Basic wild bird feeding

2017-10 junco 1 by Barb Gorges

This Dark-eyed Junco checked out the garden before going for the birdfeeder. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Basic wild bird feeding increases avian appreciation

Also published at Wyoming Network News,

By Barb Gorges

Your backyard may look empty after the leaves fall, but you can fill it with birds by offering them shelter, water and food.

There is some debate on whether feeding wild birds is good for them. But in moderation—the birds find natural food as well—I think it is a great way to increase appreciation for birds.

A bird feeder is no substitute for providing trees and bushes for birds to perch on or take shelter from weather and predators. Birds can also pick the seeds and fruits—or pick dormant insects out of the bark. Provide evergreen as well as deciduous trees and shrubs plus native perennial wildflowers.

Water is nice to have out. The birds appreciate drinking it and bathing in it. But if you can’t scrub out the gunk regularly, it’s better not to bother with it. In winter you’ll want to skip concrete and ceramic baths in favor of plastic since freezing water might break them. The best winter bird bath we ever had was the lid of a heavy plastic trash can—we could pop the ice out.

Feeding seed-eating birds—house finch, goldfinch, junco, pine siskin—is as easy as scattering seed on the ground. But here are tips to benefit you and the birds more.

  1. Black oil sunflower seed is the one best bird seed for our area. Seed mixes usually have a lot of seed our birds won’t eat and then you must sweep it up before it gets moldy.
  2. Put out only as much seed as you can afford each day (and can clean up after). If it lasts your local flock only an hour, be sure to put the seed out at a time of day you can enjoy watching the birds. They’ll learn your schedule.
  3. Tube-type feeders and hopper feeders keep seed mostly dry. Clean them regularly so they don’t get moldy. Consider hanging them over concrete to make it easier to clean up the seed hulls.
  4. If you don’t like sweeping up sunflower seed hulls or are concerned that the hulls will kill your lawn, consider paying more for hulled sunflower seeds.
  5. Spilled seed under the feeder attracts the ground feeders, like juncos, those little gray birds. They like elevated platform feeders too.
  6. If you have loose cats in your neighborhood, consider outlining the spilled-seed area under your feeder with 2-foot-tall wire fencing all the way around. It’s enough of an obstacle to make approaching cats jump so the birds will notice the break in their stealthy approach.
  7. Put your feeder close to the window you will watch from. It’s more fun for you, and the birds are less likely to hit the window hard as they come and go. They get used to activity on your side of the glass.
  8. 2015-12goldfinchlessergoldfinch-by-barb-gorges1

    American Goldfinch and Lesser Goldfinch enjoy a tube-type feeder full of nyjer thistle seed. Photo by Barb Gorges.

    Once you have the regulars showing up, probably the house finches—striped brown and the males have red heads—and house sparrows—pale gray breasts, chestnut-brown backs, consider putting up a special feeder for the nyjer thistle seed that goldfinches and pine siskins love so much.

  9. Seed cakes are popular with chickadees and nuthatches. They require a little cage apparatus to hold them.
  10. Suet-type cakes are popular with downy woodpeckers and flickers.
  11. Squirrels like bird seed too. You can add a cone-shaped deterrent above or below a feeder so they can’t get to it. Or ask your dog to chase the squirrels. If you get more than a couple squirrels, quit feeding birds for a week or so and see if the squirrels won’t move somewhere else. The birds will come back.
  12. A sharp-shinned or a Cooper’s hawk may be attracted to your feeder, though they are coming by for a finch or sparrow snack instead of seed. This means that you have successfully attracted animals from the next trophic level and contributed to the web of life.
  13. Take pictures. Look up the birds and learn more about them through websites like
  14. Take part in citizen science programs like and Project FeederWatch. Check my Bird Banter archives for more information,

Feed your wild birds black-oil sunflower seeds

Sunflwer seed bagging

Some of Kathy Hill’s 4th graders help Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon bag Jim Dolan’s (red hat on right side) black oil sunflower seed in November 1993.

Published Oct. 14, 1999, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Songbirds: Sunflower seed is sure to satisfy.”

2014 Update: Jim, the sunflower farmer, is still enjoying his retirement. We now each buy our own seed from local feed stores.

By Barb Gorges

It’s mid-October, and no one seems particularly interested in my bird feeders.

The cats are falling asleep at the window waiting for some feathered action. I wonder, where is everyone?

