Bird Watcher's General Store

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High Seed Cost, Part2 Plenty of Ways to Attract Birds Without Seed

The high price of birdseed, Part Two:

As you may or may not remember (and if you are getting anything like me, you probably don’t remember), last week there was a question from Carla, who was looking for an explanation about why birdseed prices have gone up.

We explained that a sudden lust for ethanol (which is made from corn) has driven the price of corn way up. With the promise of better profits, the smart farmers are planting more corn and thus are planting fewer acres of sunflower seed, much to the chagrin of feeder birds everywhere. You know things are bad when I start using words like “chagrin.”

There is also another reason why the cost of seed is going up. The people at Frito-Lay have gotten tired of seeing so many fat Americans, so they are ditching the saturated fat from their snack foods and are replacing it with healthier sunflower oil. Both of these recent developments have forced a surge in the price sunflower seed. The birds, of course, aren’t happy about this, but that is nothing compared to the petulance I’ll face when my customers find out that seed prices have risen. You know things are bad when I start using words like “petulance,” because I don’t even know what it means.

So this week, in order to avoid an outbreak of petulance, I’m going to offer a few suggestions that will keep birds coming to your yard even if you decide to boycott bird feeding or don’t feel like getting a variable-rate birdseed mortgage from the Money Store.

Water is an item that surprisingly few people offer birds. And unless you are buying it from a vendor at Fenway Park, it’s pretty darn cheap. Yet each year we sell thousands of bird feeders and only a few dozen birdbaths. That surprises me because only a small percentage of North America’s birds come to our feeders, but all birds need to drink. Last year I was thrilled when a Northern Waterthrush visited the little water garden in my normally dull yard. (Yes, a waterthrush is a real bird. Look it up.) Waterthrushes don’t eat birdseed, but as their name implies, they do like water. Without the water, there would have been no surprise waterthrush visit.

A few weeks ago a lady walked into our shop with a picture that she had taken of her birdbath. The birdbath, which was nothing more than a one-inch-deep, flat plastic dish, was bubbling over with blue, as there were at least a dozen striking bluebirds drinking from it. Wow! So much for my thrilling waterthrush story.

As the bluebird lady proved, the water source doesn’t have to be a water garden or some crazy-looking Roman fountain with water squirting out of a lion’s mouth. A simple, shallow dish on the ground is fine. Remember, most birds drink out of streams and puddles: very few of them prefer to drink water squirting from a lion’s mouth. And don’t listen to those paranoid freaks who think if you have a birdbath your yard will be infested with mosquitoes that are just seething with West Nile Virus and malaria. It takes weeks for mosquito eggs to become adults. If you are too lazy to freshen-up your birdbath every few days, then you probably deserve a case of malaria.

In the warmer months a hummingbird feeder is fun to watch. I’ve been feeding hummingbirds since the beginning of time and no matter when a hummer visits my feeder, I stop what I’m doing and stare in amazement. The only food you need is a cup of water (preferably not from Fenway), a quarter cup of sugar and you are good to go.

A real wicked cheap way to attract birds in the spring is to put out nesting material. An old onion bag filled with short bits of string, yarn, or pet fur can be a magnet for birds looking for low-cost building material. Also, robins, swallows and phoebes all need a source of fresh mud to build their sturdy nests with. A simple mud puddle is a great way to draw those birds to your yard. The robins love our house. We simply open the windows to the kids’ bedrooms and they find all the mud they need. And don’t forget nest boxes. A basic wooden birdhouse will keep birds returning year after year, without any further investment, except for constant rate increases from the cable company.

Yes, Carla, it looks as though a bag of birdseed is going to cost a buck or two more this year than it did last year. If you don’t feel like dishing out the extra cash, a few of the above suggestions will keep birds coming to your yard without costing you much at all. Although, even when seed prices are up, watching birds at a feeder is still a cheap source of entertainment. It’s certainly cheaper than buying a bottle of water at Fenway Park. You could feed every bird in town for the price of one of those.