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Do Peanut Butter & Wedding Rice Hurt Wild Birds?

So I got in trouble again recently…

A few weeks ago, I repeated some {ahem} 'advice' about what to do with your leftover cut Christmas tree. I said you had two main choices: Either prune off the branches and use them to protect pansies over winter or to mulch azaleas and rhododendrons; or "stand the tree up in your backyard unpruned and cover it with suet feeders and big globs of peanut butter to create the most natural bird feeder imaginable." The latter is actually my preferred use, because the birds you nurture and attract are also the best eaters of insect pests in the Spring and Summer.

I don't remember who I originally stole the idea from, but people love it. It's a great winter activity for kids; and in addition to the food you've adorned it with, the actual tree provides protection and shelter for the birds, which you don't get with regular feeders or suet feeders on deciduous trees.

But then Kathy in Mount Rainier, Maryland wrote: "Don't use your old Christmas tree as a bird feeder by spreading peanut butter on the needles. Peanut butter can gag birds and they die. Peanut butter is not a natural food for birds."

This got me worried. I had picked up that tip from another source long ago; and what if they were wrong and she's right? I don't want to be killing no birds!

So I started to research the topic and immediately fell into a swamp. It's not really addressed in primary sources; the closest I could come was an Audubon Society kids' craft project that says "make a bird feeder using pinecones, peanut butter with corn meal and bird seed." Their only 'warning' was about not doing this with kids with peanut allergies.

Most articles that addressed any potential bird danger treated it as a hoax or 'old wives tale'/rumor kind of thing. But I noticed that most of these brush-offs didn't involve quotes from any researchers or experts.

A big exception—and one of the best articles I found—was at "Family Corner dot com", written by Amanda Formaro, a crafting guru with a very impressive resume and three websites of her own (here's one: CraftsbyAmanda.com). She quotes two excellent primary sources: Kim Calcagno, a Refuge Manager for the Audubon Society of Rhode Island who says there's no risk; and Bill Thompson III, editor of the magazine 'Bird Watcher's Digest' who agrees, but says it can't hurt to mix in some whole oats, cornmeal and raisins to make it less sticky.

As I scanned through article after article, the vast majority of people with real birding knowledge seemed to echo the words of the magazine editor; there's no known danger, but it can't hurt to mix in some 'grit' to make the peanut butter less sticky.

('Grit' is 1. A personal trait that I probably have too much of. 2. A family newspaper published in Williamsport, PA and 3. A substance some birds eat to improve their digestion; like sand and finely crushed eggshells.)

The grit of choice for peanut butter and pinecone projects seems to be cornmeal. A Cornell website that Amanda's article referenced puts it pretty succinctly: "There is no documented evidence [of harm]. However, mixing the peanut butter with grit or cornmeal will break up the stickiness if you are concerned."

BUT I kept digging; with me, research is limited only by deadlines, not common sense or time management. And so I eventually found an article at the University of Illinois Extension website that mostly quoted experts who repeated the standard "we've never seen any proof of this".

But they also included the story of a woman who had been a volunteer at 'the Willowbrook Nature Center in DuPage County'. She recounts that several years before, "about 10 dead birds were brought to the Center with peanut butter in their beaks or gullets," which was enough for the Center's vet to say "we should tell people to put some grit in it or don't use peanut butter at all."

So now I'm a grit man. Although with peanut butter being so expensive, I think I'll just focus on adorning my discarded Christmas trees (and regular, in-the-ground ones) with suet cakes, which are a great high-energy food for birds in winter and have never been a source of controversy. Same for meal worms; high-energy and exactly the kind of food (insects) you want your winter fed birds to eat for you in Spring in Summer. (Some bird food 'mealworms' are actually dried caterpillars, which is exactly exactly what you want your wild birds to eat!)

Oh—and that other big concern? The one about birds exploding after they eat rice thrown at weddings…? That one is easy; total myth. Rice is a grain, which birds naturally eat. In fact, some birds are a serious problem in rice fields. So no explosions; it's even on Snopes!

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