A Thanksgiving Feast – For the Birds

A woodpecker nibbles on suet from a caged bird feeder, while a female cardinal and several yellow finches eat black oil sunflower seeds from a hanging tray beneath it. It's a wintery day and snow is blowing sideways.


Wintery weather arrived early in Oakland County and with it came a flurry of bird feeding questions; among the top of the list were two questions. The first was actually more of a comment with a negative connotation, but I considered it an implied question: “Squirrels keep robbing seed from my feeders!” The second most common question contained various renditions of how to attract birds “that I want to see.” The answer to both is a three-part answer; it’s all about food, location and accessibility. If you are a veteran bird feeder, you’ve probably gained lots of insight into the foods “backyard birds” prefer and how to present them and most likely have accepted the fact that squirrels are one of nature’s most resourceful, and perhaps cunning creatures. One fact is clear. If your feeder offers food they want, squirrels will spend hours, perhaps days, first exploring and then exploiting ways to reach it. But if you’re just getting started in the immensely popular hobby of winter bird feeding, today’s pre-Thanksgiving Day blog may reduce frustration over initial attempts to attract winter birds to your feeders. It’s also good to know that sometimes after a new feeder goes up, it may take a while for birds to come in and feed. I often see cardinals perched in a nearby tree when I refill my feeder, but twenty or thirty minutes may pass before they fly down to feed.

There are many designs of bird feeders. Some elaborate feeders seem designed more for purchase appeal than for birds. However, when shopping for a bird feeder, the most important fact is that it should be designed to keep the seeds dry, and be sturdy enough to withstand winter weather, including wind and ice storms. One of the most basic feeders is a Tray Feeder. Some are covered and some are not, but they are all usually placed close to the ground and attract a wide variety of species. Tube Feeders come in all sizes and shapes and hang from a pole or tree branch, and are often the perfect container for thistle, a favorite of many song birds. Hopper Feeders are attached to decks or hung from poles. Hopper feeders are a popular choice for feeding an assortment of wild birds because unlike open platform bird feeders, they have an enclosed container, or hopper that holds the bird seed and has perches for birds to alight on.

Sometimes forgotten when setting up a feeding station is a small cage-like holder that is designed to hold suet. Suet attracts all species of woodpeckers with Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers being the most common ones in Oakland County, but every once in a while our forest giant, the Pileated Woodpecker, comes calling. Suet attracts a great variety of other species including Black-Capped Chickadees, White-breasted Nuthatches, Tufted Titmice and at times Eastern Bluebirds that increasingly overwinter in our county. My very favorite feeder however, is a type I refer to as a “distraction feeder,” a window feeder that is attached by suction cups and allows viewing from my desk. There is something soothing about watching birds feed just a few feet from my face; it’s also distracting, a most pleasant distraction indeed that seems to help get work done.

Placement location is critical. Of course you want it close enough to the house for easy viewing, but keep the welfare of the birds in mind when choosing a location. Birds are more likely to come if there is nearby shelter, such as shrubs or evergreen trees. Shelter however can also give hiding places for cats, a thought to keep in mind when placing a feeder. My feeder is about 10 feet from shrubs that can shelter birds, but that space also makes it tough for a neighbor’s free-roaming cat to ambush ground feeders. Cooper’s Hawks love bird feeders too, not for the seeds or suet but for the birds that come in to feast. This fast-flying accipiter zips in for a feathery meal and returns to nearby woods, perhaps leaving other birds seemingly wondering, “What just happened?” Losing songbirds to Cooper’s Hawks and Sharp-shinned Hawks is to be expected, for a large gathering of birds in an exposed area is a dining invitation to these masterful meat-eating fliers.

There’s a wealth of information on the internet as to what seeds to use, but not all birds are attracted to the same seeds. If I had to use only one seed type, I’d go with black-oiled sunflower seeds, sometimes referred to as the “hamburger of the bird world.” Grocery stores are not usually the best location to buy bird seeds. Save money and buy in bulk in 25 or 50 pound bags. I get mine at Hamilton Feed in Ortonville and they always toss in helpful birding advice. Be sure to store the seed in metal containers or squirrels, chipmunks and mice will make it their life mission to find a way to access the mother lode of seed. Almost every type of bird that overwinters in Oakland County will readily take to sunflower seeds and I have fun watching small birds using their beaks to hold the seed and pound it against the window sill to get to the innards. Fruit is part of the diet of many birds and in winter many species look for the remains of dried fruit such as wild grapes and poison ivy berries. Add slices of bananas, grapes, raisins and citrus fruits to your platform or hopper feeder and your feeding station may transform into an all you can eat, come one, come all café.

Contrary to myth, peanut butter will not make a bird choke. Peanut butter is a nutritious treat, high in calories and fat for great energy. Nuthatches, chickadees, woodpeckers, blue jays, cardinals, house finches and goldfinches all visit my grapefruit peanut butter feeder: a fun project for children. Simply hollow out half of a grapefruit and fill it with a mound of peanut butter mixed with sunflower seeds, thistle and millet and hang it from a branch. I sometimes add whole peanuts to the mix and watch blue jays and woodpeckers dig for them in the mix and squirrels make acrobatic leaps to reach the treat.

A yellow finch sits on a hanging bird feeder made from a grapefruit that's been cut in half, hollowed out, and filled with peanut butter and bird seed.

Squirrels are masterful feeder raiders, and no matter what the marketing folks say, I’ve yet to see a feeder that is 100% squirrel proof. A bit of squirrel trivia is in order here for those that have watched a squirrel climb down a window screen to access a nearby feeder. A squirrel can rotate its feet nearly 180 degrees at their ankle joints, allowing it to easily scurry down a tree or suspend itself from its hind feet when descending a screen or dangling from a feeder’s support pole. Bird feeders attract a great variety of other four-legged creatures. The winter list includes deer, rabbits, mice, opossums, squirrels, deer and even skunks. Even red foxes and coyotes sometimes visit feeders to capture gluttonous ground-feeding creatures. Wild turkey are perhaps my favorite winter feeder visitor and on this day before Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for that. Not because millions of their farm raised kin will end up stuffed and glazed on dinner tables tomorrow, but because the wild turkeys that thrive in our midst remind me that nature thrives, and at times entertains, on the wilder side of Oakland County.

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Jonathan Schechter is the Nature Education Writer for Oakland County Government and blogs weekly about nature’s way, trails, and wildlife on the Wilder Side of Oakland County

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2 thoughts on “A Thanksgiving Feast – For the Birds

  1. Thanks so much for sharing my winter bird feeding blog post. Much appreciated! And I will certainly keep an eye on your wildlife posts from the ‘ wilder side’ of Ontario


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