Practical tips for feeding insect-eating birds (and some of the perils!)
Excerpted from the book Feeding and Identifying Backyard Birds by Bill Thompson, III
If you are lucky enough to have one or more of these lovely blue-colored thrushes visiting your property, you are the envy of bluebird-less bird watchers everywhere. We have eastern bluebirds on our farm all year 'round. In the spring and summer we watch them courting and nesting and feeding their young. In the winter we watch for their family foraging flocks to visit our meadow on sunny days, and our suet dough feeders when the weather gets bad.
Eastern bluebirds are found in the East. Western and mountain bluebirds are found in the West. A few fortunate birders along the western edge of the Great Plains can see all three bluebirds. Being insect eaters for most of the year, bluebirds are not naturally inclined to visit bird feeders. In fact, the best way to have a close relationship with bluebirds is by providing proper and safe nesting cavities for them in the form of bird houses (for more on housing for birds, check out our backyard booklet, A Guide to Bird Homes).
In fact, our bluebirds were nearly wiped out during the middle of the 20th century due to the combined effects of increased pesticide use and increased competition for scarce nesting cavities from house sparrows and European starlings. A determined effort by a small number of bluebird enthusiasts forced the bluebirds' plight into the national spotlight. As a result, more North Americans began providing nest boxes for bluebirds and protecting their "tenants" from the dangers or weather, predators, and competitors. Today the populations of all three species are healthy and even growing.
Bluebirds will eat the following offerings at feeders: Mealworms, suet dough, fruit, and sunflower bits. They will also consume eggshell bits during spring and summer when the females especially need extra calcium for egg production.
Mealworms are not really worms. They are the larval form of a harmless, small black beetle. Feeding mealworms to wild birds has become a big trend in bird feeding. For insect eaters, finding a bowl of squirmy, plump mealworms on a cold winter day is a food source that is too good to pass up. Bluebirds seem to LOVE mealworms, and will really key into your feeder if you offer them this specialty food.
You can buy mealworms at pet or bait stores, but most bird watchers order them in bulk (1,000 or more mealworms) from mealworm growers. Mealworms can be kept in a plastic container filled with a few inches of old-fashioned oats. Add a few slices of apple and a few small carrots for moisture and food for the "mealies" and you'll have weeks or even months of them to offer to your birds.
We feed mealworms to our birds in a ceramic dog dish on our deck railing. The slick finish and vertical sides keep the mealies from climbing out. The width and weight of the dog dish make it stable for several birds to feed at once.
Too Much of a Good Thing
One summer, early in our mealworm feeding days, we offered our front yard bluebird pair all the mealies they could eat. They produced four large broods of young that summer, in response to the super-abundant food source. By September, the female looked ragged and worn because she was! We felt really bad that we'd encouraged them to such extraordinary feats of reproduction and we swore right then to be more careful. Now we only offer a small handful of mealworms in the morning, and perhaps a bit more in really bad weather when insects are scarce.
This holds true for any high-protein or high-fat bird food, including suet and suet dough. You should not offer your birds too much of a good thing.
We offer our favorite recipe for crumbly suet dough all year 'round. Our bluebirds eat it most avidly in winter. We offer it in similar fashion to mealworms, in a dog dish one or two handfuls at a time. We make suet dough in huge batches in winter and have more than 20 species that come in to eat it on a regular basis.
Suet Dough recipe:
- 1 cup melted lard or beef suet
- 1 cup peanut butter
- 2 cups quick oats
- 2 cups yellow cornmeal
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
Melt lard and peanut butter together on a low burner. Take off heat, and add remaining ingredients. Spread on a cookie sheet, and allow to cool in the refrigerator until the mixture is just hard enough to cut into pieces. Store in freezer bags and use as needed.