More than 50 million Americans are considered backyard birders, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services. After gardening, it’s the second-most popular hobby in the country. What many birders may not realize is that there is a science to feeding birds.
STEMists may be shocked to learn that birds need at least 10,000 calories each day. Comparatively, an appropriate daily calorie intake for an active 9-13 year old STEMist is 1,800-2,200. Birds need a massive amount of calories because their metabolism rate runs extremely high, specifically in flight, in extreme cold weather and during breeding season.
Birds are skilled at determining which food items are the most efficient and the best nutritional choice. Some birds will test the seed’s weight and taste with their beak before making their choice – one reason you find birdseed on the ground instead of in the bird feeder. Generally, low-quality food is discarded. Birds also look for seeds that are easily digested and don’t take a lot of work to eat. Because of the amount of food a bird needs to consume (remember, food is fuel/energy), its choices are foods that are fast and easy to manage.
Birds and their Food Preferences
- Nyjer (thistle seed) attracts American gold and lesser gold finches and pine siskins. Nyjer is considered gourmet for a bird.
- Millet (white-proso) will attract towhees, sparrows, dark-eyed juncos, quail and mourning doves. This seed is best scattered on the ground because perch feeding birds won’t eat it.
- Milo or Sorghum is birdseed for ground feeding. It attracts Curve-billed Thrashers, Gambel’s Quails, towhees, sparrows and juncos. According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology seed preference tests, these birds prefer milo to sunflower. In another study, they found that House Sparrows did not like Milo, but cowbirds did.
- Black oil sunflower seeds attract the most perching birds including Purple finches, Oat titmice, Scrub jays, Blackheaded grosbeaks and more.
- Safflower, an elongated white seed, can help birders attract cardinals found mainly in the eastern United States, and chickadees whose home is generally along the coast or in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
- Suet is a popular choice among nuthatches and woodpeckers.
- Mealworm (live) acts like a magnet for bluebirds!
- Fruit such as oranges, grapes, apples and berries are a perfect menu item for the tanager and orioles. Placing a small dish of jelly in your feeding area will almost definitely attract your bird friends; however, be cautious about putting fruits and jellies out in warmer weather. This delicacy is best used in cold winter weather.
- Baked, or dried, melon seeds and pumpkin seeds are a popular choice for birds; however, smaller species will be grateful for crushed seeds for easier digestion.
Designing the Perfect Bird Food for your Backyard Tree
Build A Bird Seed Ornament
- 1 package of plain gelatin
- 3/4 cup flour
- 1/2 cup water
- 4 cups mixture of black sunflower, millet & thistle seeds
- 3 T. rice syrup
- A dab of butter
- Star-shaped cookie cutter or small Bundt pan for wreath shape
Dissolve gelatin in 1/2 cup warm water; whisk rice syrup and flour to create a paste; add bird seed and stir well. Grease the inside of the star-shaped cookie cutter with a dab of butter (Bundt pan, or other mold), place on cookie sheet and press seed mixture with a spoon to fill the shape. Use a pointed object to make a hole in the star to make room for stringing a piece of rope or ribbon. In 24 hours, flip onto a plate or wax paper and let dry for another 24-48 hours. Birds will flock to your groovy stars!
Make a Sunflower Butter Pinecone Feeder
Birds love sunflower butter! A great choice for winter months, birds love homemade pinecone feeders. Use a spoon or butter knife to apply sunflower butter into the crevices of a pinecone and roll the cone in a mixture of black sunflower, millet and thistle seeds. Then, hang on a tree or set the cone in a feeding dish.
“For the Birds” Groovy Lab in a Box
You and your STEMists can learn more bird science with the educational activities found in “For the Birds” groovy box—all about birds in your local area, their drinking and feeding habits, and what types of bird feeder structures best suit them. Join Now! and challenge your STEMists to a monthly Groovy Lab in a Box, full of everything a child needs to learn about and do hands-on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) investigations. Our monthly box activates thinking, questioning, inquiring and original creation as we guide children through scientific inquiry and engineering design process.