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Get the Most Out of Your Backyard Bird Feeder

From the Iowa DNR:

Colder temperatures and the inevitable snow doesn’t shut down the outdoor season for many of us. We just shift gears. Iowans spend more than $300 million each year watching wildlife, for everything from seed to feeders or binoculars, even wildlife-watching trips. As the snow flies, though, most of that money and time is spent filling bird feeders and watching the winter show as birds work yards into their daily feeding regimen.

“It’s just the connection people get with something so beautiful, right in their backyards. It’s a great way to appreciate nature,” explains Pat Schlarbaum of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources wildlife diversity program. “If you enjoy songbirds, you can draw them right up to your picture window.”

For the widest variety of birds, offer different seeds and other foods. The number one attraction, though, is black oil sunflower seed. Everything from cardinals to nuthatches and chickadees, even blue jays and hairy woodpeckers, are drawn to this versatile food source.
If you’ve priced it, you already know is has been a volatile sales year for sunflower seeds. Chalk that up to high crop prices.

“Soy oil is used for frying, cooking in the restaurant industry. The price of soybeans on the commodity market pushes up the price of soy oil,” explains Dick Irvin of Paul’s Discount Store in Iowa City, which devotes an aisle to bird feed and feeders. “Many soy oil users turn to sunflower seed oil, which drove up the demand and price for sunflower oil (and seed).”

In early December, a 25-pound bag of black oil sunflower seeds sold for $13-$16. That is nearly double what it retailed for four or five years ago. Still, it is scaled down from prices hit this summer.
“With the harvest season, for major sunflower producers—South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas—more seed is available. That drives the price down,” says Irvin.

Higher seed prices overall emphasize waste reduction at the feeder. Load up a single feeder with the variety mix and you’ll notice many species of birds scratch out millet, cracked corn and other mixed seed to get to the sunflower seeds anyway. Schlarbaum recommends single seed feeders or suet feeders to increase the different birds you will see. A trip to the birding supply store can supply you with other ideas for increasing the winter birding dividends.

Open water is another major draw. That’s most easily done by clipping a low-cost heater to your summer bird bath and keeping it filled with water. Schlarbaum also suggests a do-it-yourself recipe of cornmeal (4 parts), bacon grease/lard (1 part) and enough peanut butter to hold it all together. When pressed into openings in a chunk of wood, such as a branch section with hollowed out depressions, you have another ready-made feeder.

Make it yourself, or with a couple young birdwatchers and that hands-on approach keeps more of us connected with the outdoors, even when the winter winds howl.

Snowy owl sightings
A northern visitor is causing a stir among early winter birders in Iowa. An eruption of snowy owls has prompted sightings from the Hawkeye Wildlife Area in Johnson County (Dec. 4), to Ida and Woodbury counties in the west, to Fremont in the southwest and Ames/Boone in central Iowa through the first half of December. Their snow-white plumage, accented by dark bars and flecks, make them stand out—literally—on Iowa’s late fall and early winter landscape.

Snowy owls are a special sighting since the large Arctic bird rarely ventures this far out of its Arctic home range unless food supplies are scarce. They feed primarily on lemmings and voles. Such events occur about every five years. The last one in Iowa was the winter of 2005-06.

Birding experts counted 26 different sightings by Dec. 9; already well above the 19 confirmed in that last eruption, with a couple more months for potential sightings. They note that Minnesota and Wisconsin are also reporting large numbers of “snowies” as well.

Electronic snowy owl photos are available upon request by contacting Alan Foster at

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