Growth in gardening: Feeding the Birds

A hummingbird stops for a drink at a hummingbird feeder. PHOTOS BY J.P. Ryan

Feeding your neighborhood finches may make you feel good, but depending on what you provide, it may not do the same for the birds’ stomachs. Like our pets, birds can’t eat many of the foods humans enjoy.

Even placement of your feeder needs to be done with care, particularly when it comes to windows. Birds can get confused by reflections and accidentally fly into the glass. “Window strikes take a huge toll on bird populations,” says John Griffin, the director of urban wildlife at the Humane Society of the United States. To avoid strikes, place a feeder either within three feet of a window or at least 30 feet away from it. “Within three feet they can’t get enough speed to do a lot of damage,” explains Griffin, and 30 feet is far enough away that they’re unlikely to get confused.

What you fill those feeders with matters, too. Here are some things you should never ever feed your local birds.

Bread – I know you probably remember throwing crumbs to ducks and geese as a kid. Please, please don’t continue that tradition, pleads Griffin. “I get so frustrated when I see people heading to their local pond to feed bread to the ducks or geese,” he says. “I know it’s coming from a good place, but it habituates the birds to human contact and creates nuisance birds.”

Bread won’t kill birds, but it has zero nutritional value. And if birds fill up on it, they end up not eating the things they actually need. “Angel wing is a condition birds get when their bones don’t develop properly because they aren’t getting enough nutrition,” says Griffin, and this often occurs because bread is a staple of their diet. If the case is severe enough, birds won’t be able to fly.

A cardinal couple perches on a branch. Cardinals are not migratory birds but stay put in warmer climates of the Southeast United States during the winter. 

Rice – Have you noticed the switch at modern weddings from throwing rice to throwing bird seed? That switch is a good thing but is primarily based on an urban legend you’ve probably heard, that being that the birds who eat uncooked rice explode when the rice expands in their stomachs. This myth is just that, a myth and it is not true. Birds actually can eat rice without the risk of gastrointestinal pyrotechnics. However, just as with bread, rice lacks the nutrition that birds need. They’re likely to gorge themselves on it instead of eating nutritious food, resulting in vitamin and mineral deficiencies and in severe cases death.

Salt – Many of us have birdbaths in our yards and often you will see advice offered suggesting that by adding salt to the birdbath water it will not freeze in the winter. While this may be true, don’t ever salt the water in your birdbath. Yes, in winter, a little salt may help keep the water from freezing, but it can also hurt the birds you’re trying to help. The Royal Society for the Preservation of Birds, a UKbased organization, advises that extreme care should be used when feeding anything with salt to birds. While salt is a part of birds’ normal diet, it’s easy for the tiny critters to overdose. A better method to keep your birdbath from freezing is to float a small object in it and to check it regularly in cold weather.

Milk – Who feeds milk to the local birds? You may not be leaving milk out for birds, but if you’re setting out a saucer of milk for a neighborhood kitty, please don’t. According to the Royal Society for the Preservation of Birds, birds are very lactose intolerant, and milk can cause severe gastric distress. In large enough quantities it can even kill a bird.

Old Sugar Syrup - Hummingbird feeders are a fun way to attract tiny fliers, but leaving one unattended for days and days is a recipe for disaster. Sugar ferments in the sun, and if you’re not careful, you could be getting your flock seriously drunk. If hummingbirds drink too much fermented liquid, it can lead to organ failure and death. Make sure to restock your hummingbird feeder with fresh liquid every three days.

After leaving their southernmost migration areas, hummingbirds reach San Marcos and other Texas cities between mid-March and mid-May. They begin breeding in early April and continue through early September. Hummingbirds still may be feeding their young as late as Sept. 1. The return of hummingbirds each year brings new energy and life to your garden. Filling your feeder with some extrastrength food sure helps these busy birds recover from their long migration, but later in the growing season, nectar sources from your garden will provide an even better food source. So, providing nourishment for hummingbirds is a wonderful thing to do. While I like the old hummingbird feeders I am far more delighted when I see evidence in someone’s yard that they have gone the extra mile and have planted a garden that attracts hummingbirds. You can do it to. Try the following plants and you will be surprised how many hummingbirds visit your yard.

Butterfly bushes - are unbeatable in providing food for hummingbirds and butterflies, as well as a huge range of other insects. Unfortunately, they can be invasive in many areas, so choose sterile hybrids that don’t produce seeds, such as Miss Ruby, which can grow five foot by five foot, or Lo & Behold Lilac Chip, which can grow to be 30 inches by 30 inches. Where butterfly bushes are not invasive, choose Butterfly Heaven, which grows to be six foot by six foot, or Peacock in the English Butterfly Series which can grow to be five foot by five foot.

Cross Vine and Trumpet Vine – Both cross vine and native trumpet vine are vigorous and flamboyant self-clinging vines. You can grow these vines on a trellis or sturdy arbor, or allow them to scramble through established shrubs and small trees because they will cling to bark like ivy.

Scarlet Beebalm - This is another tough native that is a real hummingbird favorite and one of the most colorful perennials for the flower garden. Sadly, native species are prone to mildew, although keeping the soil moist will help to prevent this problem. Try one of the newly introduced mildew-resistant varieties, or the even hardier, lavender-flowered beebalm.

A few other suggestions

– You might also want to plant any native sage, (salvia) - I really like autumn sage (salvia gregii). Or try coral honeysuckle, Texas lantana, Turk’s cap, yellow bells flame acantus, or native hibiscus, all will be much appreciated by the hummingbirds in your neighborhood.

I am fond of the birds that visit my garden and I encourage you to attract them to your garden too, just be sure to give them the kinds of foods they need and you will be able to enjoy their visits for many years to come. If you want to read more on this, a longer version of this article is available on my blog at

Joe Urbach is the publisher of and the Phytonutrient Blog. He has lived in the Central Texas area for over 30 years. Urbach is a certified Texas Master Gardener from Hays County and is currently serving as the director of training. For more information on the Master Gardener program contact the Hays County AgiLife Extension Service at 512-393-2120.

San Marcos Daily Record

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P.O. Box 1109, San Marcos, TX 78666