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The birds are back! November 6, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening, homesteading.
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And so are we, finally, here at Poor Richard’s Almanac. Hurricane Sandy has restored our power at last. What a relief! What a relief to have running hot and cold water, plumbing, showers, light, heat, cooking, refrigeration, internet access, television, you name it. But the most amazing thing has been the return of the feeder birds.

Sandy apparently blew in all our typical winter feeder birds: the juncos, titmice, chickadees, bluejays, cardinals, house finches, goldfinches, nuthatches, woodpeckers, mourning doves, and so on, along with the residual robins, Canada geese, snow geese, and other migrants. 

Given how cold it is, we’ve been setting out plenty of food for the travelers: black oil sunflower seeds in our tube feeder, mesh feeder, and cabin feeder; peanut-suet blocks in the squirrelproof suet feeder; striped sunflower seeds and mealworms in our tray feeder. It is simply astonishing to see the birds gathering ’round for the morning buffet.

But the other surprise was the birds’ enthusiasm for the English ivy. When we bought Hawk’s Haven, English ivy covered many of the mature trees on the property. It actually flowered and set seed, something few of us have ever seen, something that our feeder birds relished. But this year, we saw the birds take full advantage of the ivy, not just as a food source but as cover from predators. to see the small feeder birds dart into the ivy to take cover from hawks and other predators was simply amazing. Forget ripping out this invasive species! Let’s give it a chance to save our beloved native birds.

Are your feeder birds back?

What’s with the woodpeckers? February 20, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Here at Hawk’s Haven, our friend Ben and Silence Dogood welcome woodpeckers. (Well, except for the one that tried to hammer its way through the bedroom wall one year. Our friend Ben finally resorted to hammering loudly with a fist on the exact opposite side of the wall when it began excavating. Sure enough, after three or four of these episodes, it remembered a pressing engagement elsewhere.)

Typically, we have downy, hairy, and red-bellied woodpeckers here, as well as those other woodpeckerish comedians, the white-breasted nuthatches*. We have rarely—far too rarely, for our taste—seen red-headed woodpeckers, northern flickers, and red-breasted nuthatches here as well. (Where have all the flickers gone, anyway? When we first moved to Pennsylvania, we often saw them.)

We have, sadly, never seen a pileated woodpecker in our yard, though our friend Ben saw an ivory-billed woodpecker once. (Until, that is, Silence pointed out that it was actually a plastic bag that had blown in from the street and gotten caught high up in an evergreen. OFB has seen all manner of rare birds over the years, but they inevitably prove to be, not misidentified birds, but normally inanimate objects that have found themselves in unexpected places. But we digress.)

Point being that we love hosting woodpeckers here at Hawk’s Haven, but around here, they don’t act very woodpecker-like. What do we mean? Well, during breeding season, we do indeed hear them drumming for mates in the trees and see them scouring trunks and branches for insects and insect eggs. But in winter, woodpeckers are supposed to eat suet, right?

So we set up our little suet cage and slide in a square of some enticing suet cake studded with mixed seeds and sporting a name like Citrus Delight, Berry Delicious, Peanut Butter Supreme, or even Energy Bar. Pleased with ourselves for helping the woodpeckers fuel up, we return to the house and wait to see them enjoying their high-cal treat. And wait. And wait.

True, we’ve seen birds eating the suet cakes. Crows especially seem to appreciate them. But woodpeckers? Never. Instead, they seem to favor the same black-oil sunflower seed we set out for our other winter visitors. The small birds—the downy and hairy woodpeckers and the nuthatches—eat them right from the tube feeders. The red-bellied woodpeckers prefer to take them from the cabin (“hopper”) feeder. What’s up with that?

Today, our friend Ben finally spotted a red-bellied woodpecker on the gigantic maple tree where the suet feeder is hanging. “At last!” I thought, calling for Silence. But did the woodpecker actually go to the feeder? Nooooo. Instead, it flew all over the branches, checking them out for pupating and hibernating insects.

Mind you, it’s not that we have the least objection to woodpeckers decreasing our surplus insect population. And we’re happy to keep them well stocked with sunflower seeds. But why aren’t they eating the suet cakes?!

