Connecticut residents call state wildlife biologists almost daily, and certainly every week, with questions and commentary about feeding birds.
They ask about the types of birds they're seeing, and which seeds work best. They comment about other animals eating the bird seed, like squirrels or bears. They ask why birds aren't at the feeder, too, said Jenny Dickson, wildlife biologist at the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.
Winter is a good time of year to provide seeds and other food because the birds benefit from an extra boost in the food available, Dickson said.
If feeding birds seems a hobby of little consequence, consider that Connecticut residents spent $65.7 million on bird food in 2006, the most recent data available through the National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
They spent an additional $5.8 million on binoculars and spotting scopes, $37.8 million on photography and videography equipment, and $17 million on bird houses, bird feeders, nest boxes and bird baths, according to the study.
Some people are more avid birders than others, but wildlife experts say anyone who puts seed in their yard has a responsibility to know what they are providing. For example, different seeds attract different birds, and it's important to regularly clean a bird feeder to keep it free from disease.
"If you're going to do bird feeding, you have to do it right," said Patrick Comins, director of bird conservation at Audubon Connecticut, the state office of the national Audubon Society.
For many, buying bird feed means getting a bag of mixed seeds to fill a feeder, which may not be the best approach.
One of the nation's leading bird research universities, Cornell in Ithaca, N.Y., says "the worst choice" for birds is an inexpensive mixture of red millets, oats and other "fillers" that most birds just kick onto the ground where the seeds rot, get moldy and become a bacteria breeding ground that can make birds sick.
Each type of seed has a different appeal.
The tiny, yellow millet seeds are less expensive than sunflower seeds or thistle, and are often used as filler.
"Millet is a good choice for the ground feeders in the winter time," Comins said. "I throw millet around, on the ground from, say, September or October through April when the white-throated sparrows and juncos are still around."
Comins offers sunflower seeds -- either striped or black-oil -- in feeders across the yard, which brings a different set of birds.
Black-oil sunflower seeds have thinner shells and are easier for birds to open, Dickson said.
"Black-oil is, it's more like, if you think about the sunflower hearts that we tend to buy and snack on, it's much more like that inside, but it's all black in color," Dickson said. "So, instead of being the really big, black-and-white-striped seeds, it's an all-black sunflower seed."
Black-oil sunflower seeds appeal to a variety of species, which helps with the diversity of birds at a feeder, Dickson said. The oily seed also has more nutritional value for birds.
Comins also offers thistle, sometimes called niger or nyjer, which are the thin, black seeds often put in a sock-like feeder. Thistle can attract goldfinches.
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