Wednesday, February 17, 2016

No Bird Brain, This Lady- Part I

Outside of checking nursery websites that claim to carry "unusual" plants and planning for the annual changes in my garden what's a Chicago horticulturist got to do in February? The snow isn't that deep at the moment, but the temperature is brutal. Competition at my bird feeder is pretty fierce as well.

Bird feeding is one of America's favorite hobbies. As I look out at the amazing diversity at my feeder I realize my knowledge of what I'm doing for my birds is pretty superficial. That's when I turned to Mary Francis Forde, Chalet's bird product buyer, for more info. Mary Francis was an educator for 28 years,  in garden center sales for 11, and bird product buyer for the last five years. I want to share what I learned from her in a recent sit-down chat. Wow, what I didn't know about bird feeding could fill a few blog posts. And guess what? It's going to :)

Tony: Mary Francis, what should someone new to "birding"consider when buying their first feeder?
MF: What's their motivation? What birds do they want to attract? What season are they going to feed? Fall and winter, or year 'round? What are the physical considerations for feeder placement? Are they placing it from: a tree branch, a hanger, off a railing?

Downy Woodpecker getting his fat ration
Tony: So, if you wanted to make an immediate impact for winter what would you suggest?
MF: Consider getting a suet feeder. Don't overlook the birds' need for fat and protein in the winter. Suet is a great way to provide vital calories needed to replace what they're burning just to stay warm. The new "no melt" suet formulations have a long shelf life in all kinds of weather without becoming rancid.
Robins love insect-embedded suet!
Tony: I notice there are a lot of choices in the suet cake selection- different seed types embedded in them.
MF: You bet. Did you notice the one with insect larvae in it? It's a great one to make life easier for overwintering robins. They love it!

So many great feeder options nowadays
Tony: There are so many cool feeders now, too. You can have a specialty feeder (like niger, sunflower, peanut or a general feeder). Please share what you were saying about niger thistle.
MF: Niger is a strong draw for finches, chickadees and doves as most seedheads are "grazed out" by now, so they're looking for food sources. Be aware that most male finches won't be showing color now so don't assume (from a distance) that you're just getting sparrows.

Tony: When you have a wide range of choices and prices (like anything in life, by the way) I'm always suspicious of the, shall we say politely, the "value product". Based on what I see researching wild bird seed there's a big difference in what you get for your money.  
MF: I would agree. The label must show the % of protein, fat and fiber as well as the sources. But, it isn't required to show the % of each type of seed in the bag. Birds need high protein and fat, NOT fiber. Fillers are high in fiber, which would be corn and millet.

Tony: I'm fascinated by the idea that birds test their seed before they eat it. Please share that.
MF: Through my reading I learned that in the same way a human can look at a peanut in the shell and know how many nuts are in it, a bird does something similar. They take a seed in their beak and can tell by weight if it's fresh, whole or insect-infested. If it's not fresh it ends up on the ground.

Your birds will be the happiest in the 'hood
Tony: Nature is just so cool. I had no idea they did that. What's your opinion of Cole's bird seed? People (and birds) must love it since it's a top seller. I use their "Blue Ribbon", and am so happy with the feathered diversity it brings to my garden. It seems like I get everything good, with very few sparrows. No cards or letters from sparrow enthusiasts, please. They're aggressive, territorial, and either eat everything in the feeder in one afternoon or throw it out on the ground.
MF: You're preaching to the choir on sparrows there, brother. There's a reason for Cole's popularity. It absolutely is a top quality line with a very low percentage of "fill" seed. It's treated with nitrogen gas prior to being sealed to kill grain moths. Then it's vacuum sealed, again to reduce any likelihood of grain moths infesting the seed. If unopened, Cole's seed has a three year shelf life. As you know they have a wide range of mixes, but they're more protein and fat-based with lower fiber than a lot of what's out there.
And since you mentioned it you might consider switching from their "Blue Ribbon" to "Special Feeder" for the fall and winter. The primary difference is "Special Feeder" contains raw peanuts and pecans in the mix for extra protein and fat.

Tony: Mary Francis has a lot more to share, so stay tuned for Part II.