* Silence would like to note, for her fellow stinkbug-haters, that white-breasted nuthatches are said to eat stinkbugs. She’s trying to figure out how to lure a nuthatch into the house to deal with the upcoming annual stinkbug invasion…

It’s National Bird Feeding Month. February 16, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Given the snowy winter we’re having, our friend Ben felt that it was appropriate to point out that February is National Bird Feeding Month. With all the snow cover, our feathered friends will be especially grateful for a little help from us. But what if you’re on a restricted budget and wonder how you’ll stretch it to feed your family, much less wild birds?

Here are a few tips that will work for the frugal and for anyone else, for that matter:

* Stick to the basics, part one. Simple tube feeders, an elevated tray or hopper (cabin-style) feeder, and a cage for suet provide plenty of opportunity for backyard birds to eat. You can find the cabin-style feeders with suet cages attached at either end if you don’t want to buy a separate suet cage, but compare pricing before choosing either option.

* Stick to the basics, part two. Forget the fancy seed mixes if you’re budget-minded. Fill your tube feeders with black-hull sunflower seed (a favorite of most overwintering birds) and your tray or cabin feeder with a basic birdseed mix. (Try to get one with a lot of millet, the small, round, yellow-beige seeds, since most birds prefer them over cheaper food like cracked corn and sorghum, also round but larger and orange. You can always enrich the mix with an added scoop of black-hull sunflower seed.) You can find good prices on seed and suet blocks at feed stores like Agway and Tractor Supply, and don’t overlook your local grocery; ours has started carrying a store brand of birdseed as well as seed and seed mixes from a local feed mill.

* Get down and dirty. I’ve seen and tested some great inexpensive tube feeders, from plastic Droll Yankees feeders for about $7 to a converter kit for about $3.50 that turns a 2-litre soda bottle into a tube feeder.  But if the thought of paying even a penny extra on a feeder is more than you can face, just toss the birdseed directly onto the snow (or ground). Several beloved species of backyard birds, including juncos, cardinals, towhees, and mourning doves, prefer to eat seed on the ground, anyway; you’ll typically find them lurking on the ground under birdfeeders waiting to snap up seed spilled by other birds.

* What about suet? Suet is a preferred food in winter because its high fat content helps fuel the very high-powered metabolisms of birds and keep them going during cold weather. Today’s pre-formed suet cakes, often with seeds and fruits embedded in them, are hugely convenient, and I regularly find them for $1.99 at Agway, Tractor Supply, groceries, and hardware stores. But there are cheaper alternatives: In the winter, our local grocery sells chunks of raw suet in its meat department. You can hang them up in a mesh bag (the kind onions come in) and give your birds high-calorie fuel for a dollar or so. Can’t face suet? There’s an even less expensive option your backyard birds will love: Coat a slice of stale bread with peanut butter and set it out for the birds. If you’re feeling opulent, embed a few raisins in the peanut butter before setting out the slice.

* Water is free. And when every stream and puddle is frozen over, providing a shallow dish or bowl of water can mean more to the birds in your backyard than any amount of food. Sure, the ideal is a heated birdbath that lets the birds sip warm water even in freezing temperatures. But if you can’t afford one, setting out a shallow dish and switching it off with a second dish once the water freezes (so you’ll always have one thawing to replace the one that’s freezing) will doubtless win you bonus points in Heaven. 

A final thought, if it will help you justify that bag of birdseed: If you get as much enjoyment from backyard birdwatching as our friend Ben and Silence Dogood (not to mention our many cats, our friend and fellow blog contributor, Richard Saunders, and our heavy-duty birding friends like our friend Rudy), it’s easy to think of birdwatching as entertainment. Consider how much it costs to take your family to a movie and buy all the swill—I mean, movie food—they insist on eating. Geez, you could treat yourselves to a fancy restaurant and rent the movie on Netflix or get it free from the local library for the same price! But I digress. The point is that you and your family will enjoy hours of entertainment watching the birds in your backyard, for less than $1 a day.

So go for it! Feed the birds, this month and every month (or at least until the weather warms up enough to support the insects birds typically eat through the summer). And enjoy the show.

Easy assistance for backyard birds. January 6, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, homesteading, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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I don’t know about your area, but in the part of Pennsylvania where our friend Ben and Silence Dogood live, it’s been a bitterly cold, snowy winter. And when the ground and natural sources of water like streams and ponds freeze over, backyard birds suffer. Many of us enjoy providing seed and other foods for our outdoor friends over the cold months, but not many people think to provide a source of fresh, unfrozen water. Yet access to water is far more critical to birds’ survival than access to food, just as it is for us and all creatures.

