Sunday, January 9, 2011

Treats for the birds

During my six years of feeding birds in my "yard", things have rarely stayed the same from year to year. We've tried different types of feeders, different configurations of the feeders, and different types of food offered in the feeders. This year, for example, I left behind the "deluxe" seed blend and started offering just straight black-oil sunflower seeds. The cost per pound was only about 10 cents more, so it seemed like a no-brainer. I really think there is much less waste now that the "filler" seeds like millet and milo aren't getting tossed to the ground in favor of the sunflower seeds that they really wanted all along. I don't think there will be any turning back.

Silly me, I had always thought that the Goldfinches were attracted to those tiny filler seeds that I mentioned above, but now I've learned from experience that they love sunflower seeds almost as much as they love nyjer/thistle seed. Here they are lined up to get to the tube feeder that's (half) full of sunflower seeds.

I think of the food that we offer as being in two categories: standard fare, and treats. The standard fare is all of the seed that we offer (sunflower, safflower and nyjer) and suet cakes, while the treats consist of whole raw peanuts in the shell and homemade bird dough. Standard fare is offered to our birds year round, while treats only make an appearance during the winter months. (Let us not forget that there is sugar water offered for the hummingbirds during the summer months, too.)

In regards to the treats, the peanuts are most loved by the Titmice and the Blue Jays. Interestingly, though, the Jays are only interested in the peanuts when there's snow on the ground. Otherwise, the Titmice have the peanuts all to themselves. The occasional White-breasted Nuthatch or Red-bellied Woodpecker will enjoy a peanut every once in a while, too, but not like the Titmice!

The nut's as big as his head!

And then there's the bird dough. Some folks call it Zick dough, due to the fact that Julie Zickefoose helped to make it madly popular through the powers of the internets, but she admits that having the dough named after her makes her feel "a little squeamy." (Julie, is that a cross between "squeamish" and "squirmy"?) To that end, I've just started calling it bird dough. There is a back story to the current iteration of the bird dough recipe, and I really encourage you to read it HERE on Julie's blog. It describes the nutritional rationale behind the recipe, and how it came to be. If this is something you think you would like to make for your birds, please take the time to read Julie's post about it.

So would you like to know the recipe? (Warren and Lisa, I know you've been waiting for this.) Since I make so much of it in the winter, I keep the recipe pinned up to the refrigerator (along with a reminder of the proportions for bleach water for cleaning the feeders!) The recipe goes something like this:

Actually, I've already started to modify the recipe a little from what I have written here, kicking up the peanut butter to 1-1/2 cups and decreasing the lard to 1/2 cup. Also, I've increased the chick starter to 2-1/2 cups, decreasing the cornmeal to 1/2 cup.

The ingredients corralled on the counter. Some assembly required.

This is the new star of the show: chick starter (the unmedicated variety only, please). This helps make the dough a little more nutritious. Available at feed stores (I got mine at Tractor Supply, only $8 for a 20-pound bag).

It's funny how I often think of other types of food as I make up these batches of dough. The chick starter reminds of Grape Nuts cereal (probably has about as much flavor as Grape Nuts, too!), and the dough as it's coming together in the bowl reminds me of no-bake cookie mix (minus the chocolate, of course):

I've taken to buying 40-ounce jars of el-cheapo peanut butter to put in this stuff, and the jars make great holding containers for the finished product. One great thing about this dough: no refrigeration required. I just keep jars of it sitting on the sideboard by our patio door, in close proximity to the feeders.

This stuff really is amazing in that it draws in all KINDS of birds. The only regular birds at our feeders who have shown no interest in it are the Goldfinches. I think it's possible that the dough has helped to boost the woodpecker attendance at our feeders this winter. We had another 5-woodpecker-species weekend this weekend, in fact, and I finally got photos of the Red-bellieds enjoying some dough (I had already gotten photos of the other 4 species at "the dough cup").

Female Red-belly on the left, male on the right

This is the Northern Flicker that fooled no one as my "mystery bird" from a few posts ago.

The dough crumbles nicely, and comes off in both large chunks and in tiny pieces. The large chunks are attractive to Titmice and Blue Jays, both of which love to STUFF THEIR FACES!

Tiny bits are good for tiny birds, like this demure Chickadee.

I don't know what's up with the bird on the left - there's no need to yell like that when someone is eating.

One thing that I really like about the dough is that birds who don't normally get to partake in suet can have a go at this. Examples are Cardinals, Mourning Doves and White-throated Sparrows.

Here's a complete list of the birds who enjoy bird dough at our feeders:
  • Mourning Dove
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • Downy Woodpecker
  • Hairy Woodpecker
  • Pileated Woodpecker
  • Northern Flicker
  • Blue Jay
  • Chickadee
  • Tufted Titmouse
  • White-breasted Nuthatch
  • Carolina Wren
  • White-throated Sparrow
  • Northern Cardinal

Hopefully that list will grow this year to include Juncos and other Sparrows. Hey, I finally got that Pileated to come in, so anything is possible!

Happy Birding, and let me know if you try out the recipe!


Julie Zickefoose said...

All right. This is a great post. I want to complain loudly about some things, though. First. We've never had a pileated woodpecker on our feeders for anything. This is said in a long wail. Second. Ditto that for flicker. Well, one may have taken a little corn once. But 18 years of dreaming about flickers at our feeder has come to naught. This is said in a very whiny tone. Third. Haven't had white-throated sparrow on Zick dough. Song, field, and chipping are all regulars in season, but no WTSP. Fourth (in a teachery, stern tone) I must know more about the mourning dove eating suet dough. MODO's are obligate vegetarians in my experience, like house finches and goldfinches. Tell me more! Is this one bird who's taken a liking to it, or several? Is this after you cut the lard down? No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!

