For the Birds

Its that time of year again.  The time of the year when everyone wants to start feeding birds.  Maybe its the chilling frosty cold outside, or the bird-themed snowy holiday cards.

Personally, I love bird feeders.  They were always outside the biggest window of my childhood home, and in college I logged dozens of hours at the bird blind just watching birds. Bird feeders are an excellent craft project for kids and you can use your creations to decorate a tree outside your school or home (perfect for Christmas!).

But don’t miss the bonus: a chance to educate your budding naturalists about Ornithology.


Offer the birds something useful.  We know that birds don’t use feeders as a primary source of nutrition, it is usually a supplement (except in particularly harsh years), but it should still be high in calories, and vitamins – just like our diet.  So skip the cheerios – spring for some birdseed, fruit, cooked beans, or popcorn.  You could make a popcorn garland for them! (Use something for the ‘string’ that will either fall apart or be used by the birds later – cotton thread or yarn.  Stay away from floss and fishing line.  Also, your kids will stay cleaner if you don’t use buttered popcorn, but I bet the birds won’t mind either way.)

You can mix up the garland by adding in some berries, chunks of fruit, or pasta.

Birds love suet cakes, but they sure don’t last long.  The most ‘old school’ way to do this is collect some string (for hanging, unless you have a cage for your suet), some fat (I save bacon fat for this purpose), and seed.  You add the fat to your seed until it sticks together, then mush it into a mold around a string, let it harden up and viola! Suet cake feeder.  Here are some more ideas on this theme.

When I was a young student, we used to do this by spreading peanut butter on a pinecone and rolling it in seed.  Then, peanut butter was cheap and allergies were much rarer.  Please don’t expose your kids to peanut butter unless you are absolutely 100% sure its okay.  Like if you are doing this with YOUR children at YOUR house.  I’ve been looking for an alternative for this, and came across this gelatin variation.  I like how clear the gelatin is as a binder. (Heads up on the gelatin: its not vegan.)

When planning your bird-attracting decorations, keep in mind that different kinds of feed attract different birds.  Why is this?  Different beaks.  (Sidebar: I highly recommend The Beak of the Finch, for teachers and older students.  Particularly if you want to incorporate natural selection into your bird studies.)

Fruit: Goldfinches, House Finches, Orioles, Mockingbirds, Bluebirds, Cardinals, Woodpeckers, Jays, Starlings, Robins, Thrushes, Grosbeaks, Buntings

Cracked Corn: Red Winged Blackbirds, Starlings, Doves, Ravens, Grosbeaks, House Sparrows, Crows, Cardinals, Nuthatches, Jays, Juncos

Sunflower Seeds (Black Oil or Striped): Goldfinches, House Finches, Purple Finches, Grosbeaks, Chickadees, Titmice, Nuthatches, Cardinals, Jays, Doves, Sparrows, Juncos, Buntings, Red Winged Blackbirds, Mockingbirds, Bluebirds

Thistle Seed: Goldfinches, House Finches, Purple Finches, Juncos, Doves

Millet: Goldfinches, Doves, Buntings, Cardinals, Sparrows, Juncos, Grosbeaks, Red Winged Blackbirds

Suet: Nuthatches, Woodpeckers, Titmice, Crows, Wrens, House Finches, Grosbeaks, Chickadees, Jays, Red Winged Blackbirds, Starlings, Juncos, Buntings, Sparrows, Mockingbirds, Bluebirds

Nectar or Sugar Water: Hummingbirds, Orioles, Woodpeckers, Finches

I’ve seen all of these birds at various times here in Ohio.  Don’t be surprised if you don’t get hummingbirds this time of year, though.  They’ve gone south.

And don’t worry, offering treats for the birds once helps them, but doesn’t make them dependent.  In an excellent article from Kingston Field Naturalist states:

“Brittingham, in a study on the winter feeding habits of the Black-capped Chickadee in Wisconsin, showed that birds obtained 20 to 25 percent of their daily energy requirements from feeders, and an additional 75 to 80 percent from natural (wild) food sources. Her study also showed that in normal winters chickadees that used feeders as a supplemental food source survived at the same rate when feeding station food was removed as did chickadees that had never been exposed to feeder food.”

I’ll close today with a top tip for this: I believe that you should always be kind to the people who help you do your job – the secretaries and janitorial staff.  Do you like the person who cares for your lawn?  I bet they don’t want millet and thistle sprouting up in the spring.  Good news!  If you want to keep your seed from germinating, you can heat it up to kill it (and any bugs that might be in it – good for storing it in your classroom!).  There are lots of variations of this online.  Basically, you want your seed to heat up to about 100 degrees – I’m going to try an hour in the oven at about 100 degrees F.  (Other options are higher heat for less time, or time in the microwave).  Don’t roast ’em, just get the seed hot, and a little dried out.

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