If you’re an avid backyard birdwatcher* who loves feeding the birds, and you’re starting to feel guilty about now because it hasn’t occurred to you to set out fresh water, no worries. Even the most dedicated backyard bird enthusiasts, the ones who participate in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s and Bird Studies Canada’s Project FeederWatch, which tracks winter bird populations at feeders, are slackers where providing water is concerned. According to the wonderful book Birds at Your Feeder by Erica H. Dunn and Diane L. Tessaglia-Hymes, which cites Project FeederWatch data on a species-by-species basis (invaluable if you want to know which birds are likely to turn up in your own backyard and what they prefer to eat), “water was rarely offered where freezing occurs” by the 10,000-plus Project FeederWatch participants, who, by contrast, typically provide food for wild birds year-round.

How can you provide a reliable source of water for thirsty birds when the temperature’s guaranteed to turn a dish, bowl, or birdbath of water to ice? Well, as with many things in life, there’s a high-tech and a low-tech answer.

The high-tech answer (not all that high-tech, fortunately) is to buy an immersible water heater, modified from the ones originally developed for farmers’ stock tanks, to keep the water from freezing. At the low end, you can buy a heating unit; at the high end, you can buy a birdbath with the heating unit built in beneath the bath itself, so you don’t even see it. (In either case, you’ll need a convenient outdoor outlet for the cord.)

Wild bird specialty stores like Wild Birds Unlimited (www.wbu.com) and websites like Duncraft (www.duncraft.com) offer both options. But none of this comes cheap. Duncraft offers an impressive array of  pedestal and ground-level heated birdbaths, as well as some wonderfully convenient styles that attach to your deck railing to bring thirsty birds closer for your viewing pleasure. Prices for these range from $59.95 to $159.95. Ouch! Even if you want to buy a heating unit to drop into your own birdbath, prices range from $42.95 to $49.95. Duncraft’s bargain winter birdbaths are their Solar Sippers, ranging from $19.95 to $29.95. But they’ll only keep the water unfrozen if located in full sun where the temperatures never drop below 20 degrees F. Wild Birds Unlimited has a deck-mounted heated birdbath ($91.99), a heated birdbath with stand($102.99), and a heating unit for your own birdbath ($65.99).

Our friend Ben did mention a low-tech alternative. As with most low-tech options, it’s not as simple as plug it in and forget it. But it’s cheap, easy, and it’s guaranteed not to run up your electric bills. It’s the dual bowl system. Buy two inexpensive but sturdy plastic dog water dishes. Fill one with lukewarm water and set it out for your feathered friends. Check occasionally, and when it freezes, bring it inside to thaw and replace it with the second bowl, now filled with lukewarm water. Continue to alternate bowls as one freezes over and the other thaws, making sure you toss the icy water and refill the bowls with lukewarm water before setting them out. Sturdy plastic dog bowls are indestructible, and cost about $5.95 last time I looked.

There’s another low-tech alternative that our friend Ben prefers, however. It’s the indestructible yet flexible black rubber stock bowl. These containers come in a wide range of sizes and depths, and are typically used for livestock (we use them for our chickens, and they’re also a popular choice—in, of course, a much larger size—for horses). Like Duncraft’s Solar Sipper, the black color absorbs heat, keeping water unfrozen longer. But unlike any birdbath known to our friend Ben, if the water does freeze, you can apply a simple technique for ousting the ice so the bowl is ready for instant refilling: Turn the bowl upside down and stomp on it. The flexible bowl will release the block of ice (as long as it’s not too close to the rim, so there’s room for releasing), and you can refill the bowl instantly with lukewarm water. These water containers are available from farm stores like Agway and Tractor Supply (www.tractorsupply.com). Though the price varies according to size, the smaller bowls are under $10, and in our experience, they last forever, no matter how many times they get stomped.

How do you provide water for your winter guests?

* Our friend Ben makes a distinction between folks who like to watch birds casually, especially in their backyards, for pleasure, and those who treat birdwatching as a sporting event and go to great lengths to compete for most bird species seen at a bird count, travel specifically to see birds, buy spotting scopes and other costly equipment, and who will do almost anything to complete their “life lists” of species seen. The first are birdwatchers; the second, birders.

Frugal living tip #45. November 12, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening, homesteading, recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. At Poor Richard’s Almanac, we’ve been giving you a Frugal Living Tip every week in 2009 to try to help us all get through a very tough economic year. This week, our tip is for the birds.

