Got ground? Try this simple and effective feeding strategy
(published 1-18-07)

The foundation of my backyard feeding program is a small Droll Yankees tube feeder filled with black-oil sunflower seeds. It is joined by two other tube-style feeders—one for shelled peanuts and one for thistle. These stations attract a nice variety of birds in all seasons. In May I’ll put out the hummingbird feeder, too.

But let’s remember that a lot of birds prefer to do their eating on the ground. Toss down a few handfuls of seed and you might be surprised by how quickly the activity level picks up. Sparrows, juncos, mourning doves and even cardinals are highly terrestrial when it comes to feeding.

In the winter, I put small amounts of millet and cracked corn on our bluestone patio. This brings the birds up close, right outside our kitchen’s sliding doors. The action can be especially good right after it snows, when foraging on bare ground is no longer possible. On those days I clear off an area of the patio, creating a “landing pad” that works like a bird magnet.

On Dec. 2, the day after that big snow messed up everybody’s Friday, a fox sparrow made a surprise appearance on the bluestone. “Foxies” are not common in my yard, and I’d never had one visit so late in the year. Even more exciting was the American tree sparrow that turned up about a week later—a new species, No. 102, for my yard list. The bird was congregating with a group of house sparrows and, based on coloration alone, could have been overlooked. So, if you try ground feeding, be alert for unusual visitors—attracting them is the whole point!

Ground feeding does have some drawbacks. The major one is that it brings joy to the lives of house sparrows and squirrels. That’s hard for most birders to accept, and I once had a problem with it myself. My outlook changed, however, when “good” birds began taking advantage of my generosity. I now believe that whatever waste might come with ground feeding is well worth it.

Still, be sure to avoid putting out too much food. I try to spread just enough seed to last a half day, so that it’s all gone by nightfall. Fresh, dry seed is important for the health of the birds, and excess food could attract any number of nocturnal four-legged creatures. Typically, I only do ground feeding on weekends, when I’m home to enjoy the results.

The choice of millet and cracked corn is strategic, too. These foods please a variety of birds—cardinals especially like the corn—and they are inexpensive. My usual source is the Wild Bird Center in Wheaton, where millet sells for $.59/lb and cracked corn is only $.39/lb. You get an even better deal if you buy the 25-lb bags.

In closing, I’d like to confess that my inspiration for ground feeding came from an ace birder in Wheaton who is less than half my age. For years he’s been attracting ground-loving seed eaters to his yard by sprinkling millet under trees and shrubs. The tactic has delivered brown thrashers, Eastern towhees and white-crowned sparrows among other desirable species. Consider giving ground feeding a try now and continue the practice this spring when the range of potential “customers” increases.

Copyright 2007 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.