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Feeding the birds of winter. December 6, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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All three of your bloggers here at Poor Richard’s Almanac—our friend Ben, Silence Dogood, and Richard Saunders—have a soft spot for the birds that visit our feeders each winter. Silence and I like to take computer breaks by standing at our back deck door or front windows and watching the variety and interplay of birds. We think Richard has arranged a feeder view out of every one of his windows!

Here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home Silence and I share in the precise middle of nowhere, PA, our feeder setup is pretty straightforward, and so is our seed selection. We have a cabin feeder in the front yard (the kind that’s shaped like a cabin—ours is wood—with clear panels in front to check the seed level and a roof that lifts up for refilling). In the back, we have a suet feeder with a squirrel guard that holds preformed suet blocks; two tube feeders, one the classic clear plastic Droll Yankees tube with steel perches and opening guards (no squirrel has managed to destroy it in umpteen years) and one wire mesh tube with a lift-up top for refilling; and one dome feeder with a tray under a large plastic dome.

Our seed selection is equally straightforward. We do enjoy choosing the “flavors” of suet blocks we set out for our woodpeckers and chickadees, but from our observations, they’re not picky when it comes to suet. We abandoned expensive Nyger when we a) discovered that finches seemed to love black sunflower seed every bit as much and b) found that Nyger was super-susceptible to clumping and molding when it rained, however we tried to protect it. So now we feed black sunflower seed with a portion of white millet mixed in, and have not had a bird turn its beak up so far.

We did agree to provide one extra indulgence this year: a mix of the larger grey-striped sunflower seed and (eeeewwww!!!!) dehydrated mealworms in the dome feeder. (But we assure you we’ve always had tons of birds without this “extra.”) And we do think it’s essential to sprinkle some seed on the ground under the feeders for ground-feeding birds like juncos, cardinals and mourning doves; other birds and #$!@%!! squirrels will make sure more falls to the ground as they feed.

If you love winter birds as we do, it can be tempting to blow your budget on the many “gourmet” bird-seed blends available. Packed with berries, nuts, and other high-end ingredients, they look good enough to eat: trail mix for birds! But, as is the case with so many dog and cat foods, savvy marketers are appealing to us, not to the birds (do dogs really care if they’re eating filet mignon?).

Silence and I like to use the cheese comparison when shopping for birdseed. We love cheese, and are magnetically drawn to the most expensive cheeses in any store: the artisanal cheeses, the creamy Bries and Camemberts, the wine-soaked Drunken Goat, the ones encrusted with herbs or spices, the flaky, aged parmesans, the British Cheddars, a wedge of Roquefort. But if we actually bought these cheeses, our budget would be blown skyhigh before we ever reached for an actual grocery item. What to do?

Well, here’s what we do: We buy Cracker Barrel Aged Reserve New York Cheddar as our go-to cheese, and the best crumbled blue, Gorgonzola, and feta we can find for our salads. We’ll choose one cheese indulgence a week: a wedge of Jarlsberg, Asiago, or Maytag blue; a block of fresh feta in brine; a block of Black Diamond Cheddar; a wedge or wheel of Brie. This allows us to enjoy a feeling of decadence while staying on-budget.

We suggest that you adopt this policy, as we have, to keep your birdfeeding expenses under control. Our indulgence this year was the striped sunflower and mealworm combo. Yours could be the occasional bag of gourmet birdseed. But the basis of your feeder program, in our opinion, should be black oil sunflower seed, enhanced with millet and supplemented with suet blocks. This will both keep your costs down and your birds happy.

Where are the cardinals?!! December 13, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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We’ve been having an unusually cold winter so far here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home our friend Ben and Silence Dogood share in the precise middle of nowhere, PA. Nights have been in the teens for weeks, causing both of us to shudder as we hear the furnace running all night, despite the thermostat being turned down to a warm and welcoming 50 degrees F. (It’s supposedly burning fuel oil, but it might as well be burning money as far as we’re concerned.) Given the extreme early cold, you’d expect—at least, we’d expect—an unusually large number of birds at our feeders.

So far, that hasn’t proven to be the case. We have a nice flock of chickadees and titmice, a pair of white-breasted nuthatches, a large flock of sparrows, our resident goldfinches in their drab winter disguise, a few house finches, a pair of juncos, red-bellied, downy, and hairy woodpeckers, a bluejay, and a lone pair of cardinals. Normally, we’d have a large flock of juncos (one of our favorite birds), maybe four bluejays, more house and purple finches, and about ten cardinals. Where are they?!

Not that the feeders aren’t emptying quickly enough, mostly thanks to a large contingent of the fattest squirrels in Pennsylvania. Our friend Ben read in today’s paper that squirrel season starts today, and God knows, ours would make some mighty fine eating. (Burgoo, anyone?)

Their appetites would be aggravating enough, but the miserable marauders are trying to eat our feeders along with our birdseed. I wonder if spraying the outsides of the feeders with the “Phooey!” spray we use to keep our black German shepherd, Shiloh, from consuming our rugs and woodwork would prove to be a squirrel deterrent? Hmmm. 

But I digress. Has anyone else noticed a dearth of birds at the feeders, or the absence or scarcity of some regular visitors? If so, please tell us what’s happening at your feeders!

A collection of cardinals. February 1, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening, homesteading.
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood would just like to boast a bit about the large flock of cardinals, including six brilliant red males, that appeared at our cabin feeder yesterday afternoon. Of course, we always have cardinals at our cottage home, Hawk’s Haven, located in the precise middle of nowhere, PA. But six males at once! This is a first for us. Backlit by the snow, they looked like they were posing in hopes that a famous nature photographer would happen by. (No such luck. Our friend Ben and Silence are both photographically challenged.)

