Give birds a helping hand
Make your own attractive pine cone bird feeder that not only looks better than plastic bird feeders but is guaranteed to be far more nutritious than anything found in shops. The secret? Yummy yummy dried mealworms (well, we’ve not actually tasted them ourselves so we’ll just have to take the birds’ word for it!).
With nature being nature, when the bugs are having it tough, so are lots of other creatures. With all the cold wet weather the UK has had this year, it’s been a poor year for insects and for hedgerow plants too – so it was always predicted to be a tough winter for the birds as well.
Here is a great 30 minute project to give our feathered friends a helping hand as well as getting up close and personal to the mealworm.
Mealworms are the larvae of the mealworm beetle (Tenebrio molitor) a member of the mysterious sounding “darkling beetles” family. Its Latin name means something “the shadowy miller” and this is a good name for a black beetle that likes to live in flour sacks. These days, they’re commonly fed oatmeal or bran and the larvae are bred for pet food – snakes, lizards, fish and birds all love them. They’re high in protein and cheap to grow. They can also be a useful source of human nutrition (once you get over the “ick” factor!) and are apparently very good fried. But you need to be careful over how they’ve been handled – pet food doesn’t need to be as hygienic as people food, and some breeders use hormones to prevent the grubs pupating. See here (link to be added) if you’re really keen to try some!
- Wild bird seed mix – choose a high quality mixed variety containing millet and sunflower seeds
- Dried Mealworms
You’ll also need:
- Mixing bowl – a medium sized Pyrex dish works fine
- Twine – you could try some red and green raffia for a festive twist
- Scissors – use under supervision
- Pinecones – you could buy them, but unlike money these things genuinely do grow on trees! So pick a few up on your next family walk. Look for big, ripe, wide open cones which have shed their seeds.
- Lots of soap and warm water – for washing lardy hands
For the Bird feeder
Enjoy a walk and collect some pinecones. We sourced ours from a Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris) and a Larch (Larix decidua) in the village churchyard before their big end-of-season clean up.
The lard and high quality wild bird seed were bought from our village shop.
The tub of freeze dried mealworms were bought at Wilkos – I was going to dare Henry into eating one until I saw “made in China” and thought better of it. Again, see here for a better option.
Cut the twine into lengths of up to 25cm. To prevent possible entanglement by the birds, don’t make the lengths too long.
Tie the twine around top of pine cone and put to one side while you make the mixture. Henry was able to easily do his own pinecones while I helped Catherine tie hers.
Leave your lard out for half an hour to soften. If the lard is straight out of the fridge it’s going to be hard, so microwave it in 10 second bursts until it’s nice and pliable, then cube it into a mixing bowl.
Add handfuls of seed and mealworms in equal quantities. The mixture should be kneaded well enough until it’s a sort of cookie-dough consistency (but don’t be tempted to lick the spoon!) and make sure the lard, mealworms and seed are well combined. If it’s too crumbly, with too much seed or worms, it won’t stick effectively to the pinecones. If it’s too lardy, the birds will miss out on yummy mealworms and nutritious seeds and the mixture won’t make as many pine cone bird feeders. Henry was initially grossed out at the prospect of getting his hands dirty with mealworms (Catherine was straight in there) but relented into really enjoying stuffing the gloop into the pine cones!
Fingers really are the best tools, so take small globs of the mixture and wedge into the gaps between the pinecones – push it in deeply. Not only does it hold the mixture firmly in place but also adds a natural challenge for the birds in extracting a meal. If, like Henry, you’re a bit prissy, you could probably get away with using a pallet knife, but in my opinion little fingers give a far superior result.
Smooth over your mealworm marvel and place on a tray in a cool room for the lard to harden once again.
Slowly introduce your treats outside: after all you don’t want the birds to gorge themselves silly on a glut. Tie your pinecone feeder into a tree or bush out of the reach of cats and vermin but with enough cover so the birds feel safe enough to come out and feed. If you can put in view of a window then you can enjoy watching the birds tuck in.