Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge near Smyrna is known as a birdwatcher's paradise, especially for the migratory birds that flock to the refuge along the Atlantic flyway.
On Saturday, Charles Shattuck from Wild Birds Unlimited in Hockessin, told visitors at Bombay Hook how to create a refuge for small birds in their own back yard. Shattuck was the guest speaker at the refuge's visitors center.
"I want to help you make an educated decision so you can attract those interesting birds you're looking for," said Shattuck.
His best advice? Sunflowers – specifically black oil sunflower seeds in your feeders and, if you can, actually planting some sunflowers, the smaller varieties with multiple heads that aren't as prone to flopping over.
"Sunflowers are the greatest attractant," he said.
Birdwatchers may also want to buy just the kernels, without the shells, he said.
"Some birds have trouble cracking open the shell once it's dried," he said. "They may be able to open the shell in a sunflower plant, when it's is still soft and moist, but once it's dried and hard, it can be difficult. Besides, birds don't eat the shells. They eat the kernels."
Putting just kernels in feeders also eliminates all the shell debris.
What about the cost of kernels?
Although kernels cost more, when you figure that a lot of the weight in a bag of regular sunflower seeds is the shells, you're paying for shells that just end up going to waste, Shattuck said.
"In a mixed bag of seeds, the first ingredient should always be sunflower seeds," he said. "Sometimes a mixed bag has seeds that are just filler. Birds don't even eat them."
Safflower seeds are a possibility for birdwatchers who are trying to deter squirrels.
"It tastes bitter to squirrels," said Shattuck. "They don't seem to like it, but the birds love it."
For the popular goldfinches, Niger seed (not thistle) is what to try, while peanuts are great for attracting blue jays and woodpeckers, he said.
"In the winter, I'd also recommend adding millet and cracked corn to the mix," said Shattuck.
As far as feeders, Shattuck said a simple, wide tray feeder close to the ground might work best.
"We get a lot more ground-feeding birds around here," he said. "Regardless of how a feeder is designed with the different size holes and perches, some birds just won't get on them."
As for box-shaped hopper feeders or the cylinder-shaped tube feeders, he recommended models that do a good job protecting the seeds from rain, that drain well, and are easy to clean.
Page 2 of 2 - "When the feeders get dirty and moldy, that's not helping the birds," he said. "You don't want them to be eating moldy seeds."
To clean feeders, he said a solution of one part bleach to 10 parts water does the trick, without leaving a residue like soap can.
Tina Watson, outdoor recreation planner, at Bombay Hook Wildlife Refuge, said Shattuck's talk fit right in with the refuge's goals.
"The refuge tries to provide a variety of programs with different types of information about preserving wildlife," Watson said. "The refuge is here because we're on Atlantic migratory flyway so we manage the refuge for birds, and we like to educate people about birds. Being able to feed birds properly in your back yard is just as important as what we do at the refuge."