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Get out your birdfeeders! September 18, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening, homesteading.
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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here today to talk about getting your yard ready to welcome winter birds. Our friend Ben’s post yesterday about Hawk Mountain and the autumn migration, “A wing and a prayer,” reminded me that the songbirds who spend the winter with us are starting to arrive, and the ones who stay here year-round are finding less and less to eat as the colder weather kicks in. It’s not a minute too soon to start transforming your yard into a bird-friendly paradise that you and your family will love as much as they do.

Okay, what should you do? Here’s a list of 10 things you can do to bring in the birds:

1. Start with sunflower. If you can only do one thing for the birds this fall, get a tube feeder and keep it filled with black-oil sunflower seed. (These are the little black sunflower seeds, not the bigger striped seeds. Studies have shown that songbirds prefer them to pretty much anything.) Store your sunflower seed (or any seed) in tins or plastic food-storage bins to keep out mice and bugs. I prefer tins, either the ones pet stores often give away with pet-food purchases or ornamental ones especially made for birdseed and sold at specialty bird stores like the Wild Bird Centers and Wild Birds Unlimited. Pet stores, garden centers, and home improvement stores also often carry these tins with their wild bird supplies.

2. Turn on to tubes. Tube feeders, that is. I have a Droll Yankees tube feeder that’s weathered winter snow and ice for at least 15 years and shows no signs of deterioration. It has metal feeder ports and perches. Droll Yankees was the originator of the tube feeder, in case you’re wondering. And no, birds’ feet won’t stick to metal perches. That’s an urban legend. However, last year I bought some cheap Droll Yankees Bird Lover’s tube feeders with plastic ports and perches, and saw with amazement that they instantly became my backyard birds’ favorites. Now I keep them up all year, and they’re always doing a brisk business. I suggest that you hang several tube feeders where you and the family can see them from your windows—preferably the windows you’re most likely to be looking out of, like the kitchen windows and the ones in the room where you eat, be it the kitchen, dining room, or breakfast room. If you spend a lot of time in a family room or home office, hang some outside those rooms, too. Fill them all with black-oil sunflower seed rather than a mix: This is the latest and greatest recommendation from the bird experts. Where I live, chickadees, titmice, goldfinches, purple finches, house finches, and even cardinals flock to the tube feeders.

3. Hop to it. Some birds don’t particularly care for tube feeders, and for them, the so-called hopper feeder is a great solution. These are the feeders that tend to look like little cabins that you fill from the top, by lifting up the “roof”—thus, the name “hopper.” Choose a sturdy model that’s easy to fill, and again, site it where you can see it and enjoy the avian action. I have a rustic wood model with clear plastic side panels so it’s easy to see when it’s time for a refill, and it’s attached to a tree trunk in front of one of my living room windows, so I can enjoy the view many times a day as I pass the window. Hopper feeders are the place for that seed mix. Get a good one, with plenty of sunflower seeds and millet. High-end mixes often add Nyger and peanut hearts; low-end mixes tend to have lots of sorghum and cracked corn. I like the middle ground, since I don’t want to bust my budget but do want to actually attract a wide variety of birds. Around here, I see lots of nuthatches, woodpeckers, cardinals, juncos, titmice, and finches at the cabin feeder, as well as the occasional hardy mockingbird.

4. Get down. Lots of birds prefer to feed on the ground, and they include cardinals, juncos, mourning doves, and towhees. You can toss seed directly on the ground to attract these birds, or simply allow them to eat the seed that spills from your other feeders (birds are really good at scattering seed) rather than compulsively cleaning it up. Speaking of which, this is why I don’t advise hanging feeders from your deck railing—way too much work involved cleaning up seed and bird, uh, poop.

5. Gimme shelter. Birds need getaways where they can escape predators, and sheltered spots where they can take refuge from bitter cold, harsh winds, and other winter horrors. A dense hedgerow is great for this. The best bird hedgerows aren’t cruelly sheared shrubs, but instead are a mix of bird-friendly shrubs and small trees allowed to grow naturally. Viburnums, privets, rugosa and other hip-producing roses, crabapples, raspberries, wineberries, elderberries, and other fruit-producing plants are great for this. So are bird-friendly specimen trees like Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana), which provide both food and shelter.

