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Nature Watch: Why Cheap Birdfood Wastes Your Money

Will you help your local birds get through the winter by putting out backyard feeders? Watching birds come and go provides endless diversion. You can even help science by joining the annual feeder bird count.

Birds use feeders so much that the seed bills can seem endless, too. It's tempting to buy the cheapest mix. But you won't be getting as much for your money as you think.

Low-cost bags of mixed seeds use more filler, just as in hot dogs and chopped meat. Doves eat white millet and turkeys eat cracked corn, but all birds usually ignore red millet, milo oats and wheat. They instinctively know what is best for them, and peck out the filler. If you buy cheaper brands, expect to see half of it on the ground, feeding voles and mice. Some cheap discount brands might even contain stones.

Birds look for highly caloric food that gives them the fat reserves they need to continue migrating or make it through cold winter days and nights. Black sunflower seeds top that bill. Even birds with smaller beaks like white-throated sparrows can crack the shell and get to the meat, which is rich in fat and oil.

Striped sunflower seeds, on the other hand, are larger and have thicker seed coats, harder to crack. Avoid using them. They amount to filler, too. The label on the bag or the product information online will disclose the mix.

Start with black sunflower seeds in shells, which appeal to strong-beaked birds such as cardinals and house finches. Dark-eyed juncos, which prefer to eat on the ground, will also fill your yard, digging out any nutmeat that the birds on your feeder missed. If you don't like the sight of hulls on the ground, or if they're attracting rodents, switch to hulled seeds. The feeder birds will consume them all, leaving no mess, and they're good for beaks of all sizes.

My choice for a second feeder would be nyger seed (thistle seed) that attracts birds with smaller beaks. American goldfinches, chickadees, titmice and beautiful northern visitors such as pine siskins and common red polls will thrive on nyger seed.

Suet is another great food for birds. I suggest peanut butter or berry varieties that are rich in protein and fat. Woodpeckers will clamber to this high energy source. Suet feeders can be purchased as part of a sunflower seed feeder or as inexpensive hanging cages. Don't put suet out in warm months though, it melts and can go rancid, defeating your purpose of providing birds with healthy food.

Another great source of the protein and oil that birds need is peanuts. Woodpeckers, nuthatches, chickadees and many others will feast at your peanut station.

Squirrels will try to feast there, too. They'll triple your seed bill, if you'll let them, so get squirrel-proof feeders. The best ones are feeders protected by a cage, or feeders on poles with squirrel baffles that stop the animals from climbing up. Put your feeder away from wires or trees they can jump from, and then watch their ingenuity as they try every possible method to get to the food.

If you own a cat, please keep it indoors. The domestic cat is not native to the U.S. Unlike Tweety Bird, wild birds have never figured out how to protect themselves. Cats discover feeders and kill thousands of birds every year.

Once you start feeding birds, you and your children might want to join Project FeederWatch , sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology . Thousands of volunteers count the winter birds at their feeders and funnel the data to scientists, who use it to track populations. There's a $15 fee. Cornell will send you a research kit and instructions. It is an inexpensive way to learn a great deal while enjoying the birds of your yard. You can sign up at the project's website or send me an e-mail and I'll get you started right away.

John Hannan is Audubon's Director of Development for Audubon in Connecticut . For more information, contact him at jhannan@audubon.org.

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