Sunflower seed may be the hamburger of the bird world, but don’t you sometimes get bored scooping the same old seed out of those 50-pound bags? We’ll never know if the birds get bored, too. But just in case they are yawning at your feeder offerings, I’ve got a few suggestions to help you break out of the old feeder routine. These 10 suggestions include some bird feeder offerings you may have heard of before, and a few you probably haven’t.
It’s time for a caveat. Not all of these suggestions will work in your backyard. After all, everyone’s climate and feeder clientele are different. So think for yourself—these are just suggestions—do what makes you (and your birds) happy.
10. Roadkill. Years ago we ran an article in BWD in which the author extolled the virtues of feeding road-killed animals to his backyard birds. He enticed a red-shouldered hawk to come into his backyard to feast on a rabbit that had met an unfortunate end on his road. But lots of birds will feed on a convenient carcass, especially the meat and the fat, which is nature’s own suet. By the end of the article he was plotting how to cram a deer carcass into his compact car so he could feed more birds. However, due to the threat of rabies, always use care and wear gloves when handling road kill.
9. Meat Scraps. If your enthusiasm for feeding birds does not extend to picking up dead things from roadsides, consider offering the meat scraps from last night’s dinner. With the proliferation of the Atkins Diet, Americans now have more meat scraps than any time since the Pilgrims found Plymouth Rock. We do the same thing with freezer-burned meat—put it out on the platform feeder for the birds to enjoy.
8. Grape Jelly. Grape jelly is favored by woodpeckers, orioles, tanagers, and others. We usually offer a spoonful in a shallow dish or jar lid. The sugar content in the jelly makes it a high-energy food for feeder birds. Just don’t overdo it. Too much artificial coloring is no good for anyone. Besides your birds might start asking for peanut butter and a loaf of bread.
7. Holiday Nuts. They get stale when they get old. What better way to rid yourself of those holiday nuts (no, I’m not referring to your distant relatives) than to feed them to your backyard birds. If the nuts are highly salty (which would not be good for your birds), consider removing some of the salt by placing them in a paper bag and shaking it briskly. We offer nuts in wire mesh peanut feeders, in a small hopper feeder, or simply on a platform feeder. Chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers, and jays wolf them down.
6. Eggshells. You may know the beneficial impact of the calcium in eggshells on female birds during the nesting season. Birds can also use the extra mineral during the winter. Save those eggshells from breakfast, rinse them out in the sink, and place them in a shallow pan and bake in the oven at 250 degrees for 20 minutes. This cleaning and baking eliminates the chance that wild birds will be exposed to harmful bacteria from domestic chickens. We crush our eggshells on our front sidewalk and the birds nibble at the pieces all winter long.
5. Grit. Have you ever observed house sparrows pecking at the mortar between bricks on a house foundation? Or have you seen evening grosbeaks or flocks of other seed-eating birds on a snowy road that has just been treated with sand? These birds are getting grit for their gizzards. What is grit? And what is a gizzard? The gizzard is the muscular stomach that seed-eating birds have. Food passing through the gizzard is broken down as the gizzard’s muscles contract. Grit (in the form of small stones, sand, or even eggshells consumed by birds) resides in the gizzard, helping to speed the food processing. We offer grit in the form of a pile of coarse sand left over from a building project. We often see sparrows, finches, and mourning doves getting grit from our sand pile. You can offer grit on the ground or on a platform feeder—anywhere the birds can find it.
4. Berries. My friend John Trott used to harvest stems of pokeberry in late fall, just before frost. He’d put them in plastic bags in his freezer and, when the winter weather was harsh and most of the natural berry crop was gone, he’d give his feeder birds a special treat—out-of-season pokeberries! I’ve heard from other folks who do the same thing with sassafras berries, wild grapes, and even with sumac fruits. If you don’t have access to wild berries, your birds won’t mind getting the overripe rejects from the berries you’ve bought at the store. We’ve had luck with blueberries, raspberries, and cherries. Any fruit will do, and your birds will really appreciate an offering of berries or fruit when the wild crop has dwindled.
3. Pumpkin or Melon Seeds. Last Halloween, after Julie and the kids carved our pumpkins, Phoebe was sent out to dump the pumpkin “guts” on the compost pile. Half an hour later she called out,”Hey! There’s a gray bird eating the pumpkin stuff!” Sure enough, a late lingering gray catbird was billing through the wet pile of pumpkin innards eating bits and pieces. After the seeds dried out the cardinals and titmice made the pumpkin pile a regular feeding spot. Now we often save our pumpkin, squash, and melon seeds, dry them in the oven, and spread them out on our large platform feeder. Not all the birds can crack these tough seeds, but those that can waste no time in clearing them off the feeder. Melon rinds can work the same magic. We never get yellow-breasted chats or brown thrashers at our feeders, but they are regulars on our compost pile when there’s a strategically placed watermelon rind, with just a little extra melon still on it.
2. Pasta. This bird food was another compost pile revelation. Our kids love spaghetti with butter (no sauce, please) so we fix boatloads of it. When we can’t reheat it even one more time, the leftover pasta goes on the compost pile where the birds enjoy it al fresco. We’ve had a brown thrasher, blue jays, and titmice so into the pasta that you’d think they were extras on The Sopranos. Then there’s our macaroni-and-cheese-loving red-bellied woodpecker. Offering pasta, like a lot of these “weird” foods, is best done in dry weather. We cut down on the compost pile feeding in mid-winter when we’re beset by 40 to 100 starlings. Even so, it’s nice to see our leftovers consumed by something other than our pesky raccoons.
1. Mealworms. If you’ve never heard of mealworm feeding, then you need to get out more, my friend. Mealworms are one of the fastest-growing bird-feeding trends of the past decade. Our initial mealworm feeding was aimed at our bluebirds. Now our avian mealworm fans include cardinals, chickadees, titmice, white-breasted nuthatches, chipping, song, and field sparrows, downy woodpeckers, and Carolina wrens. Some feeder operators have had success in attracting warblers, vireos, tanagers, and orioles to mealworms. If you want to try mealworm feeding, find a local pet store or bait store that carries mealworms and buy a few dozen. Offer them near your existing feeders in a heavy shallow dish with slick vertical sides (lest the mealworms make their escape). It may take a while for your birds to tune into the presence of live food, but once they do, look out! We go through at least 1,000 mealworms in a month, and we dole them out sparingly. When you’re ready to get serious about mealworm feeding, you’ll certainly want to buy your “mealies” by mail-order and you may want to get a feeder specifically designed for mealworms.
Try some of these “weird” foods for birds and see if your birds like them. And don’t be afraid to try something else, as long as it’s not unhealthy for the birds (chocolate, soda pop, and Velveeta come to mind). In moderation, any of these foods will be fine for your birds, and they give you a chance to spice up your bird feeding.