Reflections in Nature: Seed preference

BILL BOWER/Sun-Gazette Correspondent Blue jays prefer peanut kernels and black-striped sunflower seeds.

Do you know what types of seeds are preferred by the birds that come into your feeders? In a study done by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, it was found that many species of birds enjoy specific seeds.

Fifteen varieties of seeds were used in the study. The most popular seeds rated a 10 on the scale, while other seeds dropped as low as zero.

The blue jay’s first choice was the peanut kernel, which rated a 10, while its second choice of black-striped sunflower seeds went from six to 10.

The blue jays had only a minor interest in cracked corn and black sunflower seeds and ignored other seeds in the feeder.

The goldfinch’s favorite was the hulled sunflower seed, which rated a 10, followed by Niger seed, a six, and the black sunflower seed, a four. There were many types of seeds that were practically ignored.

The black sunflower seed was the most popular for most seed-eating birds; white proso millet was the most popular among the various sparrows and doves. (Doves will eat almost any seed.)

The study found that some birds are more particular in their food preference than others.

Birds differ in where they feed, with some feeding almost exclusively 4 feet or more off the ground; many feed on the ground on a slightly elevated platform, while others feed wherever they find food.

I’ve often been asked whether or not birds should be fed during the summer months. The study done by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that feeding birds during the summer months causes no harm. Also, the report stated that, during the summer months, many varieties of birds can be seen and enjoyed at the feeders.

In addition to offering food for the seed eaters, the study went on to suggest putting out suet for woodpeckers and nuthatches and also sugar water for hummingbirds.

The most important factor influencing the number and variety of birds using your feeder is the nearby vegetation. Vegetation is the key to attracting all types of wildlife to your property on a year-round basis.

Several years ago, I cut down an ornamental cherry tree that had grown too large for the space where it was planted. Our birdfeeder, which was nearby, attracted many species of birds; however, after the tree was gone, fewer birds and species were seen.

The more protection you can provide for your feeders, the better. Feeders should be placed near cover so that birds can escape predators; however, be sure to check that branches strong enough to hold squirrels and that cats are not near the feeder; place feeders away from windows to reduce collisions and make sure feeders are cleaned regularly.

I’ve been told by many people — including my wife, Mary Alice — that very few birds are visiting their feeders. One reason I gave was that birds prefer natural food, which is more available during a mild winter. I went on to say that predators and variety of seeds are also reasons why birds stop using feeders.

Most birds eat their food quickly due to their lack of teeth, bony jaws and chewing ability.

Birds do not keep food in their mouths for very long. A bird has very few taste buds (30 to 70) in its mouth, while humans have about 9,000. The taste buds are located at the base of the bird’s tongue.

The relatively small number of taste buds in a bird’s mouth has suggested that, in general, their sense of taste is rudimentary (very basic).

Taste is the sense by which we distinguish between such things as acid, bitter, sweet, sour and salt. In one experiment with pigeons and chickens, it was suggested that they had a well-developed sense of taste and rejected a variety of substances. The study showed that other birds were able to detect some substances (salt, sour and bitter) but, in general, the sense of taste could play only a small part in the bird’s selection of food.

In a four-year study done on backyard feeding, one group experimented with 43 species of North American songbirds. The group was given a wide variety of natural foods to use in the study, and they concluded that the birds’ selection of food was made chiefly on taste, with color, shape and texture not significant.

Bower retired after 34 years as a wildlife conservation officer for the state Game Commission. Questions and comments may be sent to him at 1224 Redington Ave., Troy PA 16947.