Keep your feeders well stocked with these safety rules in mind, according to ornithologists.

By Samantha Hunter
July 27, 2020
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Kana Okada

You can enjoy the sights and sounds of birds all year round, although certain times of the year—particularly spring and fall—are considered the best times to view them. Stocking your backyard bird feeder with enticing food is a surefire way to get those fluttering guests to come a-calling. Whether you have seed, suet cakes, or mealworms, you should know that there's a right way to store these perishable items.

We asked two experts, John Rowden, senior director of bird-friendly communities at the National Audubon Society, and Clarissa Palacios Friedman, co-owner of The WildBird Store, to weigh in and offer tips on how best to store it all. 

Keep It Fresh

The biggest mistake people make in purchasing bird food, says Rowden, is buying too much at once. Larger quantities of food are simply harder to keep fresh before offering it to birds. "People may want to stock up in big quantities, but fresher food is better for birds," advises Rowden, "so be aware that storing large quantities will not only be a logistical challenge but may not serve the birds the best in the long run." 

Plus, it's the choice of seed itself. "I think one of the biggest mistakes we can make when purchasing bird food is buying seed, suet, or mealworms that isn't fresh to begin with," adds Friedman. "Oftentimes, bird food is purchased in a convenient place like a big box store or large grocery store where we're already purchasing other items. This is not the freshest option because stores like these tend to stockpile and bulk purchase to drive the cost down. When you purchase from your small local bird store you're more than likely purchasing seed that is bought in small quantities from the freshest sources. Start fresh and that's a big part of providing the best for the birds."

"Keeping your fresh bird food cool, dry and protected by sealing it up in airtight containers is key," says Friedman, whose shop is located in the Sonoran Desert of Tucson, Arizona, known for its extreme heat conditions and desert critters of all kinds that are on a constant mission to get into their bird feed. She points out that plastic storage bags aren't as easy to pour from as a plastic, metal, or a glass container so any of these may be a more convenient option. Metal or glass containers may also be a more suitable storage option than plastic or paper storage bags, Friedman points out, because those aren't mouse-proof. She says that if mice are an issue in your house, this is definitely something to keep in mind. 

Bird Seed

First, think about the type of seed you have. "Bird seed can go rancid, especially those with a high oil content like Nyjer thistle and sunflower," says Friedman. "Storing feed indoors away from the elements and animals is best." Adds Rowden, "Bird seed should be stored in a container that's airtight to prevent moisture and pests from getting into it. Place the bird seed in an area that's not subject to temperature extremes." He also advises that while bird seed can have a shelf life if stored properly, it's best to keep no more than one or two month's worth of seed on hand, and to use up the oldest seed first.

Furthermore, Rowden points out that seed that is bad—moldy or rancid—will start to smell and should not be used. Very clumpy bird seed is an indicator that it may have gotten wet, in which case he advises that if the clumps are not easy to break up, it should be discarded. "If [you] notice any signs of infestation like insect bodies, feces, chewing on the container, [you] should dispose of the seed and potentially think about a better container."

Suet Cakes

Feeding jays, woodpeckers, and orioles? Suet, in particular, should be kept indoors, according to Friedman, who points out that if you live in a warmer climate that it's best to purchase no-melt varieties of suet cakes; these are tan or brown in color rather than white and minimize any mess. "Even more importantly, the suet won't end up on the birds' feathers, where it is nearly impossible for them to remove," says Friedman.

Whereas it's not necessary to refrigerate bird seed, Rowden says that it's helpful for suet because keeping it cold will slow down the life processes of mealworms so they will persist as larvae longer. Suet can also be frozen until needed. Because suet is perishable, it shouldn't be left out for too long. "If birds haven't eaten it in a few days, it can spoil or get rancid," he explains.

Mealworms

For bluebirds, cardinals, and other insect-eating birds, mealworms are the prime treat. "Mealworms are the larvae of beetles and will metamorphose into beetles more quickly at warmer temperatures," says Rowden, "which won't be appetizing for birds." He says that to keep them viable longer, they should be kept in a lidded container with air holes and can be kept in the refrigerator until ready for serving. Friedman adds that freeze-dried mealworms can be stored in a large zip-top plastic bag or other airtight container.

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