In January 2011 it became clear that I was wasting money on bird food that the birds in my garden in rural Somerset, England, would not eat, so I decided to try and establish what food they would eat.
There were 3 questions I wanted to answer.
December 2010 had been unusually cold. Birds came to feed in my garden in large numbers. The bulk of the food was placed in feeders, but during the worst of the weather I scattered food along the top of a low wall - see Image 1 above. The disadvantage was that the food was lost under subsequent snow falls. To solve the problem I swept a bit of path clear, placed a glass topped table over it and scattered bird seed under. The food in question was Harrison's All Seasons Wild Bird Food. I was rather surprised to note at the end of the first day that the bulk of the food remained uneaten in spite of the harsh weather see Image 2. There had been plenty of birds hopping around and pecking and scratching at it, so they were clearly not deterred by the table overhead.
Among the uneaten seeds were wheat, oats, peas, maize, and various small round seeds resembling yellow and red millet and rape. Wheat predominated.
Below is a list, in no particular order, of birds that were commonly seen on or around the feeders in my garden in January 2011. The operative word is ‘commonly’; a few weeks later I saw a Great Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos major on a seed feeder, but I think it was just investigating. It normally confines its efforts to the peanuts.
At the time I used mainly two sorts of feed; peanuts and packaged mixed seeds. As I was only interested in seed consumption, I have listed above only those birds that showed an interest in seed as opposed to those which only showed an interest in peanuts or other food. For example, although bullfinches Pyrrhula pyrrhula regularly visit my garden I have never seen them on the seed feeders, in spite of bullfinches featuring prominently - and misleadingly in my view - on the packaging of Harrison's All Seasons Wild Bird Food. On 27 Jan 2011, on two separate occasions, I spent 5 minutes watching a female bullfinch gorging on Amaryllis shoots less than two feet from a seed feeder receiving heavy traffic from other birds. The bullfinch completely ignored the Harrison seed in the feeder and the spilled seed on the ground. Image 3 shows a random sample of 4 oz of Harrison's All Seasons Wild Bird Food.
I sorted the above sample into its constituent grains. Image 4 is of the sample shown in Image 3 after sorting - testimony that I need to get out more. Starting from top left of Image 4 and going clockwise I identified the seeds as follows; black sunflower; unidentified ‘grasses’ and dross; split peas; mixed rape and red and yellow millet and possibly other small seeds; red dari; un-milled oats; and cut maize. In the centre is wheat.
The samples in Images 3 and 4 contained approximately the following weights and percentages
of seeds. [In case anyone is counting they were weighed in identical bags. 8 bags weighed slightly < ½ oz.]
< = ‘less than’ > = ‘less than’
In January 2011, 20 kg of Harrison's All Seasons Wild Bird Food cost £11.34 i.e. slightly under 57 pence per kg. My guess at this stage was that at least half the feed was uneaten. So the food the birds actually ate cost about £1 per kg. In January 2011 I was quoted the following prices for unmixed grain bought by the sack-full from one supplier; I was unable to get prices for all the seeds.
In effect, at the above prices and percentages, each constituent seed in the All Seasons mix is priced up to approximately £2 per kg or 6 to 7 times the price of seeds when bought separately.
24 January 2011 In an attempt to get a seed mix containing a greater proportion of seeds that the birds might be willing to eat I bought a sack of Harrison's ‘Premier Wild Bird Mix’. [Harrisons are not my bête noire; their's was the only bird seed the local retailer stocked at the time. I doubt any other commercially packaged seed would be any better.] Image 5 shows a random 4 oz sample of ‘Premier’. The main difference between Harrison's ‘All Seasons’ and ‘Premier’ mixes seemed to be that the latter contained no wheat, tacit acknowledgement that the bulk of what is contained in their ‘All Seasons’ is worthless rubbish. Image 6 shows what was on the ground first thing in the morning before re-filling the feeder with ‘Premier’ for the second time. The stuff on the ground was not only uneaten by birds during the previous day but also uneaten by rodents overnight. I commonly get grey squirrels, rabbits, rats, and mice in the garden. The underlying black stuff is tarmac rather than a mountain of sunflower seeds.
Harrison's Premier Wild Bird Mix claimed to contain the following; Cut Maize; Sunflower Hearts; Red Millet; Yellow Millet; Red Dari; Peanut Granules; Black Sunflower; Pinhead Oatmeal; Canary Seed; Linseed; Buckwheat; Safflorseed; Split Peas; Niger Seed; Hemp.
