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Bird feeding budgets can be stretched

Everything we purchase these days, from groceries to gasoline, is taking larger bites out of our incomes. The same is true when buying birdseed. Black oil sunflower seed is as high in price as it's ever been. And so is thistle seed. As a result, some backyard birders who enjoy feeding their feathered friends are reducing the amount they feed or are feeding something different that's less expensive.

Many people look forward to the time of year when Baltimore orioles and ruby-throated hummingbirds migrate back to the Northland each spring. I know I do. And some folks purchase commercially sold hummingbird and oriole nectar mixes to fill their nectar feeders with. But the truth is you don't need to buy these expensive products in order to attract these delightful birds to your homes.

Plain cane sugar is all you need to buy, and it's inexpensive. I always buy 10-pound bags of private label brands. No need to pay top dollar for name brand sugar. Sugar is sugar when it comes to your birds. A typical mixture ratio for hummers is one cup of sugar to three or four cups of water, whereas orioles are normally fed a more diluted mixture of around one part sugar to six parts water. Mix enough, keep it inside a jug, and store in your fridge until it's time to refill your feeders.

There is no need to add artificial dye to your sugar water either; in fact it's inadvisable because dye can harm birds. The color of your nectar feeder is color enough to attract orioles and hummingbirds. It is for this reason that oriole and hummer feeders are colored orange and red. Hummingbirds and orioles are naturally attracted to these colors because these are frequently the colors of the wild flowers and fruits that each bird seeks out for food.

Nectar feeders themselves can be pricey too. A particular feeder's materials, size, and the amount of decor will be in direct proportion to its sticker price. Feeders with fancy metal flower designs and those with glass reservoirs are always going to cost you more. But are these kinds of feeders that can be priced as high as $30 dollars and more really worth it?

Cheap or expensive feeders won't matter to your birds. The most important thing, in my book, is the number of feeding ports available and the number of feeders you hang. I believe that hanging several inexpensive, plastic varieties of nectar feeders around your yard and house is better than splurging on one or two fancy-dancy types.

As many of you know, male hummingbirds are especially territorial and will expend a great amount of energy aggressively chasing other male and female hummers away from "their" feeder. If you have more than a couple feeders placed about, this becomes less of an issue. More feeders might actually attract more birds.

One more thing about nectar feeders that you can consider when looking for ways to cut costs is to make your own pop bottle feeder. The Internet has plenty of designs that you can follow that are made from simple two-liter (or less in size) pop bottles. Or, you can purchase specially designed bottoms and hangers for as little as $5.

In fact, pop bottle feeders can be made to accommodate not only nectar for your hummingbirds and orioles, but birdseed too. Feeder bottoms that screw onto pop bottles are available to construct feeders for those birds that prefer thistle, sunflower, and mixed seeds. Nectar and seed feeders such as these look nice and are very easy on the pocket book. In addition, they're great projects for the kids.

Regarding birdseed, when the 50-pound bags of black oil sunflower seeds flirted with a $25 bill, I began looking seriously at mixed birdseed. The stuff I've been purchasing lately has a nice component of black oil sunflower seed, cracked corn, and millet -- and it costs about half the price for the same amount as pure black oil sunflower seeds do. Not only is the price easier to swallow, I'm enjoying a slightly different complement of birds too.

I'm still observing plenty of rose-breasted grosbeaks and American goldfinches, but I'm also seeing more blue jays, native sparrows, eastern bluebirds, and indigo buntings picking at the offerings I scatter on the ground for them.

Still, keep in mind that if you go this route you might begin observing birds that some people find less desirable. Birds such as starlings, house sparrows, brown-headed cowbirds, grackles and crows are often attracted to "cheap" seeds. Your best bet, as is always the case when seeking avian diversity, is to feed a variety of seeds in a variety of feeders.

As already suggested, feeders can be made quickly, easily, and inexpensively. Simple fly-through styles and platform bird feeders can be made from scrap boards and pieces of plywood. Remember, birds are after your offerings and couldn't care less about how ornate and expensive the feeder is.

And don't forget suet. Suet, which attracts a wide range of birds, is relatively cheap to buy. If you're a deer hunter or you know a deer hunter, save the fat and tallow, put it in bags, and freeze it. Your local meat shop is also a good source for acquiring inexpensive suet.

Indeed, one can cut corners while maintaining a sensible bird-feeding budget. Use the mesh plastic bags that you bought your onions at the grocery store in as suet feeders; coat pinecones with suet, roll in birdseed and hang them from trees; or construct a makeshift birdbath cut from a plastic five gallon bucket. All these suggestions, and much more, can be done as you get out and enjoy the great outdoors.


Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at