Delighted you're tinkering with the recipe. If lard be the culprit in gout, cutting the lard is a good way to go. I'm about to mix up a batch. Bill got us a Kitchenaid for Christmas and the prospect of making Zick dough is no longer so onerous. I see you have a sleek black beauty on your countertop, too!

Your photos are terrific. The TUTI w/peanut: classic. Bill and I are sitting at the table oohing and aahing. These need to be seen more widely. Keep shooting those backyard shots--there's always a demand for them. Meet you in email land.


Vickster said...

I agree with Jules. This is a great post. I have also started compiling a list of birds sighted at my Zick Dough feeding station. Last Saturday here in southwest Ohio within 5 minutes of placing the dough out I saw Chickadee, Junco, Northern Cardinal, Blue Jay, Tufted Titmouse, Red-bellied Woodpecker, English House Sparrow,Northern Flicker and even an Eastern Towhee.

nina said...

Fantastic photos, Heather!
We have a storm brewing (as the weather forecasters' eyes roll in crazed circles) and this just might be the perfect combination that will bring something special to my feeders, too.
And it makes the house smell delicious!

(so were the cookies at the after party no bakes or Zick dough? :-D)

Julie Zickefoose said...

Another person with a flicker at the Zick Dough. And a friend, too. Now I'm throwing things around the kitchen. Flickers come and dig little holes in the yard all around our feeders, gazing at the birds pigging out. What's the deal? Hello? Pileateds? We have gobs of them!
(We've also found towhees love the stuff. None this winter, maybe it's too cold for them to hang around.)
Congratulations, Vickster!

Angie said...

This is an awesome post, Heather! I just made a new batch of dough yesterday...we have 'country' birds who haven't discovered the culinary delights of Zick dough YET but the Carolina Wren is quite happy to have it all to him(her)self. :) However, we are having more and more birds give it a try---and yes, the Doves love it---in fact, they love ANY food and tend to hog it (whatever it is) :D. So your post really encourages me to keep making it and putting it out there in hopes that different birds will give it a try. :D Your photos are just amazing.

Heather said...

JZ - Honey, you're jealous of my woodpeckers, and I'm jealous of your bluebirds. I'm jealous of Vickster's Towhees and Juncos! I have both of those birds ground feeding all winter, but neither have come to visit the dough cup. =sigh= As to the MODOs, their visits to the dough have been brief, but definite. I made your modified version (with equal parts p-nut butter and lard) for the first few rounds this winter, and then switched to my new version after that. I honestly can't remember if the doves came only after the reduction in lard or not. I'm afraid I didn't keep track of that. :( I will definitely pay more attention in the future, though. Getting photos of them on that cup might be tough, though - they are the most skittish of all the birds that visit the feeders. We'll see!

Vickster - Juncos and a Towhee, you say? Please have them inform MY Juncos and Towhees that they are missing out! Thanks for your visit!

Nina - Funny you should mention the smell of the dough... I was putting some out today when I got home from work, and the aroma made me want to eat some! And I promise I didn't bring Zick dough cookies to the bird count, but the no-bakes were definitely inspired by said dough!

Angie - My CAWRs love the dough, too. I think that even if he/she were the only bird to eat it, that would be enough for me. I always have an eye out for who's new at the feeders, no matter what food I put out, and am constantly thinking of how I can bring more variety to my birds, in terms of food, and also in terms of species that come to visit. Thanks for stopping by!

Red said...

I find the black oil seeds to be the best all round food. I try other stuff but it doesn't seem to be worth the bother. Very interesting to read of all the things you try. Always something new to learn.

Jen Sanford said...

Wow you have a great blog! Your photos are really fantastic and now I'm dying to whip up a batch of bird dough! Maybe it will finally attract something besides juncos and squirrels...

Vickster said...

My suburban birds took a while to catch on the the Zick Dough. In fact, I had to add a cup of black sunflower seed just to catch their eye. Today, I added a Nuthatch to the list.

Julie Zickefoose said...

I think it's interesting that your juncos haven't caught on, HotH. (I love that, it reads as Hot H). Have you tried sprinkling it on the snow, or as Vickie says, mixing it with seed and scattering it on the ground? Our juncos are among our most avid consumers. And in spring, the chipping sparrows and field sparrows adore it. I love getting them up to the deck railing.

Unknown said...

A generous portion of dough always finds its way to the ground where the juncos are scratching around. Except for when Emmett gets a chance to run down there and scarf it all up, they have ample opportunity to sample the product.

Carol Mattingly said...

Beautiful header. Terrific post. Carol

Heather said...

Red - Our birds have never turned their proverbial noses up to anything that we've put out for them, so I'll just keep experimenting!

Jen - Oh yes, I forgot to mention the squirrels in my post. I've only seen them nibble at it here and there, thankfully.

Vickster - Which kind of Nuthatch?

Julie - I haven't tried anything specific to lure the juncos or any of the other ground feeders up to the dough cup. It's funny, though - that White-throated Sparrow sure knows where the goods are! I put some dough out this evening when we got back from work, and a sparrow was my first customer.

Dave - Yes, dough makes its way down to the ground when I happen to drop it there, but I don't specifically drop it down there (unless, of course, I happen to spot a Carolina Wren on the ground when I'm putting it out.... then I'll drop a crumble or two down there).

Carol - Thank you!