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Blane Klemek: Many options when it comes to feeding our feathered friends

Some would say winter is for the birds. I say winter is for feeding the birds. With snow and cold upon us, now is the time to provide your fine-feathered friends with plenty of goodies.

Depending upon where you live will, in large part, determine what kinds of birds you will attract to your feeders.

But to really learn what the potential is for attracting different birds to your backyard, the best thing to do is to provide several types of seeds, and other foods, in addition to utilizing a multitude of different feeders. The choices are nearly endless and can really add to your bird feeding and bird watching enjoyment.

Unquestionably the most popular and favorite bird seed that people feed birds is sunflower seed, specifically the black-oil sunflower seed. Black-oil sunflower seeds are best for a number of reasons.

They are smaller than striped sunflower seeds and have thinner shells. This fact alone makes black-oil sunflower seeds a favorite of a wider variety of birds, especially those with smaller and weaker beaks such as goldfinches and chickadees.

Black-oil sunflower seeds also pack a quite a punch in the form of both fat and oil content. And this is important because of the high energetic costs of staying warm in the winter.

These high-energy seeds are just what birds need to help them survive the coldest days of winter.

Sunflower seeds do have one drawback.

The hulls collect and litter the ground below feeders, which can promote disease, especially if you feed birds during the warmer months of spring, summer and autumn.

Discarded hulls left on the damp ground will often mold. This mold can make birds ill and even cause death from a disease called aspergillosis, which affects the respiratory systems of birds.

It becomes, therefore, imperative to not only keep the ground free of accumulating hulls,  but to keep your feeders clean as well.

Occasionally washing your feeders with soap and water is always recommended. To avoid the hull problem, many people feed sunflower seeds without the shell.

Though more expensive, it is cleaner and birds find the “hearts” irresistible.

Walk into any retail store that sells bird-feeding supplies and you will encounter a dizzying assortment of choices.

The popularity (and profit margins) of bird seed and accessories are recognized by most discounters these days, and that becomes obvious by the amount of space devoted to this line of merchandise.

There are even specialty stores popping up all over the country that cater exclusively to bird-feeding enthusiasts.

Aside from sunflower seeds, mixes of various sorts are also available.

Millet mixes are very popular and widely used. These mixes typically include sunflower seeds, wheat, milo, rapeseed and canary seed.

Ground-feeding birds such as native sparrows, juncos, doves, and jays really go for this type of seed.

Millet can also be spread onto tray feeders and will attract the same species of birds.

Niger seed (thistle) is another great bird seed. Finches such as goldfinches, pine siskins, common redpolls, purple finches, and house finches are all thistle seed eaters. Niger seed is very small and require special feeders to accommodate such tiny seeds. These feeders are generally the common tube or cylindrical-type feeder. The ports of thistle seed feeders are small, too, so the seeds do not fall out.

Tube feeders come in various sizes and styles. Some have ports that are large and will only store big seeds such as sunflower seeds. Others are divided and can, therefore, hold large seeds on one side and small seeds on the other side. And some have more ports than others that, in turn, allow more birds to feed at once.

Other popular feeders are hopper style feeders, tray feeders, and fly-through styles.

Some birds will not perch on the pegs of tube feeders, but will readily use feeders such as these.

But don’t stop there. Many people get quite creative with birdfeeders. Milk jugs and cartons can be fashioned into dandy feeders, as will two-liter pop bottles and any number of other simple designs constructed from plywood and like materials.

Believe it or not, providing water for birds during the wintertime is important too. Water can be kept from freezing by placing simple water heaters into birdbaths or using heated birdbaths. Birds need water, even in the winter, and if they cannot find it they will resort to eating snow.

And don’t worry about birds freezing to death. Native birds, though possessing only pea-size brains, seem to have sense enough to just drink the water, not bathe in it.

Suet? You bet. All species of woodpeckers, chickadees, nuthatches, and many other species of birds, relish this protein-packed food source. Suet, which in the organic form is simply the hard white fat taken from cattle, sheep, hogs, deer, and other animals, is also widely sold in a less-than-organic state as cakes and balls of many kinds and flavors.

While store bought suet is readily consumed by birds, the products don’t usually last long.

Better yet, use real suet from processed livestock or venison. Onion sacks and wire mesh feeders work fantastic to contain suet and it’s fun to watch birds hanging upside down feeding on the suet.

Without a doubt, feeding birds is fun. It’s a hobby for young and old alike. It’s a great way to observe birds closely and learn about them from the comfort of inside or outside our homes as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

BLANE KLEMEK is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at bklemek@