Cold weather in the northern hemisphere and the Holiday Season everywhere are upon us and many gifts for bird lovers fill store shelves. But, shopping for seeds to fill the backyard feeder can be confusing and even frustrating. Many types of seed and mixes are for sale. Some blends are designed to attract specific species, like cardinals, while others target a diversity of birds. Cheap blends appeal mostly to house sparrows and blackbirds, species most people prefer to not attract.
Winding Pathways suggests keeping seed buying simple. We have a favorite seed, one we avoid, and one that we use in a special way. We rarely buy cheap mixes that song birds really do not like and that are sold in big box, chain and grocery stores at inflated prices. Farm stores often sell better mixes at lower cost. Neither of these types of stores have knowledgeable staff to help new comers to winter bird feeding. Specialty bird feeding stores offer the highest quality seed and staff up-to-date in what song birds feed on. And, yes, you pay a bit more – and we find it worth the cost. Less wasted seed and higher satisfaction for homeowners and the birds!
THE BEST SEED FOR WILD BIRDS
Of the many outstanding seeds for feeding birds we like black oil sunflower the best. It’s relatively inexpensive and devoured by chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, woodpeckers, cardinals, and many other species. We don’t mind that birds drop hulls to the ground but for people who dislike this mess, hulled sunflower seed can be purchased and is excellent. It is kernels of larger culinary sunflower seeds, sometimes called gray stripe seed. Hulls have been removed and seed is much more expensive but loved by birds. Most sunflower seeds are produced on farms in the Dakotas and Minnesota.
THE WORST SEED
The worst seed is Milo. It is a common ingredient in cheap mixes and sometimes is sold as “bird seed.” Milo is grown on arid land in the Great Plains and is mainly used for livestock feed. The young plant looks like corn but unlike corn its seeds form at the top of the plant. Few birds like the astringent seeds, although they will sometimes eat it if nothing else is available and they are hungry. Less desirable species, like house sparrows and blackbirds will eat it. Milo seeds are round, slightly reddish, and about twice the size of somewhat similar millet. Try to avoid it.
IN BETWEEN SEEDS
An excellent inexpensive seed that will be eaten by many birds is cracked corn. Desirable birds prefer sunflower seeds, but we often sprinkle some cracked corn on the ground to keep sparrows and wild turkeys happy and, hopefully, away from our sunflower seed. Another seed of “in between” value is millet. These are tiny round white or yellowish seeds often found in inexpensive mixes. Mourning doves, juncos and other ground feeders enjoy eating it. So do house sparrows.
Learning to identify seeds helps a customer purchase the best seed at the lowest cost. Reading labels helps as most manufacturers list the contents of their seed packages. Happy Holidays to you and the birds you love to feed!
Most people love watching wildlife in their yards, and millions set out bird feeders and improve habitat to encourage colorful and fascinating animals. But there’s a limit.
See a mouse scurry across the floor or find their droppings on the kitchen counter and most families quickly set snap traps to kill the pests. Although there are ways to reduce or prevent most wildlife problems that usually should be tried first, sometimes it’s necessary to kill an animal.
Take woodchucks, for example. These large mammals are capable climbers and powerful diggers. They tunnel under any fence they can’t climb over. A woodchuck’s sweet tooth is the family garden and they readily clear cut carrots, peas, beans, corn, chard and most other crops.
A few July’s ago our garden looked superb. We were harvesting crops like beans, squash, beets and chard. One afternoon we went out to pick a few dinner vegetables and were astonished to find the beans nearly eaten to the ground, the chard gone and the beet tops nibbled to nubbins. It wasn’t the raid of a woodchuck. A whole family of chucks had chosen to squeeze under the fence and convert our garden into their lunch.
We do what we can to prevent or reduce damage. The garden has a sturdy fence around it that keeps deer and rabbits out, but with their superior climbing and digging ability we found that keeping chucks out is nearly impossible.
Our garden is a vital part of our family’s food supply so raiding woodchucks gets the same treatment as a mouse in the kitchen. Fortunately, our home is situated where it is legal and safe to shoot an occasional garden raider. Millions of homeowners live on acreages where they can legally dispatch pests. But it must be done safely. Having a low power firearm or airgun handy can be a garden savior.
