SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) – Do you feed birds in your yard? If so, you are part of a large club of over 50 million Americans and part of a tradition that’s been around for over a hundred years.

Many enjoy the thrill of seeing birds up close, right outside their windows. WSAV NOW spoke with Georgia Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Biologist Todd Schneider about safe ways to enjoy them.

What birds might people in Savannah during this current season?

During the winter, there are going to be things like American goldfinch, tufted titmice, Carolina chickadees, some of the woodpeckers — downy woodpeckers and red-bellied woodpeckers — house finches and things like that, pretty much. There’s about a dozen species that will come to the Savannah area in the wintertime and come to feeders.

What’s unique about these birds or what might people be surprised to know about them?

It’s kind of interesting because some like goldfinches, they do breed in Georgia, in pretty much the northern part of the state, the northern 2/3rds, but they’re actually pretty nomadic during the winter, so they will move around. Another one, that’s very nomadic is cedar waxwings, sometimes you will see them in big numbers. Now cedar waxwings don’t come to bird feeders for feed. They eat a lot of fruits and things like that, so they might be in somebody’s yard eating some holly berries or things like that. But they’re also nomadic during the winter, so they’ll move around to food resources and kind of move back and forth or just keep moving around. And flocks could be small, they could be very large in some cases, numbering dozens or hundreds of birds.

What type of bird feed works best in the Savannah region?

The best overall type of food for them is black sunflower seed, so they call it the oil sunflower seed. Most birds that come to feeders will eat that. Some, like goldfinches, will eat it, but they prefer thistle feed which is much more expensive, and there are some birds that eat millet like chipping sparrows and a few other species. But most of them will eat the black sunflower seeds, so that’s the best one overall.

One thing to do, you want to make sure you keep your feeders clean. So it’s good every couple of weeks or every time you change out the feed, if they are not eating feed that much would be to clean the feeders with a solution of 10% bleach, so basically one portion of bleach to nine portions of water. What you do is you soak it, scrub it down, rinse it off really well, let it dry really thoroughly so the feed doesn’t get wet. That’s an important thing a lot of people don’t do, is clean the feeders well. So that’s my biggest recommendation — make sure you clean the feeders well.

What type of drink is best for birds?

For most birds, just water. You can have a bird bath or a little water source. They get a lot of their water from puddles and places like that, so you really don’t need to put that out there. They will bathe in it. You definitely want to keep any type of bird bath clean. So that’s something that you probably want to drain every couple of days and then use a bleach solution on that, there again, wash it, rinse it thoroughly, and then let it dry, and then you can put water in it again. But that’s something that generally, in Georgia, we don’t have as much of an issue with because there’s certainly usually water puddles and other water sources around and the birds usually can metabolize water out of the seeds in a lot of cases too.

What foods and drinks should people avoid feeding birds?

Hummingbirds are one, you feed them nectar. Putting the red food color in or buying nectar with red food coloring, in the past, I don’t know if it’s presently the same situation but in the past, red food coloring was thought to be harmful. So, pure sugar water works well for them. It’s one part sugar for four parts water. You boil it down thoroughly and then you put it in the feeder and then you want to maintain that. When it gets warm out, you really want to reduce the amount of time it’s out in the heat, and then obviously clean it out regularly.

You don’t want to feed them bread. Basically, human types of foods, that’s not good at all and certain types of nuts might be an issue. You can put peanuts out there, they are generally OK. I would avoid any peanuts that are heavily salted or anything like that. Things like bread, table scraps, those are not good at all, for the most part.

Something else to try and avoid, there are some species of plants that people plant in their yards that are pretty and they look attractive, and the birds will eat them, but they are actually toxic. Things like nandina, which is a sacred bamboo, it’s a horticultural plant, people plant it, it gets real pretty, red foliage, gets red berries, it actually draws arsenic from the soil so a lot of times, you get waxwings or robins or other birds eating those fruits and dying from arsenic poisoning.

How does providing feed and water for birds help them?

In some cases, it can help increase survival. Some birds, especially in cases further north, in general, really draws birds into people’s view, so it’s a conservation and tool in that people become familiar with the birds and what you’re familiar with to you tend to like or love, that’s probably the most important aspect. It’s a tradeoff because by drawing birds in, into a situation where they are concentrated, you can potentially spread disease. That’s the reason why we really recommend cleaning the feeders well. But there’s also benefits. There are some minor benefits for some species. In general, though most of the birds get their food from the wild.

What should someone do if they have a bird’s nest in their tree?

Old nests, most birds don’t reuse those nests, a few species might. If it’s in a shrub, you can just leave it alone or if you want to remove it you can remove that. If it’s an active nest, meaning it has eggs or young in it, you cannot legally remove it or touch it, or do anything with it. If people have issues, they can get in contact with us, if there’s something where say it’s built up on their house and it’s kind of attacking them, or has nestlings, something like that, we can talk them through that process but it’s really a situation where the best thing to do is leave it alone.

Is it normal for people to collect bird nests?

It’s not normal and not legal. So, any bird’s nests, feathers, eggs, even if it’s a shed feather, any parts are not legal for the average person to have and that’s part of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which is the federal protection overlying most bird species. So, it’s not something that people should be doing. If they have some, they can just get rid of them to come into legal compliance.