Why Feed the Birds?
I feed the birds at my office and at home although some people question the activity. I also end all my radio shows with "Don't forget to feed the birds." Some gardeners from time to time tell me I shouldn't feed the birds at all because it makes them lazy or "it isn't natural." Adding seed and berry-producing plants to provide natural food in the garden is certainly good to do, but supplementing with bird seed mixes is also recommended as a helpful addition to their diets and an effective way to attract more birds to the garden.
My recommendation to feed the birds started as an attempt to get people to slow down and take time to enjoy nature. At the time, I didn't realize how helpful wild birds are at controlling insects. Bird feeding is easy, doesn't take much time, doesn't cost much, and isn't harmful to them in any way. Providing food is simply a supplement to their natural diet. Most bird experts will tell you the same. A good book on the subject of bird feeding is Attracting Birds to Southern Gardens by Thomas Pope, Neil Odenwald, and Charles Fryling Jr.
There are times of the year that are better for bird feeding than others. For example, birds will appreciate your help more during the winter and summer than in the spring and fall months. You should feed birds year round, but don't expect to see as many cardinals, sparrows, doves, and others in the spring when the juicy insects are plentiful or in the fall while plants are producing plenty of berries and seed.
Because of their different feeding habits, various birds are attracted to different foods. Some birds are almost exclusively seed eaters while others eat both insects and seeds. Among the seed eaters are cardinals, chickadees, finches, nuthatches, titmice, sparrows, juncoes, jays, doves, pheasant, and quail. To attract juncoes, doves, and other ground feeders, put sunflower seed and smaller seed on the ground or in dishes. Finches, on the other hand, prefer hanging feeders filled with black thistle seed. If sprouting occurs under feeders as a result of feeding birdseed and this is a nuisance, try using safflower or peanut hearts. These seed will not germinate under feeders, and birds love them. Many birds love sunflower seed, but be aware that the raw, uncomposted hulls are toxic to plant growth. Expect a dead spot under the feeder (or put the feeder over a paved or mulched area). Cardinals, chickadees, and even finches like safflower seed. Squirrels, jays, and grackles don't like it. Most sparrows don't either.
Probably the best way to feed the birds is to plant or conserve plant varieties that produce edible seed, berries, or nectar. Good choices include yaupon holly, elderberry, serviceberry, camphor tree, hawthorn, dogwood, persimmon, loquat, fig, eastern red cedar, magnolia, crabapple, mulberry, wax myrtle, Mexican plum, black cherry, hog plum, Carolina buckthorn, barberry, burning bush, cotoneaster, American beautyberry, hollies, mahonia, Chinese photinia, roses, rusty blackhaw, viburnum, coral vine, Carolina snailseed, sunflowers, hibiscus, lantana, Turk's cap, coral honeysuckle, poke salet, blackberries, and nasturtiums. The mockingbirds in my garden definitely have a favorite food--it is chile pequin. They eat the small, hot red peppers like jelly beans as fast as they mature. Chile pequin is a perennial in most of the state. Burning bush (Euonymus elata) is another favorite of several bird species.