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The Homeowners Column
Bird Feeding A Winter Hobby for Gardeners
State Master Gardener Coordinator
Many gardeners love bird watching and bird feeding. I guess once winter rolls around we just like to see something alive in our gardens. A diverse garden of trees, shrubs, ground covers, lawn and flowers is the most attractive to birds and other wildlife. In designing a landscape keep in mind birds need shelter, water and a fine place to raise the kids. Evergreen trees provide important winter shelter and seed.
Don't be too quick to remove dead stems in the garden in fall. The birds will appreciate the additional food from the seed heads throughout the winter. Goldfinches will hang on purple coneflowers, aster, goldenrod, chicory and even dandelions in search of seeds. Songbirds enjoy the seeds of our native plants such as little bluestem, big bluestem, prairie dropseed, blazing stars, compass plant, black-eyed Susan and prairie dock.
Commercial birdseed can be used to supplement natural foods in the landscape. Bird feeding is an easy way to bring birds within viewing range. Place the bird feeder where cats cannot hide and pounce. Birds appreciate a protected area out of winter winds, but allow some open area right around the feeder. Bushes and trees should be nearby for shelter and a quick get-away from tabby.
Begin feeding birds now without interruption until spring. Birds form habits and will come to depend on the feeders for food. Use a variety of feeders and feed. The "bully birds" such as grackles and starlings may keep some others from feeding if only one feeder is available. Feeders near the ground will attract juncos and native sparrows. Feeders in higher locations attract some of the larger birds of cardinals and grosbeaks. Suet and fruit can add variety. I always put a few grapes out for the robins on their way south. Keep feeders clean. Scrub regularly to remove any moldy feed and to reduce incidence of disease.
Study the ingredients in commercial seed mixes. Many of the less expensive mixes contain milo. About the only birds that eat milo are pheasants and chickens; not exactly common visitors to bird feeders. Feeders empty quickly because the birds are throwing the milo out in search of better treats.
Many birds prefer the small black oil-type sunflower seeds instead of the larger grey-seeded sunflowers. A combination of 50 percent sunflower seeds, 35 percent white proso millet and 15 percent finely cracked corn is a favorite mix for many backyard songbirds. Goldfinches love niger seed, often called thistle seed. It actually is not a thistle. Niger (Guizotia abyssinica) is native to Africa and is also grown in India, Ethiopia and Burma. Where it is grown, it is used mainly as cooking oil. The oil is produced from crushing the seed much like canola or safflower oil.
The niger seed that is sent to the U.S. for bird seed has been sterilized. The seed is baked at a specific temperature for a specific time period so it will no longer germinate, but it will still be healthful for the birds. In this way no unwanted weed seeds are introduced. We have plenty all ready. Niger seed is not a thistle and will not grow in lawns.
However other birdseeds may decide to grow. I have tried to grow many plants under bird feeders, but the birdseed seems to be the only thing that ever flourishes. The bird activity and the sunflower hulls will keep plants from growing. Periodically rake and remove the sunflower hulls. The hulls can be placed in an active compost pile.
For more information see the Illinois Department of Natural Resources Landscaping for Wildlife brochure.