Editor's Note: This is the second article in a four-part series on the basics of attracting, feeding, and sheltering birds.
Let's start with what's most important to the birds themselves: food. One reason birds occur in such variety and numbers today is due to the fact that their feeding strategies have evolved over time to help them survive. But just because the different species of birds now have different diets doesn't mean that it's your job to feed them all. Rather than trying to provide every exotic seed or feed available, keep your selection to a few basics that will attract a wide variety of birds into your yard no matter where you live North America.
Sunflower seeds are perhaps the most popular bird food on the market. Nuthatches, titmice, chickadees, woodpeckers, jays, and finches all find these seeds irresistible. Of course, you can grow your own sunflowers, for which the finches and jays in your neighborhood will love you, but before autumn arrives your sunflowers will be bare. Better to purchase a large bag of sunflower seeds. And if you really bring in the birds, you'll need several bags.
Store the sunflower seeds — and all seed for that matter — in a covered metal or plastic container and, if possible, out of the weather and away from areas where raccoons, squirrels, and other animals will find them.
Second to sunflower seed is mixed small seed, which attracts the above-mentioned birds as well as many species of blackbirds, sparrows, and game birds. Bird seed companies and certain stores offer their own seed mixes in all sorts of package sizes. Look for a mix that contains lots of white millet (small round white seeds). Experience will tell you before long which brands the birds in your neighborhood prefer.
Another very popular seed, especially for ground-feeding birds, is cracked corn. Grouse, pheasants, doves, blackbirds, cardinals, and sparrows love it, particularly if it's finely cracked.
White beef suet, on the other hand, the best suet available for birds, attracts woodpeckers, from Downies to Pileateds, chickadees, titmice, and nuthatches. It's available at the meat counter in grocery stores.
Hummingbirds, meanwhile, present the backyard birder with different challenges. In the West, especially the Southwest, many types of hummingbirds exist, whereas most of the East has only one species, the Ruby-throated, but it visits feeders, too. Hummingbird food can be made easily at home by mixing four parts water with one part cane sugar. Boil the mixture for a few minutes to kill any bacteria, then store it in your refrigerator for future use.
Choosing the right food, though, is only half the job. You also need efficient ways to dispense it. The key here is simplicity. While you may like the look of an ostentatious feeder, these tend be more difficult to clean and fill than simpler designs. Besides, birds don't care what a feeder looks like as long as the food inside is accessible.
For sunflower and mixed seed use hanging tubular feeders. For mixed seed and cracked corn use trays or the bare ground. Onion bags or suet cages work best for suet, while specially designed hummingbird feeders — remember, keep it simple — best dispense sugary homemade brew.
Finally, you'll save a lot of money in the long run, and your birds will be happier, if you make sure all feeders and feeding spaces have a lid, roof, or some manner of protection from rain and ice. Bird seed spoils quickly once it becomes wet, and nobody wins if the seed gets moldy or covered by ice and snow.
Next Week: Birdbath basics and selecting a birdhouse.