Arlington, VA

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Flying Colors is a sponsored column on the hobby of backyard bird feeding written by Michael Zuiker, owner of the Wild Birds Unlimited store at the Lee Harrison Shopping Center. Visit the store at 2437 N. Harrison Street or call 703-241-3988.

Recent articles and news stories have been circulating encouraging people to stop feeding wild birds in summer. There were a number of reasons and assertions given to not feed the birds, especially the young fledglings not learning how to feed for themselves.

With the full disclosure that I own a business that is dedicated to the backyard bird feeding hobby and make my living selling bird seed, lets dig in deep as to what bird feeding is.

Why feed?

Most of my customers feed the birds because they love to connect to Nature. They love to see the many different colored birds in their yards. Spring and summer are great times to feed not only because of the variety of birds that show up, but because of the nutritional health those feeders provide to the birds during the breeding season.

Fun Facts About Young Birds Nutritional Needs

  • Young birds need calcium, protein and fat among other nutrients while growing.
  • Most dietary calcium in young birds is used for the formation of skeletal (bone) production.
  • Birds are able to easily digest and use the calcium from calcium carbonate, limestone, oyster shell and calcium phosphates. The WBU Plus Blends contain calcium carbonate.
  • Protein is essential for growing strong feathers.
  • Fats are essential for feather coloration.
  • Every young bird needs extra proteins to grow strong feathers for proper flight and effective insulation. They need extra fats for energy to grow feathers and provide proper coloration to best attract a mate when they are mature.
  • A diet low in proteins and fats may cause feathers to be improperly colored or form defectively such as being frayed or curved. If their colors are duller, birds may have trouble attracting a mate. If the feathers are defective, it could seriously hinder their flying or insulation abilities.
  • It takes extra energy to grow feathers and also the right building blocks to grow them. The main ingredients in growing feathers are amino acids (protein) and lipids (fats). Birds will eat more of their daily diet and/or seek out foods high in protein and fat to satisfy both the extra energy requirements and the needed building blocks.
  • In many bird species, carotenoids are required for breeding success… poorly colored birds are less likely to breed. Carotenoids help communicate reproductive fitness to prospective mates by providing a vibrant and bright plumage… a sign of being successful at obtaining both a sufficient quality and quantity of food.

Do birds become dependent?

Absolutely not. Birds use feeders as a secondary source of food most of the year. During brutal winter conditions, when natural food is in short supply, wild birds do need those feeders full.

The notion that birds will become dependent on those feeders and not forage for themselves is a proven falsehood. The other Urban legend that has no basis for fact is that Migratory birds will not migrate if you feed them. Most migratory birds eat insects. There is an abundance of insects in warm climates.

You will not see Warblers or Vireos or Thrushes or Flycatchers in the Northern Virginia area in the winter. They migrate to survive. The main trigger for their migration is day length.

The majority of your backyard birds; Cardinals, Woodpeckers, Chickadees, Nuthatches, Titmouse — to name a few, who come readily to your feeders, do not migrate.

Do seeds cause rodents?

Seed blends that have bird food ingredients that have been tested and proven that birds eat them, will not attract pests. Very inexpensive seed blends that have “filler” seeds in them will!

Most native backyard birds do not eat milo, flax, rape seed, wheat kernels, cracked corn and numerous other grain products. These seeds will be knocked out of the feeders and a pile of food will build up on the ground. If that is not cleaned up, you can attract mice and other nighttime visitors.

Seed blends with oil sunflowers, safflower, peanuts meats, sunflower chips and tree nuts will attract the greatest variety of birds in your yard. Isn’t that why we feed?

With a good blend of food that the birds eat, there will be little if any throwing the seed on the ground. Using a “NO mess” blend that consists of only bird food meats and no shells will eliminate any chance of the food causing any problem on the ground.

Do migrating birds eat seed?

One of the great pleasures of spring and fall is the natural migration of birds. The two main reasons that these birds migrate is for mating and finding food.

Most migrating birds such as Warbler, Vireos, Thrushes, Buntings and Purple Martins eat almost an exclusive diet of insects. They are not big seed eating birds. Their beaks are small and pointy which is perfect for catching bugs on the fly.

It is not big and strong like the Cardinal, Chickadees and Nuthatches. They crack seeds like no one’s business. They also eat bugs. Bugs are good for protein. Seeds and nuts are good for fat. Fat is fuel. Fat is needed for healthy eggs.

Where is the food?

We keep cutting down their homes, which provide shelter and food in the form of nuts, seeds and berries. If we keep removing all the natural food from the birds ecosystem, where are the birds to find food?

The silly notion that the birds only eat insects is not a scientific fact. Unless you dig up your grass lawn and plant a wild Sunflower garden, the birds are going to have to find other sources to get that fat.

Our calendars are backwards.

The other urban legend that says stop feeding the birds in spring and summer because the days are long and they have plenty to eat is incorrect. There is nothing in the wild to eat, except bugs.

Even if you have a wild sunflower garden planted, it is only stems and leaves in the spring and early summer. Your flowers do not go to seed until late summer and early fall. Yet many people take down their feeders or stop feeding in the spring. That is the worst time to do that.

The fall is when nature “harvests” its bounty and there are plenty of resources for birds to forage.

For twenty-six years, my business has been “bringing people and nature together.” Nature in the form of wild birds, trees and gardens, softens the cold, harsh environment we have created in our urban landscapes.

Knowing the facts of the natural science we live in will make our lives more meaningful and beautiful.

Every major bird conservation organization (Audubon, NWF, Bird Studies Canada, Cornell Lab, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, etc.) and many state and federal wildlife agencies support summer bird feeding.

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