After speculating about whether these cardinals had finally come far enough south to reach our property, or had migrated back to their northern breeding grounds with the lengthening days, our friend Ben had a rush of brains to the head (in the immortal words of a friend’s mother) and picked up the phone. Fortunately, I caught our expert birding friend, Rudy, just before he raced out the door for an annual hawk count.

Turns out that these cardinals are actually local residents. “When there’s snow and ice and it’s bitterly cold, cardinals have trouble finding food,” Rudy told me. “So they leave their usual territories and band together to look for sources of food like people’s feeders.” Wow, what a great reason to keep those feeders filled!

Cardinals aren’t too fond of tube feeders, preferring to feed on the ground or on a wide ledge like the ones on cabin-style feeders (also called hopper feeders for reasons unknown to our friend Ben; they look just like little cabins to me). We see them on the ground beneath our tube feeders, which we keep filled with black-oil sunflower seed, a favorite of many kinds of birds,* and both on our cabin feeder and on the ground beneath it, as well as perched in surrounding shrubs waiting their turn. Unlike the tube feeders, we keep the cabin feeder filled with a wild bird seed mix.  

But wait, you say: Don’t cardinals prefer safflower seed? In a word: no. But unlike most birds, cardinals will eat safflower seed when nothing better’s on offer, which is why people sell bags of safflower seed or a safflower/sunflower mix as “cardinal’s delight.” I suppose the idea is to deter other birds and encourage cardinals, but our friend Ben says forget that. Choose a good all-purpose wild bird mix that will attract an abundance of cardinals, chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, wrens, sparrows, doves, bluejays, woodpeckers, juncos,  and other feeder favorites. Then sit back and enjoy the show!

While I had him on the phone, our friend Ben had another cardinal-related question for Rudy. I always think of male cardinals as a deep red. But the males in this flock, and many others I’ve seen this past year, are a brilliant red that actually looks fluorescent. It of course occurred to our friend Ben that this might be an effect of their snow-white backdrop, but there was a little problem with this hypothesis: They’d also looked fluorescent when there wasn’t any snow. Was this a mutation that had occurred as cardinals began establishing their year-round territories farther and farther north?

Again, the answer was no. Rudy explained that cardinals moult in late summer or early fall, so I had been seeing them in their immaculate new plumage. As spring turns to summer, their feathers become worn and lose their brilliance, so they look darker and duller red. Oh. Thanks, Rudy, for once again straightening our friend Ben out.

So that’s our cardinal story. What’s yours?

* Yes, our friend Ben realizes that it’s grammatically correct to say “kinds of bird,” not “birds,” but it sounds awkward so I’m not doin’ it.

Don’t stop feeding the birds! March 26, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening, homesteading.
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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here to remind all you gardeners and homesteaders that it’s not yet time to put away the birdfeeders. It may look like spring, with the robins returning and the bulbs in bloom, but until the soil is warm and insect life is abundant, the birds still need your help. In fact, experts say that now is the most important time to feed the birds. After all, they’ve just completed a grueling return migration and they’re preparing for courtship, nest-building, and egglaying. All these activities require a lot of energy—and there are few bugs and pretty much no seed- or nectar-bearing plants out there to feed them.

I do realize that you may not want a litter of feeders—not to mention seed hulls and other detritus—spoiling your lovely spring landscape. And I don’t blame you! One of my primary winter feeders is a big, rustic hopper feeder that’s on a tree over one of my prettiest garden beds. In spring, the bed is full of beautiful blooming bulbs. So when I see the first sign of shoots emerging, I simply stop filling that feeder. But I keep the tube feeders going until it’s warm enough to set plants out on the deck. You might want to keep one or two tube feeders filled, and clean and store the rest. And you can always move the feeders to a less conspicuous part of the yard.

Of course, lots of folks enjoy feeding the birds year-round and think that their colorful antics enhance the garden. (If you’re one of them and you don’t know Birds & Blooms magazine, check it out—I think you’d enjoy it.) I set out feeders at the end of summer last year just to see what would happen, and loved seeing the goldfinches clustering round with their bold yellow plumage (in fall, they moult and become a much less conspicuous yellow-olive). So I think this year I’ll keep a tube feeder up for them year-round, filled with their favorite Nyjer seed. There are always goldfinches back in the meadow garden, but the tube feeder will bring them closer so I can enjoy the show!  

Don’t forget the water, either. It’s even more important than food. Luckily, birdbaths come in so many styles that it’s easy to find one that will be an asset in your landscape rather than an eyesore. And you can always tuck one discreetly among plants at ground level—they don’t have to be on pedestals (unless, of course, you have outdoor cats in your neighborhood!). Keep in mind that birds like shallow water—no more than an inch or two deep—so if your birdbath is too deep, add some pebbles so the birds can perch safely while they drink or bathe. And please hose it out every day or two so the water stays fresh and mosquito-free.

So keep a feeder or two going and add a birdbath to your yard. Just these two simple steps are all it takes for your backyard birds to enjoy spring as much as you do.

What about hummingbirds, you ask? When you’re choosing plants for the garden, remember to add a few nectar-bearers like columbines, monarda (bee balm), and trumpetvine for the hummers. If you plant them near the deck, patio, porch, or wherever you enjoy relaxing, you can bring hummingbirds up close and enjoy their antics without having to worry about filling nectar feeders. 

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