Wednesday, February 1st, 2023
Wednesday, February 1st, 2023

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Common birding dilemma: Where are my birds?

You purchased some seed, perhaps even the very best brand, yet the birds you expected to have cheering your winter morning have deserted your yard. What could have happened? The reasons can vary, here are some of the most common causes:

You bought lousy seed. It’s OK, it happens to all of us at some point. Let’s face it: Bird feeding can get expensive. If you see a deal on a “high quality mix” for $12.99, it's tempting to purchase that instead of some fresh black oil sunflower seed that’s five times the price for the same amount. Most stores bank on people knowing very little about feeder birds, and they just want to move the seed as quickly as possible.

Take a look at your mix. Is mostly yellow in color? Or mostly orange? You may have a mix that is made up of primarily filler seeds like white millet, cracked corn, or milo. White millet is a favorite of sparrows like juncos or American tree sparrows, but it doesn’t trip the trigger of cardinals, chickadees, or nuthatches. If you have a lot of milo, that’s mostly going to appeal to turkeys and quail.

Solution: Purchase some black oil sunflower seeds and mix that in. Or just scatter the yellow mix n the ground.

You purchased old seed. This one is trickier. Sunflower can stay edible to birds almost two years after harvested. However, after the first year, the nutmeat begins to shrivel. If you purchased some bargain black oil sunflower seed at a hardware store, chances are it’s more than a year old and not nearly as fresh as the sunflower you’d find at a wild bird specialty store. This may not be a huge issue if you are the only one in the neighborhood who feeds birds, but if your neighbor is shelling out the dough to purchase fresher sunflower, the birds will visit that feeder and then consider your feeding station when fresher options are exhausted.

Nyjer (aka niger or thistle) is an even finickier seed. Birds generally do not eat it if it is over six months old. Period.

Solution: Purchase seed in smaller quantities and purchase more often.

Significant habitat change: This is one that’s harder for people to realize, but sometimes you need to look at your yard from a bird’s point of view. Did you take out some unwanted shrubbery, say buckthorn? Has there been major construction next door? Did a tree fall down? Most feeder birds like a bit of cover to perch in before flitting over to feeders. The cover lets them make sure the coast is clear of free-ranging cats or hawks before they feed. It also gives them a place to fly into should a Cooper’s hawk suddenly swoop into the area.

Solution: Create a brush pile out of old sticks or even a discarded old Christmas tree. Try to keep it at least 10 feet away from the feeder to discourage squirrels from using it as a launching pad.

Your feeders are gross. I know, life is busy and we barely have time to clean our own dishes, and birds are hearty outdoor creatures that can survive crazy temperature shifts and storms. Surely they don’t need feeders cleaned, too, right?

Yes. They do. Now you don’t have to do it daily, but take a look. Is the inside of the feeder looking moist? Does the seed clump together? Is there mold or fungus? It’s time to clean that bad boy out. Not only do birds not want to eat it, but a filthy feeder can spread disease and kill whole flocks of birds.

Solution: Clean your feeders once a week or at the very least, once a month using a mild solution of bleach and water. Dry thoroughly before replacing outside. It wouldn’t hurt to rake up the empty seed shells underneath either. Or hire someone to do it.

There’s abundant wild/natural food: Some winters we don’t have very much snow or trees, but we may have had a bumper seed crop. Birds could find abundant hackberry, buckthorn, or sumac. If there’s not a lot of snow, they may have access to all sorts of invertebrates that would be preferable to seed. Also, birds form flocks and those can be a bit nomadic, heading out to areas with more variety of food. Essentially, it’s not you, it’s them.

Solution: Patience… easier said than done!

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