Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Pine Cone Bird Feeders

Frozen water in the bird bath this morning

Winter here in our part of the Southern California desert is relatively mild compared to other parts of the country. In December and January our normal high is around 70 degrees, with overnight lows in the low- to mid-40's. Occasionally the temperatures head south, like the weather we're having now, with highs in the 50's and lows touching the freezing mark.

Birds that winter here are pretty fortunate. Natural food sources are available, and they don't have to forage in snow or brave blizzard conditions for a meal. We still like to provide healthy treats to supplement their diet. In addition to the seed feeders, suet feeders, fruit and jelly we put out, I decided to make some ever-popular Pine Cone Bird Feeders.

There is no lack of instructions on the internet for making these feeders. Most simply say (1) find a pine cone (2) spread peanut butter on the pine cone, (3) roll in bird seed, (4) tie a ribbon on for hanging, (5) you're good to go. But I wanted to try something that would be more appropriate for our desert climate, and would be less prone to melting when the weather returns to normal.

Peanut Butter, Lard, Corn Meal and Dried Mealworms

I found a slightly different recipe online, which combines equal parts vegetable shortening** (or alternative - see below) and oatmeal/cornmeal to make a stiffer mix for filling the pine cones.

I made a few changes to the instructions, and made 2 batches: one based on peanut butter and the other based on lard.

Pipe cleaners attached, ready to fill

I gathered these pine cones during a day trip last summer in the local mountains. They are small - about 4" high.

Make sure you select "open" pine cones, so there is plenty of room to slather on the filling.

Craft store pine cones are NOT recommended because they may have artificial coloring, scents or chemicals.

Most instructions say to tie a ribbon or string on the top of the pine cone for hanging. I opted for pipe cleaners, so they wouldn't get in the way when I filled the feeders.

Each bowl made enough to fill 2 small pine cones

Bowl #1
-- 1/2 cup Peanut Butter**
-- 1/2 cup Corn Meal

Bowl #2
-- 1/2 cup Lard
-- 1/2 cup Corn Meal

Mash together with fork until evenly blended.

** Generic peanut butter is fine, birds can't read labels.

Tarp the kitchen if you're doing this with kids.

Smoosh the filling onto the pine cone, filling in between the scales. I used the mixing forks, but you can also use a knife, small spatula or a popsicle stick.

I left the top and bottom of the pine cone un-filled, to give the birds a clean place to perch. In case birds worry about that kind of thing.

Two choices from the "Toppings Bar"

Online recipes normally show the pine cone feeders rolled in standard wild bird seed mix. I went with dried meal worms and safflower seed to finish them up.

Most cheaper wild bird seed mixes contains a lot of red milo which most birds don't care for, so it tends to get ignored and wasted. It also attracts House Sparrows.

If you were a bird, this would look pretty tasty

I used 1/4 cup of dried mealworms for 2 of the pine cones, and 1/4 cup of safflower seeds for the other 2. It was easier to pat the toppings on by hand, instead of rolling them in the bowl.

Here's how they turned out.

The safflower seeds and dried mealworms stuck fine to the filling.

The pipe cleaners stayed clean and out of the way.

Choose a location in your yard where you can watch the birds come to dine.
Wrap the pipe cleaner around the branch, then twist to secure.

It took about an hour for the first bird to try a nibble.
They were completely cleaned out by the next afternoon.

Here are some hints to consider:

-- Peanut butter is high in fat and protein. It is an excellent bird food.
-- Use lard or suet instead of peanut butter, in case of allergies (human).
-- Cold weather will help keep lard and peanut butter from spoiling outdoors.
-- Only put out enough suet/peanut butter to last for a day or two.
-- Put the filled pine cone feeder in the freezer to set, if needed.
-- If squirrels are a concern, hang the feeder with a long string or towards the end of a branch.
-- Use cut up dried fruit, chopped nuts or dried eggshells (rinsed well, dried and crumbled) as other toppings or mix into the filling.
-- We considered using unshelled sunflower seeds as a topping, but decided against it. The dropped shells would be pretty messy on the ground, covered with lard or peanut butter. Hulled sunflower seeds would be fine.

** There were a number of online recipes suggesting the use of Crisco, instead of lard or suet. Crisco is a hydrogenated fat and not generally recommended for bird consumption.
For an interesting discussion of this topic, check out http://www.bluebirdnut.com/the_fat_question.htm

"Everyone likes birds. What wild creature is more accessible to our eyes and ears, as close to us and everyone in the world, as universal as a bird?"
~ David Attenborough

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