On March 19, 2009, the US Department of the Interior released a new report on the national “State of the Birds.” The report states that “(b)irds are bellwethers of our natural and cultural health as a nation… The results are sobering: bird populations in many habitats are declining-a warning signal of the failing health of our ecosystems.” Considering that conservation efforts have been going on for at least the last 50+ years (since Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring), this is indeed a sobering report. Obviously our conservation efforts were too little, too late.
According the Report, 75 million Americans, 1 in every 4 consider themselves birdwatchers. In excess of 50 million are feeding wild birds. In spite of so much interest and support, loss of habitat continues unabated in the rush to develop more land. Natural nesting sites and food resources are lost. To help stop the decline the single most important thing we can do as individuals is restore natural habitat on our own property. Take an active, responsible role in managing your habitat. If you manage property, you are managing habitat and wildlife.
Why Feed Wild Birds?
People are feeding wild birds for a variety of reasons including entertainment, relaxation, observing and/or studying nature, provide meaningful support to local populations, and so on. As stated above, many wild bird populations are declining. Reasons for the declines include habitat loss, environmental degradation, seasonal changes, local weather, climate change, inadequate forage, and so on. Wild birds have a relatively high metabolic rate that requires food on a regular and consistent basis. Many birds die during the winter, during droughts, cold spells, prolonged rains, and any other conditions that reduce the availability of forage leading to stress,weakness, reduced resistance to disease and parasites, and starvation. Feeding wild birds can help sustain populations when natural food supplies are hard to find.
Feeding Preferences of Wild Birds
Whether your goal is just to attract wild birds to a feeding station for your own enjoyment or to provide birds with the minimum nutrients they need for optimum health and reproduction, feeding preferences of birds are very important in determining what type of food products will best meet your needs.
In general, wild birds can be grouped together by the types of feed they eat. This does not necessarily mean that granivores (seed-eaters), for example, eat only seed. Granivores prefer seed to other foods and specific types of seed to others. Since it is rare in nature to find a food that is readily and always available, it is important to remember that most birds select food in order of their preferences.
While there are a number of types of feed, feeding wild birds usually involves only four:
a. Granivores – seed or grain feeders like finches and sparrows. Many seeds and seed mixes are available for
b. Frugivores – fruit feeders like tanagers. There are dehydrated fruit products for frugivores.
c. Insectivores – insect feeders like blue birds and woodpeckers. There are a number of live and dehydrated
d. Nectarivores – nectar feeders like hummingbirds. There are several commercial nectar diets available.
In addition to the importance of feeding preferences when feeding wild birds, feeding behaviors of wild birds should be considered when selecting feeders. Some wild birds including robins and doves forage on the ground. Others like woodpeckers and nuthatches forage on the bark of trees. Goldfinches and other granivores forage on the seed heads of grasses.
Casual Bird Feeding
The vast majority of people who are feeding wild birds are casual participants. For them feeding wild birds is primarily a part time activity involving offering wild birds treats and enjoying the benefits of watching their behaviors. The casual participant is one who may on impulse, while shopping at the supermarket, grab a bag of seed or a suet cake. They do not feel any responsibility for feeding wild birds anything more then bird candy. Wild birds are free to forage for their own nutritional needs. If your interest in feeding wild birds is casual, there is an entire industry devoted to meeting your needs. The primary function of the products offered is to bait or draw birds to a feeding site designed to provide maximum visibility for your viewing pleasure. All the feed products including seeds, seed mixes, suet products, and other specialty products are formulated for their ability to attract birds. Nutritional value is not a consideration. Seeds, seed mixes, and suet products offer at best incidental, supplemental nutrition. Even if it were possible to formulate a seed mix that met all the nutritional requirements of birds, it would fail because birds will preferentially select only the seeds they like, the most preferred being oil-type sunflower seed. Seed preference studies have demonstrated time after time that, oil-type sunflower seed, white proso millet, and Nyjer® are the preferred seeds of most species of birds that frequent feeders.
Seed mixes are best viewed as bird candy. The preferred seeds provide a burst of energy but little nutrition. Birds are like children, they eat what they like rather than what is nutritionally best for them.
In selecting seeds or seed mixes you should consider what seeds are in the mix. The cheaper the seed mix the higher the content of filler seeds like corn, milo, oats, wheat and others that the majority of birds find unpalatable. They usually end up on the ground under the feeding station. There is a growing trend in new housing communities to ban bird feeding because of the seed accumulation under the bird feeder and the pests that they attract. Another factor in the pricing of seeds and seed mixes is the grading of the seeds according to quality and any additional processing like cleaning or dehulling the seeds. Premium seed products are cleaner, contain the best grade of seeds, contain a larger proportion of the most palatable seeds like oil-type sunflower seed, and may be dehulled. The reality is that, with the exception of products that contain a higher percentage of the more palatable seeds, none of these added value, higher priced seed mixes make any difference to the birds. They are primarily for human market appeal. You are far better off buying the three individual seeds; oil-type sunflower seed, white proso millet, and Nyjer®. Even the millet is questionable as it attracts alien, invasive house sparrows which should be discouraged.
Bird feed should never be exposed to rain or direct sun both of which will cause deterioration in nutrients.