Many of us love to invite the wild birds to our backyards by setting out seed and treats. But as you know if you maintain birdfeeders, those costs can mount up fast! We’ve seen seed wreaths and other treats offered for $18.95 each. And even if you skip the fancy stuff, it’s amazing how fast birds (especially when assisted by squirrels) can polish off a feeder full of seed. So here are some tips to help you enjoy your birds without going broke:

* Buy the basics. Black oil sunflower seed and white millet attract the widest species of birds, so buy them separately and skip the fancy mixtures. Use black oil sunflower straight in your tube feeders, and mix it half-and-half with millet in your cabin (hopper) feeder.

* Skip the nyjer. Nyger thistle (also called niger) is a high-priced seed that’s supposed to be irresistible to goldfinches, and you have to buy a special feeder to contain the tiny seeds. Well, guess what? Our goldfinches prefer plain old black oil sunflower seed to nyjer. Save your money.

* Forget the pricey feeders. You can buy plastic tube feeders from Droll Yankees (who make the the best feeders on the market) for $7.95. We were dubious, but wanted to try one of these affordable feeders to see how it held up. Our backyard birds prefer this feeder to any of our more expensive ones, and not only has it held up perfectly for three years now, but it’s the one we keep going year-round (two, actually, we just had to buy another one). We got ours at our local Agway, but I’m sure they’re available wherever backyard birdfeeders are sold. If spending even $8 on a birdfeeder is too much, you can buy a little kit that will convert an empty 2-litre soda bottle into a tube feeder for $2.95. It looks as good as any tube feeder and holds a ton of seed so you won’t have to refill it as often as a standard tube feeder. And why buy a ground (tray) feeder when you can simply scatter seed on the ground? Our birds love foraging in the leaves beneath our tube and cabin feeders.

* Buy suet, not suet cakes. Every winter, our local grocery offers bags of suet for a fraction the cost of suet cakes. If you save the mesh bags you buy onions in, you can put chunks of suet in the empty bags and hang them out for woodpeckers, chickadees, hawks, and other suet-lovers.

* Or make your own suet cakes. Melt chunks of suet over low heat, stir in peanut butter, bacon fat, and/or lard if desired, add birdseed (you can of course add nuts and/or raisins, too, if you want), then pour the mixture into empty tuna or cat-food cans and freeze it. Once they’ve solidified, remove your homemade suet cakes from the cans and store them in a plastic freezer bag until you’re ready to set them out in your suet cages.

* Make peanut butter pinecones. Buy a big jar of store-brand peanut butter on sale. Wrap yarn around the top ring of scales on each pinecone and tie it to make a loop for hanging. Using a knife or spoon, press peanut butter into the scales, then roll each pinecone in birdseed. Hang them from a tree or bush where you can watch the action from a convenient window.

* Make bagel wreaths. One bagel can go a long way when it comes to making seed wreaths for your backyard birds, and a stale one works even better than a fresh one. Slice your bagel into 1/4-inch-thick slices, and string a yarn loop for hanging through the hole in each slice. Coat one side of each slice with peanut butter, press it into birdseed, and hang.

* Offer stale baked goods. Any leftovers are welcome treats for your flying friends, as long as they don’t contain chocolate, which is toxic to birds as it is to pets. Bread, muffins, biscuits, crackers, cornbread, doughnuts, pizza crust, croutons—if you have leftovers that have been sitting a little too long, this is a great way to use them.

* Grow your own. If you’re a gardener, choose landscape plants that offer seeds or fruit for birds as well as delight to you. Roses with big hips, crabapples, coneflowers, viburnums, sunflowers—the list is endless. You can even grow a garden especially for the birds, with ornamental corn, millet, sorghum, sunflowers, safflower, and other treats. But there’s no reason to go to this extreme (unless you’d find it a fun family project) when you can fill your yard with plants that do double duty as ornamentals (for you) and edibles (for your birds).

* Just add water. Remember that water attracts more species of birds than any type of seed, and it’s the cheapest way to attract backyard birds to your yard.

* Make a mess. Well, maybe this is really the cheapest way to attract birds, if you have a discreet place to make one: a stick pile. A pile of small branches and twigs will give birds shelter and protection from predators. And gardeners, leaving your dead grasses and perennials up until spring will shelter and feed birds, too!

If you all have great frugal birdfeeding tips to share, we’d love to hear them!

           ‘Til next time,


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!