It turns out the goldfinches and their friends have been having a weed seed bash nearby, where construction left a huge pile of dirt last summer.

The hill sprouted wild sunflowers, mustards and other opportunistic plants now going to seed.

“You birds’ll be back,” I thought. “As soon as it gets really cold, you’ll be back for my premium black-oil sunflower seeds instead of this “cheep” stuff.

My feeders carry only the finest seed, grown over near Carpenter by Jim Dolan.

The Rubbermaid barrel of seed in the garage is just about empty, though, and I’m looking forward to offering this year’s vintage: Mycogen Plant Sciences varieties 83-10 and 83-72.

There’s a lot of sunflower seed being grown this year, due to low wheat prices and farmers switching to a three-year rotation system. But Jim’s seed stands out because of the quaint customs associated with it.

First, seed is planted between mid-May and mid-June. No irrigation is necessary and no cultivation is used since the fields are pre-treated.

About mid-September, the plants mature and begin to dry out.

Ripening sunflowers attract birds. Jim says birds will hit hard if the field is located near trees and water. But despite daily predation by birds, farmers have to wait until the plants reach about 10 percent moisture. Otherwise, the seeds will spoil in the storage bin.

A good hard freeze hastens the drying. Then it’s time to combine. If conditions are right, just the heads can be cut, and the combine will separate out most of the trash.

Jim funnels the seed through a piece of equipment called a scalper, a whirling metal mesh cylinder that leaves less than two percent trash before shooting seed into the bins.

Now here’s the quaint part: Every year since about 1992, Jim’s barn has been the scene of the bagging ritual. About mid-November, 20 or 30 Cheyenne Audubon members show up with shovels, scales and sacks. The seed is sent through the scalper once more and Auduboners, standing in a trough reminiscent of grape stompings, shovel it into 25- or 50-pound bags and tie them shut with twine.

Within an hour or two, a couple tons of pre-paid seed orders are bagged and loaded into a convoy of pickups, Toyotas and mini-vans heading back to the Gorges’ garage, where the less fortunate pick up their orders.

Those of us able to help bag have an inner sense of harmony with our agricultural ancestors. I’m not sure what my great-grandfather, the Wisconsin dairy farmer who built a round barn–would think of these steel-sided pole barns on the plains, however.

This year’s sunflower vintage will be special because Jim plans to retire from farming. Audubon will hardly make a dent in his estimated 240,000 pound harvest, most of which will be commercially bagged for birds or crushed for oil.

In the tradition of Paul Newman giving his salad dressing profits to charity, Audubon profits go to a good cause. They help fund the Audubon Adventures program offered to fourth through sixth grade classrooms, as well as buying more seed to give to nursing homes and schools with bird feeders.

How much seed should a bird-feeding person buy? Audubon offers its bulk-rate bargain only once a year. Underestimating means buying seed grown who-knows-where, Kansas or Nebraska or someplace. Buying too much means feeding birds into the summer (no problem) or sowing it in the alley.

Storing seed for a year or so is all right, if it’s kept clean and dry. Our 33 gallon garbage can does the job.

Black oil sunflower seed

Black oil sunflower seed is spread along the top of a concrete-block boundary wall. If you only feed one kind of seed, choose this. Photo by Barb Gorges.

How fast the birds eat seed depends on how well known the feeding location is, how many feeders are in the neighborhood, whether squirrels and aggressive birds like grackles and blue jays raid feeders, and how many times a day the feeders are filled.

It also matters how prolific the nearby natural seed sources are, how deep the snow gets, how many cats “put birds off their feed” and whether the feeders have been exposed to the contagious disease killing finches.

To avoid this last variable, clean feeders every few weeks with soap and water.

According to a publication put out by “Birder’s World” magazine, black-oil sunflower seed attracts the most kinds of birds. It’s the best buy, unlike many packaged mixes that have a lot of undesirable seed types the birds ignore and let them turn to mush under the feeder. Black-oil is also more nutritious than striped sunflower seed.

When bird watchers reach the addictive stage of this hobby, they experiment with nyger, corn, proso millet, peanuts, suet and oranges and other fruits. After black-oil sunflower seed, however, the next best thing to offer birds is water.

Yep, our avian pals are just out looking for a good watering hole.

That weed-seed eating bunch I observed was holding its bash on the banks of a tributary to Crow Creek.