Of the above ingredients Peanut Granules, Canary Seed, Linseed, Buckwheat, Safflorseed, Niger Seed, and Hemp were not represented in the All Seasons mix. I buy peanuts by the sack, so didn't need to have them included in bird seed. I have never seen a canary in my garden. Buckwheat sounds American, and at the time I had never heard of Safflorseed or Niger Seed. That left Linseed and Hemp. The Premier cost £12.16 for an 8 kg sacks = £1.52 per kilo as against 57p per kilo for the All Seasons i.e. nearly 3 times as much.
30 January 2011 My first task was to establish which of the various individual seeds the birds in my garden actually preferred. Needing several small seed feeders and not wishing to do anything to damage the UK balance of trade I made my own. I don't give a hoot for the opinion of either Pigeons or Collared Doves so wanted a feeder that would hopefully deter them from gorging. One picture being worth a thousand words, Image 7 shows feeders I made which I shall refer to as DISH feeders. They were subsequently numbered individually.
The tubes were about 8” long and 1½” diameter - standard plumber's plastic waste pipe. The bottom ends of the tubes were supported by wire about ½” clear of the dishes - 5” plastic flower-pot dishes. As feed was taken from the dish it was replaced by gravity from the tube until the tube was empty. FILLING TIP! pour seed into the dishes first to cover the bottom of the tube to avoid spillage, then fill via the top of the tube. Image 8 shows them filled with mixed seed.
To start with I filled the 4 dish feeders with Harrison's ‘Premier’ wild bird seed to habituate the birds to feeding from new feeders in a different place from normal. Image 9 shows the dish feeders in situ awaiting customers. There was no laundry done during trials. As shown below, feeder 1 was at NW, 2 at NE, 3 at SE and 4 at SW.
Ever inquisitive Blue Tits were first to inspect. They began their investigations within an hour of the feeders being put in place. By the end of the first afternoon the feeders were also visited by Great Tits and a Robin. A Blackbird took advantage of spillages. I continued to feed mixed seed until the new feeders were as popular as the old ones - i.e. emptied in a day. I then intended filling each with a separate single seed type to see which was preferred.
Q. Should the feeders be filled by equal weight? or equal volume?
4 February 2011 Since introducing the dish feeders, swarms of Blue Tits, a few Great Tits and the occasional Robin fed from them directly. Timid Chaffinches and a rabble of Sparrows scratted about on the ground under the feeders in company with Black Birds, Pigeons and the odd Dunnock. “But today, I have seen a female Chaffinch overcome her timidity and venture onto the feeders.” The message seemed to be getting through.
However, I foresaw a slight difficulty. The Sparrows etc on the ground were presumably eating seed spilled from the new feeders above them. [They were never there in such numbers until I put the new feeders in position.] I noticed Great Tits etc turfing stuff over-board from the new feeders in the manner of Joshua Slocum jettisoned his alarm clock. Image 10, taken after a week, shows what the birds thought of Harrison's ‘Premier’ bird food under a feeder positioned at the front of my property.
Just because the birds emptied the feeders did not mean that they were actually eating it. The new feeders, positioned over grass, contained the same feed as the old feeder beneath which was the heap of rejected seed shown in Image 10 and close-up in Image 11. The rejected seed included; yellow and red ‘millet’, rape, red dari, oats, peas and maize. Comparing these two images with the Image 6 shows that the rejects had now almost totally obscured the tarmac. If nothing else, I could expect some interesting stuff to mow later in the year.
5 February 2011 At the end of nearly a week the regulars at the new feeders remained Blue Tits, Great Tits, an occasional female Chaffinch and a Robin. Only one Robin seen at a time, with no opportunist rivals noted lurking which led me to assume it was the same individual. Likewise the female Chaffinch; an increasingly regular visitor on the feeders but I only ever saw one at a time. Her female companions and all the males remain earthbound. There were occasional Coal Tits as well. “STOP PRESS! I can now add Greenfinch to the list. This is particularly gratifying; having been plentiful till a couple of years ago, they have been in short supply of late. There are at least two regular visitors.”
