Sunday, May 1, 2011

Eat Like a Bird!

This Northern Parula flew 1,000 miles or more across the Gulf of Mexico – without stopping, eating, or sleeping – before landing in Florida during spring migration. This grueling flight took the tiny bird-- just over 3 1/2 inches long -- somewhere between 18 and 25 hours.

Before setting off on this flight, he spent some serious time fueling up. In the days leading up to his trip, he piled on the calories, ballooning from a lithe 1 ounce or less to a staggeringly obese 2 ounces – virtually doubling in weight. Wired  graphically described this phenomenon of avian gluttony as “the equivalent of having a hamburger for lunch on Monday, and 100 hamburgers for lunch on Friday.”

When Mammy urged Scarlett O’Hara to eat like a bird, this probably wasn’t what she had in mind.

Those of us who enjoy watching birds also pick up strange eating habits during migration. These usually involve consuming large quantities of coffee before sunrise, feeding from ziplock bags filled with trail mix, and toting energy bars bent and flattened from hours in our back packets. Like our avian quarry, birders focus on high-protein, high-energy natural food sources when on the road. Birder snacks of choice usually involve nuts, seeds, whole grains, and/or fruit, often scented with hints of bug spray, sunscreen, and car exhaust. On the other hand, migrating songbirds – even some that typically eat seed – favor the high-calorie goodness of insects and their larvae, food sources most birders tend to avoid.

Still, our eating habits can be frighteningly similar. When shopping for bird seed for my backyard feeders recently, I saw a shiny little bowl filled with freshly shelled Brazil nuts, peanuts, sunflower seeds and unusually fat raisins. I was about to help myself to few bites when I realized it was sample of one of the store’s specialty birdseed mixes.

And it looked better by magnitudes than most of the cheap-ass trail mix I’ve lugged around on birding trips. The woodpeckers around here eat better than I do.

My husband and I joke that someday, we’ll have to buy a bag of that super-fancy fruit-and-nut mix, pour some into a pretty bowl, and feed it to our birder buddies. My prediction is that they’ll think it looks familiar, but assume it’s that pricey brand of organic snack mix they never quite felt like splurging on.

And since it’s near the end of another spring migration season and my Audubon chapter is holding its annual end-of-the-birding-year potluck soon, the occasion for our little experiment is now upon us! MWAA HA HA!

Seriously...I’m not going to do it. But I will do something very much like it. As a tribute to those hard-working birds and my friends who love them, I devised a munchable treat with the same base ingredients as that fancy bird mix – peanuts, raisins, sunflower seeds, and bigger, blingier nuts of some kind. And millet, because almost all birdseed mixes contain copious amounts of it. But being a good citizen, I resisted the urge to take these from a 25-pound bag with NOT FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION printed on it.

Because just plain old nuts and raisins mixed together seem kind of abstemious, particularly for a festive occasion, I spiced them them up and converted them into a sweet-salty-tangy-spicy cocktail nibble. I’ve always been addicted to Indian snack mixes – exhuberently spicy blends of fried grains, nuts, dried fruit, and spices – and I’ve modeled the seasoning in my mix after these. The recipe on which I base my spice mix comes from Madhur Jaffrey's World-of-the-East Vegetarian Cooking.


The optional cayenne chile in my souped-up birdseed mix not only makes me happy (since I love hot stuff) but evokes two rituals familiar to birders. Serious backyard birders know that an effective technique for keeping squirrels off suet and other bird feeder food is to spike it with hot pepper, since squirrels can’t tolerate the taste of it. Birds, on the other hand, can’t taste chiles at all. This evolutionary adaptation both allows the birds an additional food source and enables them to propagate chile plants, whose seeds pass undamaged through their digestive systems: a win-win for both the eater and the eaten.

Spicy, salty, snacky food, of course, also goes beautifully with beer. And for some sociological reason I’m still trying to figure out, serious birders are very often passionate hopheads as well. On the last fall migration count I did, two of the guys on my team brought a nice assortment of microbrews to go with their sack lunches. One of my favorite birding blogs occasionally features knowledgeably written reviews of beers that happen to have birds on their labels. The birds, I suspect, are just a happy excuse to enjoy another beer.

And so is my “birdseed.” Enjoy!


Notes: Jaffrey’s recipe – which uses a different assortment of grains and nuts than I chose to use – calls for raw nuts and grains, all to be separately deep-fried and carefully drained. She assures readers the end result will not be greasy and she’s probably right (she usually is where Indian cooking is concerned). But if you don’t need to double in weight for an upcoming trip or don't want to mess up your kitchen, oven-roasting the nuts or using already-roasted ones will work just fine, at least for the choice of nuts and grains I have used.

Spiced Birder Seed

3 whole cloves

a 3/4-inch piece from a cinnamon stick

½ teaspoon black peppercorns

neutrally flavored oil (such as canola) as needed for frying

2/3 cup roasted, unsalted peanuts (or raw peanuts, deep-fried and drained)

2/3 cup roasted, unsalted cashews (or raw cashews, deep-fried and drained)

1/3 cup shelled, roasted, unsalted sunflower seeds (or raw seeds, deep-fried and drained)

1/3 cup shelled, roasted, unsalted pumpkin seeds (or raw seeds, deep-fried and drained)

4 tablespoons raisins, briefly deep-fried until puffy and drained.

3 cups puffed (NOT raw) millet

2 tablespoons canola or other neutrally flavored oil

½ tablespoon whole black mustard seeds

3 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds

¼ teaspoon ground turmeric

1 teaspoon or more ground cayenne, or to taste (optional)

1 1/4 teaspoons salt

2 1/2 teaspoons sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons ground amchoor

1. Grind the cloves, cinnamon stick, and peppercorns together in a mortar and pestle until powdery; set aside.

2. Combine the nuts, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, millet, and raisins in a large bowl; set aside.

3. Heat a small saucepan over medium heat and add the 2 tablespoons oil. When hot, add the mustard seeds.

4. When the mustard seeds have stopped sizzling and popping, remove the pan from the heat and stir in the sesame seeds, turmeric, and cayenne.

5. Pour the fried seeds, spices and oil over the millet, nut, and raisin mixture. Add the remaining ingredients and stir until the seasonings are evenly distributed.

6. Cool the mixture, then store it in an airtight container.

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