Pamper Your Backyard Birds For Free

A bird house made from a gourd Gourds can easily be turned into inexpensive bird feeders — just drill a hole in the side and hang it from a tree. Image: DonkerDink/Flickr

Wild birds are our backyard buddies: A swallow can eat a thousand mosquitoes daily; and watching birds glide and listening to their songs can soothe our jangled nerves.

“Connection to the natural world is important to maintaining mental health and stability,” says David Bonter, a bird expert at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “We evolved being connected to nature.”

Nature, shmature — feeding, housing, and bathing birds year-round is expensive. Bonter shells out $27 each week for a 50-pound sack of black oil sunflower seeds, the best food for wild birds that visit his upstate New York home.

Bonter’s costs are typical. I spend at least $40 monthly — nearly $500 per year — on birdseed to stock two feeders that hang outside my kitchen window. And I recently paid $30 for a special bluebird house, which a couple of sparrows quickly commandeered.

Want to feed, house, and provide a cool bath for birds without going broke? Bonter provides some tips.

Raid your pantry

You’d be surprised how much bird food you already have stashed in your pantry.

  • Stale bread and crackers, peanuts (raw, roasted, shelled — but not salted), and oatmeal provide a good bird nosh.
  • Robins, orioles, bluebirds, and cedar waxwings will eat cut up fruit, such as oranges, placed on a platform covered by a roof to keep out rodents.
  • Woodpeckers and nuthatches will lick peanut butter off tree bark.
  • Beef fat is a powerful nutrient for birds in winter. When temperatures drop below 50 degrees, ask your butcher for a hunk of beef suet, and hang it from a wire cage you easily can find at hardware stores and online. If you eat bacon, chill the grease and mix it with nuts and seeds, then hang it in a cage.
  • Avoid salty and highly processed food; it’s no better for the birds than it is for us.
  • Don’t waste money on shelled sunflower seeds. Birds are accustomed to cracking shells in the wild and will happily do it at your feeder.

Water’s almost free

Water in birdbaths and fountains attracts birds that don’t eat seed, like robins.

“Any bird will come to a birdbath,” Bonter says. “I’ve seen hawks in a birdbath.”

If you want to attract more birds, make the water ripple with a solar water wiggler ($40). These hand-sized agitators make the birdbath look more like a natural water source and discourage mosquito eggs from hatching.

Clean and fill the birdbath daily with a garden hose.

Grow your own bird homes

Birds don’t need to nest at the Ritz. They’ll happily reside in a nesting gourd (sometimes called a bottle gourd) you can grow yourself.

I’ve harvested six nesting gourds from a couple of gourd vines. You can get fancy and paint and varnish them. But I just let them dry on the vine (I don’t usually get around to picking them until October), drill an entrance hole, and hang them from the porch light next to my kitchen.

Nesting gourds are harder to clean than other bird homes. So I either pick out the old nests in winter, or throw them away and grow new ones when the weather warms.

I get three or four nesting families each spring and summer. Nothing warms my heart like watching Mom and Dad feed their hungry chicks.

How do you save money on birds? What’s the most exotic bird you’ve attracted to your feeder or birdbath?