6. Grow your own seed. Maybe it’s too late to try growing your own birdseed this year, maybe not. Yes, you can actually grow a whole birdseed garden, with corn, millet, sorghum, safflower, sunflowers, amaranth, and the like. If you’ve got the room and the inclination, I think this would be a lot of fun. But if you’re an ornamental gardener, simply planting things like coneflowers (Echinacea spp.), black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia spp.), ornamental sunflowers (Helianthus spp.), tickseed (Bidens spp.), and other seed-bearing plants, and then leaving them in the garden after they’ve formed seedheads, will give the birds (especially finches) a huge treat. You can always clean up the garden before growth begins again in spring. Veggie gardeners, birds adore pumpkin and winter squash seeds, so when you’re cleaning them out, set the seeds out, pulp and all, for your feathered friends.        

7. Make a PB&J. Lots of birds love peanut butter and bread, and a surprising number also enjoy jelly (orioles, especially). Unfortunately, experiments have shown over and over that birds love white bread best, so save your multigrain or whole-wheat bread for your family and treat your birds to cubes of white bread smeared with peanut butter and/or tiny cubes of PB&J. You can also feed birds peanut butter in other ways to help them have some quick energy for facing the cold. My favorite is stuffing pine cones with peanut butter and then rolling them in birdseed and hanging them in the branches of nearby shrubs. Do birds prefer smooth or crunchy peanut butter? Conduct your own backyard experiment and see for yourself!

8. Don’t fight fat. Unlike ours, birds’ metabolisms can use as many calories as they can get. That’s why peanut butter and suet are such great options—they’re both calorie-dense. Suet is now available in premade cakes, so unless you simply want to head to the butcher counter of your local grocery and ask for unrendered suet, you can stock up on suet cakes for your woodpeckers, titmice and chickadees. You’ll find as many flavors and combos as there are, say, granolas and other breakfast cereals for us humans. Experiment with different flavors if you want or just buy the cheapest. The birds will thank you either way! You can find suet cages at most bird-supply stores, and boy do they make suet-feeding easy: Hang the cage, pop the door open, pop in a suet cake, close the door, enjoy the show. Replace the cake when the birds have eaten it. That’s all, folks!

9. Just add water. All birds need water, and in winter, water is especially hard to come by, since any sources tend to be frozen. Fortunately, wild bird companies have taken a tip from farmers and downsized their stock-tank de-icers so they’re small enough to fit in bird baths and keep them unfrozen all winter. Birds, like us, need water even more than food. A bird bath with a de-icer will keep your birds happy, as long as you keep it filled with fresh, clean water. Many birdbaths now come with their own de-icers built in; check out the Duncraft catalog or go to www.duncraft.com to check out some examples.

10. Forget fighting squirrels. To read about it, you’d think people enjoyed outwitting squirrels more than they did attracting backyard birds. Sheesh. If your resident squirrel population rips your birdfeeders to pieces, yes, you need to invest in a squirrel-proof feeder (most passionate backyard birdfeeders recommend the heavy-duty metal hoppers with perches that shut down the feeder ports if a squirrel lands on them). Otherwise, I’d say live and let live. The occasional plump squirrel visits my hopper feeder in the winter, but they never dominate or destroy the feeder, so I just let ‘em be and enjoy the show.

Want to take your backyard birdfeeding to a more advanced level? I suggest that you click on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology on our blogroll at right, then head on over to their Project FeederWatch site and check it out. You’ll find plenty of great bird-feeding recommendations. There’s also a Project FeederWatch book, Project FeederWatch: Birds at Your Feeder, that describes each bird, its behavior and feeder preferences. It’s my favorite backyard bird feeding reference. Other great references include Sally Roth’s Attracting Birds to Your Backyard and The Backyard Bird Feeder’s Bible, Don and Lillian Stokes’s The Bird Feeder Book, and the Peterson Field Guides’ Feeder Birds of Eastern North America by birding icon Roger Tory Peterson.  (Hopefully there’s also a volume for Western North America.)

But whether you throw some stale bread on the back lawn or set up a feeding station with dozens of different feeders, all that really matters is that you enjoy the birds who come to your yard. Few things provide as much pleasure over a dull, dreary winter as the cheerful twitter and color of backyard birds. Get a field guide and notebook, and get the whole family involved identifying and enjoying your backyard birds. You’ll be glad you did!

