Door to Nature: Getting More Birds to Your Feeders

A dearth of birds this winter has frustrated many people who enjoy seeing their feathered friends at the feeders. In fact, our Sturgeon Bay Christmas Bird Count had the fewest birds observed during the 23-year history of this event.

When trees produce record numbers of seeds, as they did in 2019, it provides enough natural food that the birds don’t need our handouts. As time passes, though, this natural food will run out, and then birds will seek the food that we provide for them.

One important thing is to provide fresh water each day. It’s amazing how this can attract birds to your yard. On milder winter days, some birds even take a bath in 30-degree weather. I have a fairly small, shallow bird-bath tray with an electric heater submerged in it. My late husband, Roy, set it up many years ago with an underground electric cord that I can just plug and unplug right inside the house. Consult your local bird-supply store to see what’s available. 

One food that’s attractive to most birds is black oil sunflower seeds. There are various ways to supply them to birds, but consider setting feeders in areas where animals cannot reach them. It’s also good to scatter food on the ground in certain places for the tree sparrows and juncos to eat. Another appealing food is cracked or rolled corn, which comes in 50-pound bags. 

Besides good food, another feature of a welcoming feeding area is having evergreen shrubs and dense conifers grouped nearby so that small birds have a place where they can quickly escape and hide, should a predator fly or walk into the area. We also made large brush piles that provided shelter for some birds.

Four species of woodpeckers live in Door County all year – the downy, hairy, red-bellied and pileated – and all of them relish fresh suet. You can make your own, like the Marvel Meal I prepare in my kitchen, or you can buy suet cakes. The peanut butter type seems to be very popular with woodpeckers, chickadees and nuthatches.

During the beastly snow storms that we had in the middle of April 2018, there were many other birds eating the Marvel Meal. I noticed a brown creeper, yellow-rumped warbler, tree sparrow, yellow-bellied sapsucker and common redpoll all trying to eat that nutritious food.

If you want to use the prepared suet blocks, it’s good to have a feeder that has a long enough lower extension against which woodpeckers can brace their tail for better leverage. Roy made one years ago with a lower extension that was about eight inches long, and the pileated woodpeckers loved it because a woodpecker’s tail is almost like a third leg.

Roy used to get beef lard and cut it into chunks to feed the birds. The beef suet melted in warmer weather, though, and made a mess of the birds’ feathers. It was then that we learned about Marvel Meal, which can be offered year-round because it doesn’t melt and get into feathers.

Do as much as you can to help our diminishing bird population by providing a good variety of food in safe places, and set up a heated water bath for them with fresh water every day.

Marvel Meal Suet Mix

2 cups lard (a 1-pound box)

2 cups chunky peanut butter

4 cups yellow whole-grain cornmeal 

4 cups quick oats 

2/3 cup white sugar

2/3 cup white flour 

Using a low heat setting so that the lard doesn’t burn, slowly melt it in a medium pot on the stove, stirring frequently. When it’s hot, stir in the peanut butter until it’s melted.

Or, use the microwave method: Put the lard in large (four- to five-cup capacity), heatproof glass measuring cup, and cook it for two minutes at full power. Add the peanut butter and cook for another minute. Stir until the mixture is melted and blended.

Pour the lard/peanut butter mixture into a large stainless steel or enamel bowl, and mix in the rest of the ingredients. Then spoon it into several rectangular freezer containers with tight-fitting lids, and put them in a cool place for storage.

I use a small metal spatula to scoop the mixture from the storage containers and press it into the feeder.