Be Your Own Birder

Cheese Puffs and Other Scraps for Birds

As birders, we always try to offer a diverse array of natural and supplemental foods to birds. Depending on where you live, the climate in your region, and the birds that visit your feeders, you could offer any number of popular or unusual treats, and the birds will enjoy them. My feeders can have some interesting diversity on occasion, but none more fascinating than the weird things that have happened with cheese puffs.

Kitchen Scraps for Birds

Many birders and nature lovers had their first “wildlife” experiences feeding stale bread to birds at urban or suburban parks. When I was very young, I remember my family taking bags of broken chips, crackers, stale popcorn, and old bread down to our local waterfront on Lake Michigan, and scattering them for the gulls to feast.

Ring-Billed Gull - Photo by Randen Pederson
Ring-Billed Gull – Photo by Randen Pederson

Today, having learned more about how bread is only junk food for birds, I do not make it a regular habit to offer large feedings of scraps to birds, no matter what the scraps or the types of birds. Yet there are many food scraps that are suitable for birds to eat, including…

  • Stale or dry bits of harder cheeses
  • Cooked pasta or rice, without sauces
  • Vegetable and fruit trimmings and rinds
  • Eggs and eggshells
  • Stale or broken cereal bits

In small, irregular quantities, these scraps are not terribly harmful to birds – similar to a candy bar, cookie, or piece of fudge for humans. As rare treats, there is no problem with these foods.

Why Cheese Puffs?

In my yard, the most unusual treat has been cheese puffs. You might call them cheese balls, doodles, curls, crunchy puffs, or by any manner of brand names, but they’re all the same – fried or baked bready bite-size nibbles coated in an almost offensive orange shade of supposedly cheddar-flavored powder. Knowing they’re without any real redeeming nutritional value, they aren’t a frequent item in my cupboards or pantry, but I do like them on rare occasions. I’m not particularly loyal to any one brand, and I like both the “puffy” and “crunchy” varieties with equal aplomb, though not extraordinarily hot or spicy flavors.

Crunchy Cheese Curls - Photo by Jeff Eaton
Crunchy Cheese Curls – Photo by Jeff Eaton

On a few occasions, I’ve offered these treats to birds. It may be because a particular batch had too much grease or oil and the last bits in the bag aren’t palatable to me, or perhaps I tried a new brand and the flavor – completely artificial though it is – may not be quite right. On these rare occasions, the unexpected orange bits have ended up as bird food.

What the Birds Have – And Haven’t – Eaten

Birds are used to unusual foods, and adventurous species – often corvids – are very willing to experiment with new edibles. When I once offered puffy cheese curls to the western scrub-jays (now Woodhouse’s scrub-jays after being split in 2016), the younger birds in my family flock didn’t quite know what to make of the orange cheesiness. So, naturally, the jays did what they did with other relatively oblong treats from my feeders – they weighed each bit carefully, selected just the right morsel, and proceeded to meticulously and thoughtfully bury it in the yard.

It wasn’t a peanut, but oh well.

More recently, the common grackles have found the crunchy cheese curls to their liking in my Florida yard, more or less. They’ll also weigh and sort through the few in the dish, then meticulously break their chosen puff into different bite-size chunks, nibbling away as they munch, or even dunking the puff into the bird bath first. With the large flock of grackles that often descend on my feeders, it doesn’t take long for a small handful of cheese curls to disappear – after they’ve carried their bounty around the yard with pride.

Common Grackle - Photo by cuatrok77
Common Grackle – Photo by cuatrok77

Treats Only

I must stress that these unusual foods are only offered to birds as exceedingly rare treats (in fact, I’ve only offered birds cheese puffs once in the past three years). No junk food should be a regular part of a healthy diet for any animal – bird, cat, dog, dolphin, bear, or human. Yet a rare and unexpected treat can be eaten without undue harm. If the food is edible to you, it will be edible to birds. It is no healthier or nutritionally useful for the birds than it may be to you, but it can nonetheless be eaten without severe, long-lasting problems.

A problem does occur, however, when the scraps, treats, and other less healthy foods aren’t carefully monitored. If, for example, you were to feed scraps to birds at a large local park – you may only do so once every few months, but what about other visitors? If 100 different people offer birds something very unhealthy just once every 100 days (less than four times per year), the birds could be eating a junk food diet every day of the year.

Friendly Ducks - Photo by Chuck Allen
How much have these ducks been fed? – Photo by Chuck Allen

I do not advocate or support feeding birds unhealthy foods in unknown, public spaces at any time. Not only can you not gauge just how much unhealthy food the birds may receive, and therefore can’t determine how nutritionally sound their overall diet may be, but many municipalities have laws against feeding birds in parks and public spaces. Furthermore, even if the practice is allowed, it sets a poor example for others who may witness the feeding but not realize that these foods should only be very rare and unusual treats for birds, rather than regular staples of their diets.

Scraps I Offer – and Why

In my yard, where I know birds get primarily sunflower seed, quality seed mixes, fresh nectar, dried mealworms, and small quantities of peanuts most regularly, I will occasionally offer unusual scraps. In addition to cheese curls, I have added the following to my own feeders:

  • Older fruits that are past my own tastes, such as slightly wrinkled blueberries, too-soft strawberries, or chunks of bruised apples
  • Vegetable trimmings, such as the heel ends of cucumbers or carrots that don’t make it into salad, or the occasional potato peel
  • The dregs of a cereal bag, filled with crumbs, shreds, and broken pieces that aren’t tasty in a bowl of milk
  • The stale heel of a bread crust if it is too hard or otherwise unable to repurpose into garlic toast or homemade stuffing

On average, I only add one of these treats to my feeding area every 4-6 weeks, and then only for a day or two. The birds do not rely on such unusual fare, nor is it offered with any consistency or regularity. Furthermore, the birds aren’t the only recipients – they also compete with the squirrels for these treats, and often the squirrels are quick to get most of the bounty. Surprisingly, however, the squirrels completely disdained the cheese curls, even after sniffing them repeatedly. The grackles simply didn’t mind.

Squirrel Hoping for Something Better - Photo by Chris Murphy
Squirrel Hoping for Something Better – Photo by Chris Murphy

But why do I offer these scraps at all? In simplest terms, I don’t like waste of any kind. I’d rather the birds and squirrels get a rare and unusual treat than see even more trash dumped into the bin (I don’t have an option for composting at this time). At least, in some small way, the scraps are more useful than filling a dump.

Always in the Trash

Some scraps should never be given to birds, no matter how rarely or infrequently the offering. No foods – of any kind – that are moldy, rotten, foul, fetid, rancid, or septic should ever be fed to birds. If the mere sight or smell of the food would make your stomach twist and cause grave fear of food poisoning, it’s never suitable for any other creature to eat (admittedly, if you’re feeding vultures in your yard, that could be different, but let’s not worry about that odd eventuality).

If You Offer Scraps

We all have to be our own birders, and that includes feeding birds in the ways that are most comfortable for us. I would hope that everyone would consider the birds’ best welfare and balance those nutritional needs with a bird feeding budget, desire to avoid food waste, and watching the fun antics as birds experiment with different foods. Whatever and however you may – or may not – feed scraps to birds, choose the foods you offer responsibly and with thoughtfulness and care, and the birds and other wildlife in your yard will enjoy the feast, no matter how odd the occasional offering may be.

Cheese Puffs - Photo by Mike Mozart
Cheese Puffs – Photo by Mike Mozart

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