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Science & Environment

Is Birdfeeding Just, Well, For The Birds?

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Time now for some Talkin' Birds.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCKIN' ROBIN")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Tweedly-deedly-dee (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: A bird show - I like that. I love birds.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Tweedly-deedly-dee (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Ray Brown's Talkin' Birds.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Tweet.

SIMON: Ray Brown is host of the radio show and podcast Talkin' Birds. Ray, thanks for being back with us.

RAY BROWN: Well, you're welcome, and thank you, Scott. Great to talk to you again.

SIMON: Winter is just ahead of us. As soon as the snow starts hitting the ground, many people who love birds want to make certain they have enough food. Are some ideas better than others for giving it to them?

BROWN: Well, I think so, in terms of the seed particularly, but I'm kind of a big fan of black oil sunflower seed. You know, a lot of the seed you kind of get down at the supermarket has a lot of filler in it. Generally, people want colorful songbirds, so I'm a proponent of black oil sunflower seed as the single best food you can put out there.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDSONG)

BROWN: A lot of studies that say birdfeeding is good for birds. Some studies say it's not. But certainly the preponderance of studies indicate that it's a good thing for birds.

SIMON: Why would it be a bad idea to feed birds?

BROWN: There have been a couple of studies done in the U.K. that give a different viewpoint. They studied a bird called the blue tit, which is a relative of our black-capped chickadees.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDSONG)

BROWN: So this is a similar bird in the U.K. They got different results, but it seems like they were kind of limited in their geographical area that they studied. And they had one possibility that this was - made an imbalanced diet if you gave them too many seeds. But another thing is that with these seeds that we're feeding birds, some of the birds that wouldn't really have survived the winter to nest would survive. So these birds were trying to nest in places that were not good places to nest.

SIMON: Yeah. We think that all birds like seed, but that's not strictly true, is it?

BROWN: Not entirely true. You know, we have a lot of - our neotropical migrants, for example - you know, tanagers and orioles, cat birds and birds like that that that go to the tropics in the wintertime - they're really insect eaters. When they're up here, they'll eat a lot of fruit. So tanagers, for example, and orioles love to eat orange slices that you can put out there.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDSONG)

BROWN: But birds can get food in so many ways. And I have a friend who loves to feed bluebirds. He's lucky enough to get Eastern bluebirds in his yard, and one of the things that they really love is mealworms. And what he does is he'll get a little slingshot, and he'll put a mealworm in a slingshot and fire that thing up and watch the bluebirds catch the mealworm in mid-air.

SIMON: Oh.

BROWN: So it's a little extra entertainment.

SIMON: Entertainment? Not for the meal worm.

BROWN: (Laughter).

SIMON: If someone gets a bird feeder, do they have to worry about attracting squirrels?

BROWN: (Laughter) That's the biggest problem of all, I think, for people with bird feeders. People go crazy, I know. I know people who have just quit feeding birds because of the squirrels, but they can be defeated. You know, there are - there are things. Like, you can attach a baffle dome on top of the feeder so they'll slide off. And there really are squirrel-proof feeders out there, and probably the ultimate example is one called the Yankee Flipper.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO, "YANKEE FLIPPER SQUIRREL PROOF BIRDFEEDER")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) This must be a real Yankee's feeder.

SIMON: I've seen the video you're talking about.

BROWN: OK. Yeah, so you know about that (laughter).

SIMON: It just seems like a not a nice thing to do to a squirrel.

BROWN: It's not that nice, but it's pretty effective. Yeah, the squirrel will step on the perch, and its weight will force the perch down, activating a small motor, which will then cause the feeder to spin and the squirrel to go to your neighbor's yard by air (laughter).

SIMON: Yeah, I know. And I think, oh, Rocky, I'm sorry.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO, "YANKEE FLIPPER SQUIRREL PROOF BIRDFEEDER")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Whoa, whoa, whoa (ph). Wow, what a ride.

SIMON: Ray Brown, host of Talkin' Birds, joined us from the studios of WGBH in Boston. Ray, thanks so much for being with us.

BROWN: It's my pleasure. Thanks, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCKIN' ROBIN")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Tweet, tweet.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLING) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.