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A beginner's guide to feeding birds

A rare white-winged crossbill feeds in a Mundelein yard. When you feed birds, you have the chance to see common as well as rare birds in Lake County.
A rare white-winged crossbill feeds in a Mundelein yard. When you feed birds, you have the chance to see common as well as rare birds in Lake County.

We feed birds year-round in our Lake County suburban front and back yard. But it's especially rewarding in winter when natural food is scarcer for birds, bringing more of these avian creatures into closer view. For example, we have sunflower oilers in a hopper-type feeder, which attract northern cardinals. These year-round birds brighten a dull winter day with their red plumages. We also enjoy watching the escapades of American goldfinches fighting with pine siksins for a perch on our thistle feeder. 
Over the years, we've tried different types of feeders and seeds and discovered what works best. Plus we've found ways to thwart hungry squirrels.
If you want to start feeding birds,here are some suggestions.
First, be aware that feeding birds can be mess. Some birds drop food while eating, creating a pile of seeds that attract other critters such as squirrels and raccoons. Mixes of any kind get picked at by birds, who drop the undesirable seeds to the ground. You can purchase mixes at hardware stores, bird feeding stores and online, but I'd avoid them.
Beginners should start with two types of feeders and seeds – a tubular feeder with thin slots for nyger or thistle seed. The other is a hopper or house-type feeder, which can be filled with sunflower oilers. Both of these feeders can be hung from trees or on a pole stuck into the ground. You'll likely need a squirrel baffle, a metallic round object you place above the feeder so the rodents won't be able to get at the feeder. I once tried putting vaseline on the poles to keep the squirrels at bay. Not only did it not work, but it also was messy and likely not so good for the birds.
It may take a few days for the birds to find your feeders, so be patient. Also, don't worry if you're gone a few days – birds find several places to go where they know they can find food. The black-capped chickadee you see at your feeder in the morning may leave to go eat elsewhere, while another chickadee may appear in the afternoon.
Here's what you might see once they start coming.
House finches, pine siskins, common redpolls and American goldfinches will partake from  your thistle feeder. House finches and goldfinches live year-round in Lake County. The redpolls and siskins migrate to Lake County from the north in winter, then fly back in spring where they will nest in coniferous forests. The siskins are much more common than the redpolls. They look like goldfinches, but have lots of streaking on their sides and even their heads.
I love watching goldfinches as winter melds into spring. As spring approaches, the males start getting their yellow plumage back. In March and April, they'll have splotches of yellow on them as if someone had splashed some paint on their feathers. Several winters ago, redpolls staged an invasion in northern Illinois. We had 92 redpolls on the feeders and on the ground beneath the serviceberry for several days. These are gorgeous little birds with red caps on them.
For hopper or house-type feeders, you can use sunflower hearts, which are expensive. That will cut down on the mess. We use sunflower oilers, which have hulls and provide lots of protein for hungry birds in winter. Year-round birds such as northern cardinals and black-capped chickadees visit our hopper feeders, and during migration in spring and fall, we get, unfortunately, large numbers of common grackles, native birds, but gregarious at the feeders. We sometimes stop feeding until the grackles have passed through, or we – silly as it may sound – go running out and shouting and waving our arms when a huge grackle flock comes by. We endure those less desirable birds in hopes of seeing something rare – for example – an evening grosbeak, a rare northerly visitor, that stopped by one winter and rose-breasted grosbeaks that eat the oilers during spring migration in May. Recently, a woman from Mundelein called to tell us that two white-winged crossbills (very rarer in Lake County) were at her feeders. So you’ll never know what you might find.
Feeders also attract non-native house sparrows, which have now become part of the backyard group of birds you'll see. They're gregarious and feed in small flocks.
My favorite feeder in winter is a peanut feeder – it's a tubular-shaped device like the thistle feeder, but with larger feeding holes so the birds can get the peanuts out.  Red-breasted nuthatches love this feeder. These small birds with red breasts and dark caps will head back north to breed in coniferous forests come spring. Downy woodpeckers and hairy woodpeckers also feast on the peanuts. Peanut hearts are expensive  but worth it for the enjoyment of watching the snow fall as these birds snatch snacks in our front yard.
Make sure rain, sleet and snow don't get into the feeders and create mold and fungus. If that happens, remove the seeds and clean the feeder thoroughly with hot, soapy water. Some folks have used a drop of chlorine in the water to sterilize the feeders. I've never had to do that.
For more information on feeding birds, visit and www.allaboutbirds.orgww

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