We use both a .22 caliber rifle and a .22 caliber airgun both to dispatch an occasional pest and for target practice. Again, shooting a pest is a last resort that we use only when prevention fails, but normally we have to do in a few woodchucks every year.
HOW FIREARMS AND AIRGUNS WORK
Airguns and firearms have similarities and differences. Each relies on air pressure to push a projectile (bullet or pellet) out the barrel and onward to its target. Each can be a safe, effective, and humane tool for dispatching pests but must be used with great care and moderate skill.
When someone pulls a firearm’s trigger a pin strikes the primer of a loaded shell. The impact causes the primer to create a spark that ignites gunpowder. Rapidly burning powder creates tremendous air pressure that pushes the bullet out the barrel.
Pull the trigger on an airgun and high pressure air, already inside, pushes the projectile forward without an explosion of gunpowder. The pressure is generated before shooting by either pumping the barrel or a lever or by inserting a cartridge of pressurized carbon dioxide.
DEVELOPING SHOOTING SKILL
Appropriate airguns and .22 rifles are capable of quickly and humanely dispatching small pests but each can cause severe injury or even death of a person. They must be used with skill and care. Winding Pathways owners Rich and Marion Patterson have extensive experience with firearms. She grew up in rural New Hampshire in a family that hunted for food and also occasionally needed to dispatch a pest raiding their huge garden. He learned shooting during a stint in the army. Many homeowners lack shooting skills and safety knowledge. A good way to gain both is to enroll in a hunter safety course offered in most areas. To locate a class check Where to Hunt. Instructors help novices learn safety and accurate shooting. Many shooting ranges also offer training and are excellent and safe places to practice, sometimes with a coach to help out. To locate a range near your home access Where To Shoot.
Accurate shooting is essential for humane and safe pest control. A precise shot to the vitals will instantly kill a woodchuck while a poor shot will only wound the animal and cause suffering. Develop skill and practice!
At Winding Pathways we often spot our garden-raiding woodchuck close to our home and use our .22 rimfire rifle to dispatch it. Ours is a bolt action that functions with a diversity of ammunition types. The most powerful are called “long rifle” shells. We avoid them because they are overly powerful and noisy. Instead we use either “shorts” or, more frequently, “CB” shells. CB shells have only a small amount of powder and make little noise. They have plenty of power to dispatch a woodchuck hit in the head at 25 feet. Shorts have more power than CB’s but less than long rifles. They extend the effective range but are noisier.
Airguns, sometimes called BB guns, vary greatly in quality and power. Old fashioned BB guns fired a round piece of steel called a “BB”. Generally they lack both power and accuracy for serious pest control, but modern airguns are a different matter. Many are of .177 caliber but some are of .22 caliber, which fire a larger heavier pellet that is more lethal than the smaller one. A common system of charging an airgun is to compress air by cocking the barrel. Some airguns will dispatch a pest as humanely as a firearm, but be careful.
Please note: There are pellet guns and there are pellet guns. Some are powerful enough to humanely dispatch a woodchuck and other pests while others lack sufficient power. Our Benjamin .22 titan shoots a 14.3 grain pellet at 750 feet per second, packing enough energy to kill a woodchuck at 25 yards if hit in a lethal area. Another of our pellet guns is much lower powered and is used strictly for target practice.
Before using an airgun or rifle on your property:
- Make sure it’s legal and safe.
- Become familiar with the airgun or firearm. Read the owner’s manual.
- Always practice safety and treat your airgun or .22 as if it’s loaded.
- Develop skill. Never shoot at a pest until you have mastered accuracy and can kill it humanely. Practice often.
- Store it safely. We keep ours in a large locked box, where it stays until used. Store ammunition away from the weapon. Always keep a weapon away from children.
We enjoy target shooting and have made a simple range in our backyard. Every once in a while we take the airgun out and enjoy punching holes in paper targets.
For general information on shooting, safety and where to find a place to shoot go to the National Shooting Sports Foundation.
Wildlife sometime create yard mischief. Raccoons, possums, and skunks tip over trash cans in the middle of the night. Chipmunks tunnel under walls, moles heap mounds of dirt. And woodchucks and cottontails raid the garden.