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Feeding The Birds

 Niki Behrikis Shanahan

And I saw an angel standing in the sun,
who cried in a loud voice to all the birds
flying in midair, "Come, gather together
for the great supper of God.

Revelation 19:17, NIV

It seems like most people like to watch birds at the bird feeders and birdbaths.  It’s a great pastime and wonderful to provide food for God’s beautiful creatures.  It’s also an option for those who may not be able to have a pet, but could have a bird feeder.  Children and adults alike love to watch the birds and your pets will too!  Our cat, Lukie, just loves to watch the birds come by and eat.  I don’t think it’s because he’d like to attack them.  Lukie is very laid back and gentle, and he doesn’t appear as though he wants to go after them.  He seems genuinely intrigued by the birds.  In the morning he is so excited and just can’t wait to go to the door and watch his friends.  He can sit there for hours watching them and listening to them sing!

According to a Stanford Alumni Association essay, feeding backyard birds began in earnest in the 1950s.  New Englanders are the most dedicated providers.

In fact, they say that feeding may pull many birds, especially weak individuals, through the extremes of winter.  Birds increase their visits to feeders in harsh weather, particularly after snowfalls and ice storms that make natural foods inaccessible.  Small species, which are more constrained energetically, benefit greatly from feeding. In one experiment, chickadees raised their daily fat deposits by about 4 percent of their body weight when offered sunflower seeds in place of their normal diet of conifer seeds, berries, etc. During extreme cold spells, juncos, finches, and other winter residents unable to find sufficient food before sunset often will not survive the night.  We should be consistent in feeding them, since irregular feeding can be hazardous to birds, which establish habitual foraging patterns.

While it is fun to see the birds flying close to your house, it is wise to keep the feeder a few feet away from the house.  The reason for that is that squirrels will always want to eat along with the birds.  Of course the squirrels need to eat as well, but you don’t want them running around up close to your door, because they could move into your attic.

Wagner’s, a leading producer of bird feeding products, reports that the wild bird food category is approaching one billion dollars in retail sales with over 60 million Americans feeding wild birds. Wild bird feeding is rapidly becoming the most popular outdoor hobby  -- with gardening currently being the most popular.

We recently started feeding the birds and have found that the striped sunflower seeds go over very well.  We couldn’t get any takers for the cracked corn although some experts recommend it.  The University of Nebraska Lincoln has this advice:

Fast Facts

Most Birds:
Like to eat sunflower seeds.
Cruise at speeds around 20-30 mph.
Fly below 500 feet except during migration.
Have a life span between 11-30 years.
Other Facts:
The smallest bird is the Bee Hummingbird at 2.24 inches.
The heaviest and tallest bird is the African Ostrich at 345 lbs. and 9 ft.
The fastest bird is the diving Peregrine Falcon at 175 mph or more.
The bird with the longest feathers is the Onagadori at 34.75 ft.

When choosing seeds, think about the birds that interest you and the types of seeds that attract them. Small black oil-type sunflower seeds are overall the most widely preferred bird seed, so these normally are the major portion of seeds offered. They have high energy content, and the thin shells allow easy use by smaller birds such as chickadees, pine siskins, juncos, and native sparrows, as well as cardinals, mourning doves, grosbeaks, and others. White proso millet is another attractive seed used especially by smaller birds, and a small amount of finely cracked corn is good in a mix. Safflower is being used increasingly, with reports that cardinals, chickadees, house and purple finches, nuthatches, and mourning doves consume it, but that it is less attractive to grackles, starlings, house sparrows, and squirrels. Unsalted peanuts and other nutmeats can make an attractive addition to a feeding program and will appeal to a variety of birds, including woodpeckers, blue jays, cardinals, nuthatches, and chickadees.

Keep in mind that birds prefer good quality seeds that are reasonably fresh. Seeds that are too old or of poor quality may be avoided or just scattered from the feeder onto the ground.  Small holes in sunflower seeds, for example, may indicate insect damage and reduced quality.  Niger thistle seeds, which are often used in finch feeders, are highly attractive to finches when fresh, but may be rejected when several months old. Although commercially packaged seed mixes offer a convenient way to get started in bird feeding, such mixtures often contain large amounts of filler seeds that birds do not prefer, and the seeds may not be as fresh as ideal. A good alternative is to purchase preferred seeds in bulk and mix your own, or try fresh specialty mixes available from sources that specialize in bird feeding products. One seed combination that is attractive to a wide range of desirable backyard songbirds is:


Mourning Dove
50 percent sunflower seeds
Blue Jay
35 percent white proso millet
15 percent finely cracked corn

Many other combinations also work well, and you can adjust mixtures to fit your situation. Food preferences may vary somewhat depending on where you live and on what birds frequent your feeders. Some experienced bird feeders recommend that at least 75 percent of the seed offered should be black oil-type sunflower. You might try experimenting with a few seed types or mixes offered in different spots and see what happens in your backyard.