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1. Alan - September 18, 2008

Saw a great squirrel feeder that made having them around worth the frustration at the bird feeder. It was an ear of corn attached to a long springy cord and suspended about 3 inches higher than the squirrel could reach. They jump up and grab the corn cob and spend a few acrobatic minutes bouncing and eating. They don’t seem to mind and you could sell tickets for window seats at the show.

Wish I could find a way to feed the birds we want around here and exclude some pests (starlings and pigeons).

Ha! That does sound good, Alan! Starlings are bad, but fortunately aren’t here long, and usually not ’til spring. And we have mourning doves, but mercifully they stay on the ground and out of the feeders!

2. nancybond - September 18, 2008

I used a 2-litre pop bottle as a feeder last year and the birds loved it. (You can check out the post here, if you like: http://nancybond.wordpress.com/2007/11/21/reduce-reuse-recyclerejoice/) We’ve had a problem with pigeons here this summer, also, but they were after feed that the lady below us was leaving out for them. Once she stopped feeding them, they left (duh!), but I wonder if they’ll return to gather up the leftovers once we start feeding our winter friends. Hope not!

I used one of those soda bottles as a feeder last year, too, Nancy! I bought a little kit (for, if memory serves, less than $3) at the local feed store that included a plastic hanger and feeder port, so even I could instantly transform a soda bottle into a really capacious feeder. It kept the seed out of the weather, so it stayed dry, and best of all, you could easily monitor the seed level through the clear plastic. I had heard of this little recycling trick for years, and when I saw the conversion kit, I just had to try it. Good for you for being ahead of the curve on recycling! And I really love your post’s title. Beautiful!!!

3. Shibaguyz - September 18, 2008

Great reminder for us to get on this! We didn’t put out anything last year but are definitely going to do something this fall/winter. As always, good writing and good ideas. Thanks!

Thanks, guyz! Go for it!!!

4. ceecee - September 18, 2008

I would love, love, love to have multiple bird feeders, but I’m fighting English sparrows right now. I put out BOSS, only to keep them occupied for part of the day. They (about 30) are eating chicken pellet food as fast as I can put it out. I’ve tried everything I can to keep them out of the chicken food/coop. I’m pretty befuddled about it all. They keep my normal song birds, and now migratory birds away. :(

Yikes, CeeCee! I checked one of my bird-nuisance books, Bill Adler Jr.’s Impeccable Birdfeeding (“How to Discourage Scuffling, Hull-Dropping, Seed-Throwing, Unmentionable Nuisances, and Vulgar Chatter at Your Birdfeeder”), in the hope that he’d have some good advice. He noted that English (aka house) sparrows won’t go into a small enclsure to feed, for what that’s worth, but that, as you’ve found, they prefer to ground-feed anyway. I also checked the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website, and, though I found not word one about how to keep them from scaring off songbirds, I did find one totally weird and fascinating fact: They can swim. OMG, they’re as resourceful as rats! Good luck in the struggle.

5. sjones71 - September 19, 2008

Great post. And a nice nudge to me to get moving on my feeder. I always start off with a bang and tend to the feeder at the end of winter and through spring. Then I lapse and countless birdies go hungry! I’ll do my part now to fatten em up!

Good for you! I’ve kept three tube feeders going all year, but today I got some mixed seed and filled up the cabin feeder, too. By November, I’ll have added my biggest tube feeder and the suet feeder to the bird buffet! Kind of a pain to keep them all going, but since outdoor gardening’s done until spring, we have to find new excuses to get outdoors, right?!

6. Cindy - September 19, 2008

Yes, I guess it is getting to be that time. We have a couple of heavy duty tube feeders that have survived the squirrels during the day but they must be brought in each night so the raccoons and deer don’t devastate them. We mistakenly left our peanut feeder up overnight last year and it disappeared. We searched everywhere, thinking the beast that stole it would have dropped it eventually but we never found it.

Yow!!! Those nocturnal critters are something else! Have you seen that wonderful photo of the bear walking off with the birdfeeder (and pole) under his arm? Taking vulnerable feeders in at night sounds like a great idea!

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