March 26, 2016

Juncos Get Smart, Get Fat?

Dark-eyed juncos working on a suet cake.
This is the winter that the juncos got smart, and as a result, my bird-food costs are rising.

Along with the feeders offering sunflower seeds and niger thistle, a/k/a black gold, I usually have a couple of holders for suet cakes. The box for the current offering lists its ingredients thus: rendered beef suet, milo, millet, sunflower seeds, wheat, corn.

These suet cakes generally attract omnivorous and agile birds: jays and chickadees, plus nuthatches, who like to hang upside down and peck at them — and woodpeckers of course, which for us means mostly downies.

Meanwhile, the dark-eyed juncos, in their dozens, are on the ground under the sunflower feeders, or sometimes up in them, sometimes on the thistle feeders too, but predominately on the ground.

Until this year. It's like they suddenly figured out the suet cakes and figured, what the heck, a little beef fat won't hurt us in cold weather. Yum, beef fat!

One year, as part of Cornell University's Project Feeder Watch, which M. and I have been participating in since the mid-1990s, some bird-seed company asked us to study the preferences of different species for different seeds.

We put out samples of, for instance, milo (grain sorghun), millet, and sunflower seeds on paper plates and then were supposed to count how many and what species came to them for a span of time.

Milo and millet bulk up many of the wild bird seed mixes that you see as "attracting many species" and such, but the fact is that they are second and third choices for the birds — except for juncos, doves, and maybe pheasants — but we don't see pheasants here, and the wild turkeys rarely come into the yard.

Finches, in my experience, tend to high-grade the sunflower seeds and ignore the rest.

So now the question is, are the juncos going for the fat, or are they picking the milo out of it because they like the stuff?


Ruth said...

I put out pure fat in my suet feeders. Beef, or buffalo, or currently pork. And I can't recall seeing the Juncos go for it EVER. And we have them in abundance all winter.

(the difference in Dark Eyed Juncos from region to region is amazing, yours don't look anything like mine!)

Chas S. Clifton said...

So you are a vote for my suspicion that they are picking out the milo, etc., from the suet, whereas chickadees, for example, will eat fat and meat scraps, as anyone who has seen them pick over a carcass will attest.

When I first developed an interest in birding, there was the "Oregon Junco," the "Rocky Mountain Junco," etc. Then the lumpers took over.

Woody Meristem said...

Have never been able to figure out why anyone buys niger seed; siskins, goldfinch and redpolls eat black oil sunflower seed just as readily and it's much less expensive.

Same thing with suet cakes, as Ruth said, plain old beef suet that the grocery stores sell in chunks right from the carcass.

Chas S. Clifton said...

Good points. The little birds just love the thistle seed, but if I had to economize, I would start there.

SRM said...

I use niger/thistle seed when bears are in my area of Canon City (have had them in my yard several times). Bears are strongly attracted to the high calorie black-oil sunflower seeds but show no interest in the tiny niger/thistle seeds.

Chas S. Clifton said...

SRM: You have been luckier than I. A bear once grabbed one of the cylindrical thistle feeders and carried it off. I found it a couple of months later up the hill behind the house, pretty well bitten through and cleaned out.

We do feed birds all year but the feeders come in at dusk when the bears are active.

SRM said...

I had a bear grab the gate handle to get in my yard a few years ago and he just pulled the gate handle with wood slat right off the gate. He got in. There was a full thistle feeder that he left alone and tore down *empty* feeder that had previously held sunflower seeds and apparently still smelled of them (and may have had 2 or 3 seeds in it). Sadly I live in a residential area and too many leave their garbage where it can be had so bears where I am may be able to pick and choose.