How Fast Can They Fly?

The Stanford Alumni folks say that generally birds follow the facetious advice often given to pilots -- "fly low and slow." Most cruise speeds are in the 20-to-30-mph range, with an eider duck having the fastest accurately clocked air speed of about 47 mph. During a chase, however, speeds increase; ducks, for example, can fly 60 mph or even faster, and it has been reported that a Peregrine Falcon can stoop at speeds of up to 175 mph. Interestingly, there is little relationship between the size of a bird and how fast it flies. Both hummingbirds and geese can reach roughly the same maximum speeds.  Most birds fly below 500 feet except during migration.

There is no reason to expend the energy to go higher -- and there may be dangers, such as exposure to higher winds or to the sharp vision of hawks. When migrating, however, birds often do climb to relatively great heights, possibly to avoid dehydration in the warmer air near the ground. Migrating birds in the Caribbean are mostly observed around 10,000 feet, although some are found half and some twice that high. Generally long-distance migrants seem to start out at about 5,000 feet and then progressively climb to around 20,000 feet. Just like jet aircraft, the optimum cruise altitude of migrants increases as their "fuel" is used up and their weight declines. Vultures sometimes rise over 10,000 feet in order to scan larger areas for food (and to watch the behavior of distant vultures for clues to the location of a feast). Perhaps the most impressive altitude record is that of a flock of Whooper Swans which was seen on radar arriving over Northern Ireland on migration and was visually identified by an airline pilot at 29,000 feet. Birds can fly at altitudes that would be impossible for bats; since bird lungs can extract a larger fraction of oxygen from the air than can mammal lungs.

How Long Can Birds Live?

The people at Stanford say precise information on the longevity of birds is not easy to come by.  Life expectancy in birds is closely correlated with size – the larger the species, the longer it is likely to live. But the relationship is far from exact. Some groups of birds tend to have long lives for their sizes.

Captive Canada Geese have lived for 33 years, House Sparrows 23 years, and Northern Cardinals 22 years. In nature, the life spans of these species are much shorter. As luck would have it, however, the record for a European Starling in the wild, 20 years, is 3 years longer than for any starling captives.

Here are some figures that are maximum recorded ages.

Species      Years Species     Years
Mourning Dove  19 Bald Eagle 21
Broad-tailed Hummingbird 11 Song Sparrow       11
Blue Jay 16 Red-tailed Hawk  21
Trumpeter Swan 23 Brown Pelican   19
Great Blue Heron 23 Hairy Woodpecker  15
Canada Geese  23 Northern Cardinal  15
Black-capped Chickadee 12 Red-winged Blackbird 15
Mallard   23 American Crow  14
Peregrine Falcon     12 American Robin 13

The records presented in Stanford’s list are from Dr. M. Kathleen Klimkiewicz of the Bird Banding Laboratory of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (with the exception of the Broad-tailed Hummingbird, which is courtesy of Dr. William Calder).

Sources:  The University of Nebraska Lincoln, Stanford Alumni Association, and Wagner’s.

For more information on feeding birds, here are some links.

The University of Nebraska Lincoln will tell you most everything you’d want to know about feeding the birds. http://www.ianr.unl.edu/pubs/wildlife/g669.htm

Stanford Alumni Association, Stanford, California, has a large index of subject matter on birds.  http://www.stanfordalumni.org/birdsite/home.html

Wagner’s  http://www.wagners.com/history.html


Niki Behrikis Shanahan is the author of There Is Eternal Life For Animals, The Rainbow Bridge:  Pet Loss Is Heaven's Gain, and Animal Prayer Guide.  Pete Publishing, www.eternalanimals.com.  Available at amazon.com.  Article copyright 2003 Niki Behrikis Shanahan.   All rights reserved.  Not to be used without author's explicit written authorization.


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