Under the Open Sky: Feeding Wild Birds on a Budget

Forget fancy feeders, a dab of Peanut Buttery Wild Bird Cookie Dough on the corner of a flowerbox lured this Dark-eyed Junco in to dine.
By Kimberly Mason
For The Chronicle
A good 10 percent of my monthly income is spent feeding two dogs (including an elderly Border Collie with allergies and expensive tastes) and a whole slew of wild birds.
I’d like to think that the money I spent on dogs and wild birds is well spent. I think of it as entertainment, adult continued learning fees, downright essential living costs and a tithe to Mother Nature.
I do, however, like my dollar to stretch and over the years I have learned a few things to help me feed wild birds on a budget. I’d like to share them with you.

Biggest Bang for Your Buck
There is an large variety of wild bird seed and a lot of expensive feeders available on the market. It’s easy to get overwhelmed at the huge selection.
But birds in the wild don’t have to have the latest gadget hanging from a tree or pole in order to feed. A simple plate filled with a scoop of seeds sitting on a porch railing will do the trick.
I have an old, very heavy, and over-sized crystal ashtray sitting on my front porch railing. Plates and bowls are cheap to buy, easy to clean. They will also lure in doves and jays and other large birds that can’t cling to a tiny feeder perches to feed.

A Dark-eyed Junco perches on the edge of an old crystal ashtray, repurposed as a fruit and nut bowl for wild birds. The heavy weight of the bowl holds it in place, even in strong winds, and it's a breeze to keep clean.

If you can only afford one type of seed, black oil sunflower seed will attract the greatest variety of birds.
Stay away from seed mixes that contain tiny brown seeds (milo) or mixes that use opaque bags. If you can’t see inside the bag, chances are the bag contains a lot of “filler” seed. Don’t buy them, they’re a waste of money. You’re birds won’t eat it and they’ll just leave a mess of molding, rotting seeds on the ground around the feeder. Those rotting seeds are a haven for killer bird diseases, so resist the temptation to buy cut-rate seeds. It’ll save you money in the long run.
Many feed stores sell seed by the pound from bins, where you can scoop up as little or as much as you like of exactly the sort of seeds you want.
I like to cater to my wild bird’s tastes and provide them with a different feeder for each type of seed. I have one with safflower seed, another with millet, and one (or two) with just sunflower seeds.
I began the practice of dividing my seeds one day after a long photo session with a flock of Pine Siskins. I took frame after frame of photos showing the little siskins picking one type of seed out of the feeder and throwing it to the ground, one after another, until they found just the one they were looking for.
I would have had a budgetary discussion with the wasteful tweeters, but siskins are known for their feisty attitudes and I was pretty sure they weren’t going to listen.

An old electric skillet can be repurposed to become a bird bath for small songbirds like these Pine Siskins and the Dark-eyed Junco (seen left) waiting his turn to bathe.

Peanuts in the Shell
To attract jays, buy a bag of peanut in the shells. Place a handful of peanuts at a time on a porch railing and your small bag of peanuts will last a long, long time and provide you with hours of enjoyment as you watch the jays pick through the small pile of shells to find just the very one they want.

Peanut Butter and Suet
Suet cakes and suet cake holding cages are cheap and easy to buy. Suet will attract everything from Black-capped Chickadees to Northern Flickers. I have two placed with my main feeders and one hanging in the backyard where the shyer birds hang out.
Peanut Buttery Wild Bird Cookie Dough (see recipe in sidebar) is my favorite homemade treat for the wild birds. You probably already have all the ingredients in your cupboard and it just takes a few minutes and a strong arm to mix up, give it a try.
My birds love this treat. I set out just enough for each day, keeping the rest in a covered container in my refrigerator.
Smear a dab of the dough on the edge of a flower box, place a ball on the edge of a plate or bowl and watch it disappear.

Bird Baths on a Budget
My own bird’s bath is an old electric skillet set out under a walnut tree. The non-stick surface is easy to clean and my birds don’t seem to mind that their bath is a re-purposed pan.
You would think that with all the rain pouring down lately that the wild birds have had baths aplenty — not true!
As the sky opened up and sunshine appeared on Tuesday afternoon, a flock of Pine Siskins and a few scattered Dark-eyed Juncos headed straight for the bird bath in my backyard. It seemed they were there just to celebrate the joy of communal bathing — that is until the fights broke out.
Visit my website, almostdailynews.com, to see more bathing beauty photos.

Join Project FeederWatch
It’s not too late to sign up for Project FeederWatch. Anyone can participate, you don’t have to be a skilled birder to join.
Project FeederWatch is a winter-long survey of birds that visit feeders at backyards, nature centers, community areas, and other locales in North America. FeederWatchers periodically count the birds they see at their feeders from early Nov. through early April and send their counts to Project FeederWatch.
There is a $15 fee to join, but with that fee you receive a research kit which contains instructions, a bird identification poster, a wall calendar, a resource guide to bird feeding, and a tally sheet—everything you need to start counting your birds. You’ll also receive a subscription to the Lab of Ornithology’s newsletter, “BirdScope.”
Visit feederwatch.org to sign up and join the fun.

Peanut Buttery Wild Bird Cookie Dough Recipe
1 part smooth peanut butter
1 part vegetable shortening
1 part white flour (NOT self-rising)
3 part yellow corn meal (NOT self-rising)

Mix ingredients together well and place in a suet log or roll a tablespoon-sized ball and set out where the birds can reach it. Store unused mix in a closed container in the refrigerator until ready to use.
You could add all manner of things such as seeds or nuts or fruit to this mix, but the birds seem to like it just as it is.

Kimberly Mason is a freelance writer and photojournalist. Visit her website at almostdailynews.com, find her on Facebook (Kimberly Mason – The Chronicle), call 269-5017 or email kim@almostdailynews.com.