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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.

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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