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A Christmas tree for the birds. December 15, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here today to talk about making Christmas bright for your feathered friends. Something that’s fun for you and your family and good for the wild birds is an outdoor Christmas tree just for them. Here’s how to make one:

First, you need to choose the right tree. Since, between the birds eating the decorations and the weather, the tree won’t look picture-perfect for long, I suggest that you choose a tree in your backyard rather than in front. That way, you can enjoy the view without worrying about what the neighbors will think. But about that view: You’ve probably noticed that it’s cold outside. You want to be able to watch the birds enjoying your treats without having to join them in the wintry blasts. So choose a tree that you can watch from a place you and the family often spend time in: the kitchen, perhaps.

No classic Christmas-tree style evergreen in view back there? Well, you have three options: Choose a deciduous tree with lots of small, low branches that you can see easily, or a large bush, or set up a fresh-cut tree outside where you can watch the show. (If you choose this option, make sure it’s securely staked to the ground. And remember: You can set it out in a more obscure part of the yard as a brushpile shelter for birds and other wildlife once it’s past the Christmas-tree stage. That way, you’re treating the birds twice.) 

Once you’ve selected your tree or shrub, it’s time to get busy with the decorations. Do you have ears of dried ornamental corn or wheat shocks left over from your autumn decorations? Great! Hang those ears of corn and individual wheat stalks on your tree. Make garlands of popcorn, cranberries, and raisins and wrap them ’round the tree. Use a needle and thread to make hanging loops at the top of in-the-shell peanuts and hang them individually like ornaments.

Ditto for doughnuts. Tasha Tudor liked to hang full-size homemade doughnuts on red ribbons on her “bird tree,” but buying mini-doughnuts works for me. If I’m indulging in a box of doughnuts, I tend to go for powdered, cinnamon-coated, or glazed. But forget the fancy ones when you’re choosing doughnuts for the birds: You don’t want them to end up covered in sticky goo. They’ve got enough to deal with out there! Give them plain cake-style doughnuts. (And of course it’s fine to buy a box of discounted stale doughnuts. The birds will love them anyway.) No chocolate, though! It’s poison to wild birds as well as pets.

Hanging strands of millet—the kind you buy in bags for parakeets–is a great idea. If you’ve saved whole dried sunflower heads to set out for wild birds, you can put them on the tree, too. Ditto for dried grass heads, even weedy ones like foxtails. What’s weedy to us is nourishing to wild birds (and I think foxtails are beautiful, anyway).

Here’s a fun-to-make treat you can hang on the tree as well. Take slices of white “balloon bread” (the soft, squishy bread like Wonder Bread—birds prefer white bread to more nutritious, darker types) and use cookie cutters to cut them into decorative shapes. (You can set the scraps out on your feeding platform or tray or in a sheltered spot on the ground and the birds will say thank you.) Allow the shapes to dry out and harden a bit, then coat them with peanut butter (plain or crunchy) and press birdseed into the peanut butter. String and hang. You can stuff  pinecones with peanut butter, roll them in seed, and hang them up, too.

You can also string and hang stale sugar cookies or, say, oatmeal raisin cookies. Or crackers, if you can figure out how to keep them from shattering when you push the needle and thread through them.

Other simple treats are dried apple rings or fresh apple slices, or whole crabapples if you can find them for sale. All kinds of dried fruit make high-energy treats. That’s true of chunks of granola bars (no chocolate, remember), fragments of croissants and brioche, even croutons.

You can buy elaborate edible wreaths and ornaments for wild birds from local stores and online at places like Duncraft (www.duncraft.com). I just saw entire birdhouses made from edibles at a local craft show last weekend. Whether you buy ready-made or make it yourself, the birds will appreciate it. And your whole family will enjoy hours of delight watching them come and go at your “bird tree.”

Fun as a Christmas tree for the birds is to make and watch, there’s an even more important gift you can give wild birds this year: the gift of fresh water. Water is more vital to them than any amount of food, yet studies have repeatedly shown that even dedicated backyard bird feeders don’t typically provide water for the birds that visit them. Now you can buy waterproof heating elements that will keep birdbaths ice-free all winter, or birdbaths with built-in heating elements to make sure your birds have a steady water supply. Please keep your wild birds’ water needs in mind this winter!

Do you already give your backyard birds special treats for winter? If you have favorites I’ve missed, please let me know what they are!



1. Cinj - December 15, 2008

What a creative idea! I love the fact that you’re both decorating and feeding the wildlife. One day soon my little pine tree will be big enough for decorations, right now it’s about 1/2 way buried in snow though.

Good for you, Cinj! Maybe next year!

2. Jen - December 15, 2008

Our church has a tradition to read “The Night Tree” and then make edible ornaments for the animals in the church garden. We always leave a few at the base of the tree for the non-climbing critters too. It’s not too hard to thread pipe cleaners thru cranberries and orange slices. (But I noticed the crans weren’t eaten last year.) Great idea for using stale donuts! They love old biscuits, too. thank you for the reminder to give water.

Great idea for the non-climbing critters, Jen! I’ll bet some carrots, biscuits, and scattered dried corn kernels would go a long way.

3. flandrumhill - December 15, 2008

Cranberries aren’t eaten by ‘my’ wild birds either. On behalf of the birds I’d like to thank you for mentioning their ongoing need for fresh water, especially during the winter months 🙂

Ha! Who could blame birds for turning their beaks up at unsweetened cranberries?! I’ll bet they’d prefer cranberry sauce, just as we do. It’s tempting to put some on a cutout piece of bread, set it out, and see what happens!

4. Victoria - December 15, 2008

Great post! I’m going to try all these ideas out (though I’m not convinced about the doughnuts. I’m fairly convinced the kids will eat them long before the birds get to them, fresh or stale).

Thanks, Victoria! Let us know what happens with the doughnuts. We’re such doughnutholics that we try not to bring doughnuts into the house for any reason, since they tend to “mysteriously” vanish…

5. Cindy - December 16, 2008

Alot of great ideas. I think I will make some ornaments for the birds this week.

Thanks, Cindy! Go for it!!! It’s a great tradition to start with your little girl.

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