It's prime bird-watching season. The leaves are off the trees, the feeders are full, you're going broke buying seed. . .
You don't have to buy expensive seed mixes or fancy suets to attract birds to your feeder. Heck, you don't even need a traditional feeder. Start recycling; supplement your seed habit and provide a bird smorgasbord with scraps and leftovers you have right now in your kitchen. Fruit, fat, bread, grains and vegetables all are candidates.
Where to put them? Make a simple tray feeder from an old baking pan or a plastic plant saucer. Just nail it to a post or secure it to a deck railing and you're ready to go--tilt it or poke several holes in the bottom to aid drainage. If you want a fancier one, make a 12 inch by 20 inch frame from cedar or redwood 1x2s and staple screening on the bottom.
Whichever you choose, the birds will learn to check it regularly for treats and before long you might spy cardinals, doves, finches, chickadees, titmice, jays and mockingbirds eating from it. It's not sophisticated but the birds won't notice.
If you're worried about hurting their diet, don't. Birds need protein, fats and sugars too, and variety in their diet is good for them. There are a few basic rules about what NOT to feed them, though. Moldy or decaying fruit is out, but soft, spotty or bruised fruit is fine. When the weather warms up keep a closer eye on food you put on your feeder. Throw away anything the birds don't eat before it spoils and clean your tray regularly to prevent disease.
Many birds love fruit (if you've ever tried to grow blueberries or strawberries, you can vouch for this). They'll eat peels, scraps and cores from apples and pears, raisins that are too dried out for your family, any kind of berry and bananas that are past their prime (but not moldy).
Melons and melon seeds are great, too. Put pieces of the fruit on your feeding table, rinse the pulp off the seeds and toss them on too.
Many sweet-loving birds like orioles love oranges. You can add a spike to your table (a nail pounded through from the other side) and spike the orange.
If you have that last little bit of jam that no one wants to eat, put it on a saucer (or a jar lid) and add it to your table.
They'll love leftover cooked cereal like oatmeal or grits (you know YOU'RE not going to eat them). Instead of throwing away the last-of-the-box-cereal crumbs toss them to the birds. You can even feed them cheese--not moldy parts, of course, but fresh or the hardened, dried-out chunks that you'd normally, well. . .chunk.
Give them bones (birds need calcium, too) and rinsed, air-dried and crumbled eggshells. They love most kinds of grains and any kind of nuts (rinse them if they're spicy). Leftover rice is okay, too (the raw stuff DOESN'T swell in their stomachs and kill them--that's a myth). They prefer it cooked.
Any type of bread is great on your feeder tray or tossed on the ground--stale biscuits and bread, crusts, crackers, cornbread, pancakes, bagels, French toast--even doughnuts. Popcorn, of course, is great. Salt is okay--birds need some of that.
Peanut butter (they can't choke on it--myth, myth, myth, myth, myth) is great mixed in suet, or spread on a tree trunk. It's a good source of fat and protein.
Bird Food Recipes In this booklet you will learn the prefered foods of a wide range of bird species. You'll also discover how to make and use simple and inexpensive feeders, and how to provide for a wild bird's seasonal needs. The second half of this booklet is devoted to recipes for all types of wild bird foods and tips on the care and feeding of orphaned baby birds.
You can also make inexpensive suet from fat drippings you might otherwise throw away or from leftover shortening from frying. Suet is easy to make and it's an especially fun project for kids. You can pack it into pinecones, smear it on the bark of a tree or make muffin-sized cakes in your muffin tin. A mesh or net onion or orange bag makes a great holder for the cakes--just tack it to a tree or hang it from a branch. Give the birds a few days to find it, then watch and enjoy!
Easy Suet Recipe
2 cups shortening or drippings
1 cup peanut butter
1 cup oatmeal
1 cup birdseed
Melt the shortening and peanut butter in a large saucepan, then remove it from the heat and add the oatmeal and birdseed and mix well. Pour into a muffin pan and let set overnight. It will keep for 6 months.
Try grains, nuts, flour and cornmeal in your suet, too. You can even use canned or dried cat or dog food--that's right, they like dog food (just ask the grackles on my back porch). It provides a good source of protein. Experiment to see what your visitors like best. You may even catch a woodpecker or two trying it out.
When you feed the birds, you're providing them nourishment and yourself some enjoyment and education. Let kids put the scraps on the table, give them some inexpensive binoculars and a bird identification book and you'll start them on a lifetime of nature appreciation.
And you were going to trash that stale bagel--for shame, for shame, for shame!
About the AuthorSyndicated cooking columnist Leigh Abernathy has been an avid gardener for over 10 years and has been writing about eating what she grows for over five. Her articles have served as the inspiration for everything from family activities to half-a-dozen junior high science fair projects and as research for a masters candidate's thesis. When not playing in her gardens or kitchen, she's working on her cookbook or coaching judo at a local college.