The birds did not appear to have a marked preference for any one of the 4 feeders but they land least frequently on whatever feeder is at the SE position - see Image 9 above. The birds assembled mostly either in the hedge or the Viburnum. They seem to head for the nearest feeder from wherever they are perched. If the wind did not see to the random distribution of feeders I saw to it myself. It's a hard life.
I decided that as soon as I could lay my hands on a supply of separate seed I would begin the single seed preference trials. I needed 1 kg of each of wheat, oats, crushed maize, crushed peas, millet, sunflower, and red dari. I decided to use crushed peanuts as a control. I knew the birds ate that! All that was holding me up was a supply.
7 February 2011 Another Monday. Nothing much had changed and I continued feeding mixed commercial bird seed while awaiting the separate seed. I made 2 slight modifications to the new feeders neither of which appeared to deter the birds; I numbered each feeder and gave the tubes feet which provided a standard ½ inch clearance above the dish rather than relying on the fixing wires alone to maintain the correct space. See right in Image 12.
I saw a male House Sparrow on the feeders - whether more than one I was uncertain - but no females. Whereas female Chaffinches continued to be regular feeders on the dish feeders, males would only occasionally approach the dishes but not land, preferring to tread water frantically before either flying off in a funk or snatching at a morsel to retreat and eat. Meanwhile the grain mountain continued to accumulate under the old feeder and now completely obscured the tarmac as shown in Image 13. Not even the rodents ate it!
It rained in the morning, wetting the grain in the dishes. This did not seem to put the birds off, unlike wet peanuts, but I decided to drill small drainage holes in each dish. More importantly the tubes needed caps. The rain wet the grain in the tubes making it either swell or increased adhesion to the sides of the tubes. Either way, the grain did not flow properly from the tubes to the dishes.
Each of the new feeders held about a ¼ of what the other ‘standard’ double-decker feeders could hold - shown at left in image 12 above. The latter were each emptied in about a day but could only accommodate 4 birds at a time, whereas the new feeders could each accommodate at least 2 birds a piece. So if the new feeders were not emptied as quickly or quicker than the old ones, something was amiss.
14 February 2011 “Whan every foul cometh there to chese his make” and the birds in my garden were doing much the same. Frenzied feeding with many displays of rivalry and some birds gathering nesting materials. More than one Robin now visited the feeders. Male chaffinches and female sparrows also ventured onto the dish feeders occasionally but they continued to feed in greater numbers on the ground. Greenfinches were proficient stokers, shovelling grain overboard from the dish and other feeders by the beak full. Mercifully, “it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath” where, being “twice blessed it blesseth him that gives and him that takes.” The takers included Sparrows, Chaffinches, Dunnocks, and bigger birds such as Blackbirds pigeons etc. I continued with the mixed feed while making ‘new’ new feeders which, for the sake of clarity, I will call CUP feeders. The dish feeders definitely suffered in the wet. Regardless of the drainage holes, when it rained the grain in the dishes got wet which transmitted moisture to the seed at the base of the tubes and effectually blocked dry seed from descending out of the tube onto the dish.
Image 14 shows a prototype cup feeder at right which was unsatisfactory as the outlet feeder holes were too small and/or too horizontal. The problem was obtaining the right diameter fittings. Plastic pipe manufacturers seemed to spare no thought for those of us wishing to construct bird feeders, so their pipes did not then come sized incrementally to suit anyone but plumbers. The holding tubes of those in the image below, and their cap and base fittings, were 50 mm whereas the outlet feeder cups were 22 mm. What I really needed was 25 - 30 mm parts for the feeder holes. The difficulty was in keeping the parts small enough not to compromise the strength of the 50 mm components while being big enough to function effectively as frictionless seed outlets.
Construction was simple. All the pieces were held in place without glue apart from the feeding cups which were eventually glued in order to be positioned as close as possible to their supply of grain in the vertical pipes. The earlier feeder in the image did not fill very well with grain but all too readily with rain. Of the two different cups shown, that to the right proved more satisfactory as enabling birds to reach further towards dry grain than the cup to the left. Hey ho, the wind and the rain.
This blog [for such it originally was] seemed to become as much about home made bird feeders as about the food they contained, but that all helped pass the time while I awaited the arrival of some promised ‘niger’ seed, or ‘nyjer’ as it is coyly spelled by some semi-literate, before cracking on with the single seed trials. Towards the end of February I finally had enough single seeds to start trials which are reported on the ‘Trials’ page - click 2 below.
© 2018 Duncan Linklater