Wild bird suet products [http://www.aviancuisine.com/suet-vs-vegetable-fat] are available in a variety of shapes and formulations. The shapes typically include the standard cake, plugs, balls or “berries”, bells, and so on. In addition to plain suet, formulations consist of suet incorporating small amounts of attractants like, berries, fruit, insects, nuts, and seeds to appeal to different wild bird species. While the attractants have a small influence on the kind of wild birds that are attracted to a particular suet product, their real impact is in appealing to human consumers . The primary nutritional component in wild bird suet products is beef fat. It provides energy, which is vital to wild birds. Suet cakes and other suet products attract bark-climbing wild bird species like woodpeckers, nuthatches, and so on. Wild bird suet cakes, like seed and seed mixes may improve survivor rates in the short term and they are very economical. In selecting suet products, the consumer should look for the softest products that will meet the conditions at their feeding station. Softness indicates a relatively low melting temperature. The lower the melting temperature, the easier the product is for wild birds to digest.
Over the past five to ten years there has been a trend among suet processors to develop wild bird suet products with increasingly higher melting temperatures. This is just another marketing scheme that is designed to appeal to human consumers at the expense of the best interests of birds. Do not be fooled. It is in the best interest of wild birds to consume fats that contain the least amount of saturated fats and triglycerides. Wild birds are attracted to fat because of its high energy content. However, birds must expend energy, not only to access and consume fats, but to digest them. The melting temperature of a fat is directly related to its degree of saturation. The higher the saturation, the higher the melting temperature, the more energy necessary to digest it.
Responsible Bird Feeding
The growing awareness that many wild bird populations are in decline has generated a need for a new type of wild bird feeding. One that goes beyond human centered motivations to taking responsibility for the health and welfare of local wild bird populations. The single most important thing we can do as individuals is restore natural habitat on our own property by natural landscaping with native plants that provide both shelter and foods, remove all alien, invasive plants, increasing natural and artificial nesting sites, provide a source of clean fresh water, Take an active, responsible role in managing your habitat and all of the wildlife that live on it; from soil organisms to megafauna. Feeding wild birds responsibly can engender a more wholistic view of their local wild bird populations as well as other local wildlife. If you owner manage property, you are responsible for all the living organisms that occupy it either as transients or permanent residents. You are by definition a habitat/wildlife manager.
Responsible wild bird feeding involves, at a minimum, feeding wild birds nutritionally complete wild bird feed on a year ’round basis, maintaining a source of clean fresh water, using properly designed feeders, keeping feeders and feeding sites clean, Set up a control plan to eliminate alien species like house sparrows and European starlings from your habitat by any means that are ethically acceptable. At the very least destroy their nests and eggs, and keep cats inside . Cats are an introduced alien species and they are proficient predators of birds, small mammals, reptiles, and many other life forms. Capture stray cats that wander onto your property and turn them into the local humane society. Encourage all cat owners to act responsibly by keeping their cats inside for their own safety-coyotes love the taste of cats-and the safety of their potential prey.
Nutritionally Complete Wild Bird Feed
Nutritionally complete wild bird feed products take feeding wild birds to a new level. Nutritionally complete wild bird feed products are complete processed diets formulated to provide birds with all their nutritional needs. Processed diets consist of flours, meals, nutrients, and binders processed into a suitable shape of uniform consistency. They are formulated to meet the minimum nutrient requirements of wild birds based on research by the National Research Council. Veterinarians and animal care professionals recommend processed diets as the main food (50% minimum) for all birds. Since a processed diet is of uniform consistency, birds can not preferentially select what they eat. Nutritionally complete, processed, wild bird diets provide a nutritional safety net for wild birds during periods of poor forage availability. Wild birds with unrestricted access to nutritionally complete, processed, wild bird diets will not experience the nutritional slump associated with winter or other periods of inclement weather that interferes with forage availability. As a result, adult birds will over-winter and initiate nesting activities earlier in the season, will nest more frequently during the season, lay more eggs per nesting, fledge more offspring, and nest later into the season. Over the long run local populations of those species accessing feeding stations will first stabilize and increase.
When feeding nutritionally complete wild bird feed products for the first time, you may encounter reluctance in wild birds to accept the new food. Wild birds are very wary of any change including new and different foods that they may not initially recognize as food. In this case offering oil-type sunflower seed that birds recognize as food along with the processed diet will usually entice them to feed. Once feeding has begun, gradually reduce the oil-type sunflower seed over a period of time. When feeding a nutritionally complete, processed, wild bird diet, it is important to restrict availability of other foods. This particularly applies to seed mixes and suet cakes (bird candies) that are formulated to attract birds for entertainment rather than meeting their nutritional needs. Suet cakes and seed mixes are not nutritionally complete and will dilute the desired effect of complete diets.
Most nutritionally complete, processed, wild bird diets incorporate a binder. A very few use vegetable fat as a binder. From a nutritional point of view, the lower the melting temperature of a fat the easier it is for birds to digest. Vegetable oils are very low in saturated fats and triglycerides so they are preferable to suet or any other binder. It is in the best interests of wild birds to use vegetable fats with the lowest melting temperature that will work in a particular situation or feeder.
Feeding a nutritionally complete diet on a year-round basis expands the food base in an area, thereby improving the overall survival and reproductive rates of many species. In the long run, you will see earlier nesting activity, increased reproduction rates, increased fledging rates, and increased survivorship rates. If you want to make a meaningful contribution to the health and reproduction of local species, you should incorporate nutritionally complete, processed, wild bird diets as a major component of your bird-feeding program.
Suet and seed mixes are of value to wild birds as dietary supplements only. Birds readily recognize seeds as food so seed mixes are best used when establishing a new feeding site . Once birds are feeding at a new site we recommend switching to a nutritionally complete, processed, wild bird diet. Once your feeding site is converted to a nutritionally complete, processed, wild bird diet we recommend feeding seed mixes as a treat in small amounts (no more than can be eaten in one day) on a random, once a week basis.