Monday, November 17, 2008

Saving money on feeding birds

With everyone economizing in these tight times, feeding the birds may seem a luxury that should be shelved until “prosperity” returns.

Certainly, the birds don’t need our food to survive winter, except perhaps in unusually severe conditions. Most of their food is obtained from the wild, not feeders.

Nonetheless, bird feeding is one of North America’s most popular pastimes, with an estimated 55 million people owning feeders. The reason most people feed the birds is the close-up connection with nature that it offers. Feeding birds are simply fun to watch. And in these times, we could use some fun!

So let’s feed with efficiency as well as economy. With that in mind, here are some suggestions.

  • Perhaps the most important consideration in having an efficient feeding station is squirrels. These wily rodents can quickly consume large amounts of expensive seed. Make sure your feeder is absolutely squirrel proof — which is not impossible. The best setup I’ve found is mounting on a six-foot pole, away from nearby trees (from which the squirrels can leap), and using a cone to prevent their climbing up the pole (see photo). There hasn’t been a squirrel on our feeder in years.
  • Use a feeder that distributes the seeds efficiently and does not allow them to spill onto the ground. Some tube feeders tend to be wasteful. I like a feeder that provides a platform for the birds to land on and carefully pick a seed, without spilling or tossing others on the ground.
  • Some people don’t like large birds like Mourning Doves or Blue Jays hogging the food. You can buy feeders aimed at only small birds. This will, of course, reduce overall seed consumption, but also reduces the variety of birds you’ll see.
  • To minimize waste, buy seeds that your birds like. The best all-around food is hulled (shelled) sunflower seeds, but these may be beyond your budget. Whole black oil sunflower seeds are cheaper than hulled, but more expensive than mixes. However, cheap mixes may contain many “filler” seeds that are thrown away by popular feeder birds. They wind up as food for squirrels, chipmunks and maybe even mice on the ground.
  • Shop around, of course. I can’t recommend a best source, but I always buy locally instead of on the Internet (who wants to pay shipping on 50 pounds of seed?). Look for fall sales at feed and hardware stores (though bargains are becoming less common as prices rise).
  • You get the best prices buying in quantity, but make sure you have a cool, dry place in which to store the seeds; otherwise, the seeds can mildew or go rancid, and you wind up wasting money on spoiled seeds that birds won’t eat or, worse, may get sick eating. Put the seeds in a strong sealed container like a big garbage can, so that they won’t attract mice or squirrels (even in your cellar or garage).
  • Many birds love suet. I’ve found that the “suet cakes” sold commercially do not last long — often, they have crumbled within a few days under hard whacks of visiting woodpeckers. I use real suet, the stuff butchers cut off beef. It lasts much longer and is enjoyed by a half dozen varieties of birds. Not many years ago, suet was something that butchers mostly considered waste. Some was packaged at 10 or 25 cents a pound and sold to savvy bird feeding customers. Today, meat arrives at most markets already “de-fatted,” and the butchers actually have to buy the suet from wholesalers! Thus, you will see suet prices that would have amazed an old-time butcher — a couple of dollars a pound for something they used to throw away or send to rendering plants. Nonetheless, in the long run, real suet may still be less expensive and more efficient than cake suet.
  • Don’t waste money on a suet feeder. Use a mesh bag that produce, such as onions, garlic and avocados, is packaged in. Dispose of it after it’s been used for a while. When you buy suet, get the butcher to cut up the chunks into one-inch cubes, which are easier to fit into small mesh bags.