seconds, and the smaller guys don’t stand a chance. This is where your food choice can come in very handy, and we’ll go through which birds do and don’t like what food, starting with safflower.
Safflower also goes by the name false saffron because of its passing similarity to the famously most expensive spice you can buy (safflower can be used as a substitute for saffron in cooking but will only provide the colour and not the taste). First cultivated in Mesopotamia in 2500 BC, the bright yellow, orange and red thistle-like plumes and prickly leaves of this plant have been used as food and medicine colourings and flavourings for over 2,000 years in the Mediterranean. It is native to many countries of the world exhibiting arid landscapes with seasonal downpours, therefore including much of the north and west of USA, Mexico, Kazakhstan, India, Turkey and so on. It can be grown easily from seed in the UK in well-drained soil but it will die at the first sign of frost. The small white seeds of this plant are becoming more integrated into seed mixes, and many species are taking to it like ducks to water – high in protein, fat and fibre, they have fast become a favourite for all types of finches, jays, grosbeaks, cardinals, woodpeckers, chickadees, titmice, sparrows, dunnocks, robins and so on. It is, however, not favoured by starlings, blackbirds, grackles, and squirrels.
Black sunflower seeds have a very high oil content and provide huge amounts of calories, and their shells are relatively thin so this makes them the best sunflower seed for many smaller birds.Starlings, although mainly fruit- and berry-eaters, will go for seed mixes if available and love sunflower hearts, cracked corn and any suet, but if you want to deter them then pick a mix with shelled seeds. Striped sunflowerseeds are thicker and harder to crack, but the heart is still nutritious – just be aware of the additional energy expenditure your smaller birds will go through to get into them. During cold spells it’s always best to provide either black sunflowers or just the hearts (if you don’t mind the starlings).
Mealworms are the larvae of beetles, and will bring a greater variety of birds that you may not see otherwise. Beloved by all insect-eating birds, dried or fresh mealworms will be snapped up. The only time I have ever had a bird land on and feed directly from my hand was when a European robin flew over, landed on my purlicue (that flap of skin between your thumb and forefinger, quizzers) and took a dried mealworm from my open palm. In the US, chickadees, bluebirds, wrens, towhees, woodpeckers, robins, starlings, catbirds, nuthatches, thrashers, warblers – they can’t get enough. In the UK and Europe, starlings, blue and great tits, sparrows, robins, thrushes, even barn swallows if you dangle them right. Australasian birds like kookaburras, butcher birds, magpies, wagtails, and many more besides will devour them in minutes. There aren’t many birds put off by mealworms, to be honest, but birds can be fussy and if you find they are leaving them alone, they could be old. Some birders refuse to feed live mealworms on ethical grounds and we get that, so be reassured birds will soon take to dried ones if you have no qualms about them.
Cracked corn can be prevalent in many seed mixes from shops, and that’s because it is cheap and can bulk up the weight – you’re paying more for less sometimes. Favoured by larger birds like pigeons, cardinals, grosbeaks, ducks, quail, crows, ravens and doves, there are a couple of issues with this food you should be aware of – it is most likely to contain toxins,and it is also a favourite of larger creatures like mice, rats, raccoons, deer, bears, the Jabberwock and so on. OK maybe not the Jabberwock but I wouldn’t be surprised if it did. Critters love it.
Peanuts are another food that birds love but will attract four-legged beasts too. Also, bear in mind, peanuts can be hard to consume by small birds like wrens, titmice, chickadees, and great and blue tits as they need to spend energy chipping away at the larger hard food, so smashing them up a bit first is kind. If you provide peanuts make sure they are unsalted, but roasted are OK; shelled peanuts are fine but again, clean up those husks. Larger birds like jays and woodpeckers will go (sorry) nuts for them.
Sadly, regulations don’t yet apply to bird food
Millet is a great all-rounder – usually inexpensive in some good amounts, sparrows, wrens, treecreepers, thrashers, juncos, towhees, buntings, blackbirds, starlings, woodpeckers, pigeons, doves; a whole spectrum of sizes, shapes and colours will come by. Perfect for ground feeders as it usually spills out from feeders fairly regularly, just be sure to sweep or rake away any that has been ignored as it can get mouldy quite quickly. As can all seed shells.
If you have the space and the materials, two of the best things you can do is provide either a log pile and/or fruit trees. Insects and other invertebrates will thrive in a decaying log pile and provide so much goodness for natural foragers, and they make pretty good stage settings in bird photos too. Of course, the fruit trees will come into their own in spring and summer when the flowers will attract butterflies and moths and the fruits will be consumed with gusto, if you don’t mind sparing a few that is. Our cherry tree is over 30 years old and produces yellow cherries that don’t taste that great to us, but every year for one half-hour in mid to late afternoon in July, hundreds of starlings will storm those branches and have the noisiest dining experience I’ve ever seen in a bird. The ground is a bit of a mess afterwards, I confess, but good nutrients for the chamomile beneath.
A word on bad seed mixes: just because your seed mix is expensive, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best, and the same goes for cheaper bags being the worst. It is a bit of pot-luck out there. Sadly, regulations don’t yet apply to bird food, but to be honest if we knew the date of the harvest of the seeds and the proportion content that would help a lot. Just because it lists sunflower seeds, it doesn’t make it the most abundant inside. Older seeds will typically cost less, but wild bird food specialists should only stock this year’s harvest.Hardware stores or supermarkets will typically stock seed that is at least a year old – this is not always a bad thing, however, just be aware where you store it. The older a seed is the more likely it has been inhabited by moth larvae, and whilst this is cracking stuff for your bird in terms of surprise protein, if they get indoors you may get an infestation problem.
Keep a few things in mind – always choose clear bags so you can see what you’re getting. Avoid bags that feature birds you’ve never seen before – they are likely imported, therefore old, and won’t necessarily be what your locals want from life. Also, many cheaper bird seeds are filled out with oats, milo, rapeseed, flax, wheatgrass seeds; these are not really high on anyone’s menu and will be ignored. Check for dust, chaff and stems and sticks – the presence of dust means its older stuff, and stems and so on are just there to bring up the weight. Good seed providers will have bought their mixes from companies who process their seeds through centrifuges to remove the inedibles. Never buy bags with moisture in them, which will probably mean they are mouldy, or any fine filament webbing going on in corners, that will be meal moth or some kind of beastie activity.
The best blend to look out for is black or striped sunflower seeds and/or sunflower hearts, mealworms, and a helping of millet. They are just what everybody wants. And believe us, if you’re not sure if your food is old or tasty, the birds will let you know, either by what they leave behind, or worst of all, their complete absence. Birds are opportunists and will come if food is available, but they are also “fussy” – they know what they need, and won’t hang around if the specials board is anything but.