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Good Natured: Setting out a proper banquet for the birds

A male red-bellied woodpecker helps himself to suet at the Hickory Knolls Discovery Center feeding station.
A male red-bellied woodpecker helps himself to suet at the Hickory Knolls Discovery Center feeding station.

Over the years this space has been used to discuss birdfeeding dos and don’ts on a number of occasions. But with the winter weather we’re experiencing – with no end in sight, I might add – I figured it couldn’t hurt to revisit the topic once again.

Many people have called over the past couple of weeks, worried about our feathered friends and asking for advice on what to offer as part of a birdie buffet. But before we get into the nitty, and gritty, I want to issue a disclaimer. Hanging out a birdfeeder is like putting out a party invitation; the only difference is, you have no control over the guest list. That succulent suet cake may be just as irresistible to a squirrel or raccoon as it is to the woodpecker for which it’s intended.

The good news is, there are certain things you can do to, if not control, at least influence who or what comes to feed on your seeds. And you don’t have to hire a feathered bouncer to do it.

The first step you can take actually begins not at the feeder, but at the feed store. You know how at the butcher shop you can choose between the bargain cuts, all fatty and gristly, and the fancy cuts, with their picture-perfect marbling and soft-as-butter texture? Even if you knew nothing about meat, you probably could tell that one hunk is better than other just by looking at the price.

It’s the same with birdseed. Some seed mixes are loaded, not with fat and gristle, but with “filler” grains that most birds want nothing to do with. Milo, for example, is a bulky seed with little nutritional value. It’s cheap to produce though, and it takes up lots of space, so you’ll find it in quantity in many
inexpensive birdseed mixes.

Although some birds, like doves, pheasants and wild turkeys, seem to be attracted to milo (take note, our east St. Charles friends who actually do have turkeys at their feeders) most songbird species shun it and kick it to the ground. There it sits, attracting the attention of starlings and other party-poopers. If you don’t like these guys at your feeders, spend a little bit more on your seed; get the tender filet instead of the chewy shoe leather.

One seed you can’t go wrong with is black oil sunflower. A 50-pound bag might cost you $40 or more (less if you find a sale) but you’ll be rewarded with visits from all sorts of delightful guests – chickadees, nuthatches, finches and woodpeckers, to name a few.

It’s true, black oil sunflower seeds are popular not only with birds, but also mammals – particularly squirrels. If you would rather not have squirrels come to your party, try swapping sunflower seeds for safflower. Squirrels don’t care for it, but many songbirds do. If you do decide to try this method, be sure and introduce the safflower gradually, mixing it in with the sunflower seeds and slowly increasing the ratio. Just as you would be suspicious if your favorite restaurant switched menus overnight, so, too, are birds.

Another common method of deterring squirrels has been to add ground cayenne pepper to the seeds.

Squirrels can taste and feel capsaicin, the chemical that gives the pepper its heat, but birds cannot. However, studies have shown that even though birds lack the nerve endings needed to feel the pepper in their mouths, they still can have a bad reaction to the dust if it gets into their nose or eyes. Hence, this method is best avoided. Good party hosts don’t spatter their guests with pepper spray, and neither should you.

Getting back to the banquet, another must-have at the birdseed buffet – especially in winter – is suet cakes. Packed with high-calorie fat, these blocks provide the energy birds need to survive winter’s extreme temperatures. 

As with birdseed, it pays to read the label when purchasing bird suet. Look for the words “beef kidney suet” on the label; this sort offers more quality calories than tallow or shortening. Also, if you’re tempted by suet cakes with tasty-looking nuts, fruits and seeds, make sure those added ingredients don’t outweigh the suet itself. While enticing, these garnishes aren’t as nutrient-dense as suet and might cause your suet cake to fall apart or erode away more quickly during a winter storm.

Now let’s get gritty. Grit is another element you may wish to add to your banquet. Although not a food, it is an essential part of feeding for seedeaters. Because they have no teeth to crunch their food, birds rely on grit in their crops to grind seeds in preparation for digestion.

You know those birds foraging along roadsides after the snowplow passes through? More than likely, they’re after the dirt and sand those blades have churned up. You can make their job easier by scattering grit beneath your birdfeeding station, or placing it on a platform feeder.

Choose from commercially prepared grit, available at feed stores, or sand, if that’s what you have on hand. Some avid birdfeeders also recommend crushed eggshells, but if you go this route be sure that the shells don’t harbor salmonella bacteria. Shells from boiled eggs are fine as-is, but if they’re from raw eggs you should bake them at 250 degrees for 30 minutes before crushing and “feeding.”

One final tip addresses the timing of your party. The species of birds that come to feeders are diurnal, or active during daylight hours. Yet some of your feeding area’s biggest party crashers – namely raccoons and opossums – are nocturnal, or active at night. Even deer, which can do a number on feeders and your birdseed budget, usually feed at dawn and dusk and not peak daytime hours.

So, if you’re finding your feeders are a mess come morning, do the easy thing and bring them in each evening.

If you don’t want to bring them all the way inside, and risk drawing mice or other critters into your porch or garage, get a metal box or some galvanized garbage cans (which also are great for storing birdseed bought in quantity). Weigh the top down with a brick or two and, ta-da, the problem of midnight feeder marauders is solved.

Just be sure to hang the feeders back up again the next day, so the party can begin once again.

• Pam Otto is the manager of nature programs and interpretive services for the St. Charles Park District. She can be reached at 630-513-4346 or

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