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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.

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What is it about woodpeckers? November 17, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Here at Hawk’s Haven, our friend Ben and Silence Dogood are lucky enough to have a lot of backyard birds stay with us through the winter. Our property is densely planted, and the trees, shrubs, vines, groundcovers, grasses, and perennials provide plenty of food and shelter for all sorts of birds. In addition, we have a stream that offers water, and we also set out numerous tube feeders, a cabin feeder, and a suet feeder for our feathered guests.

Like everyone, we have our favorite winter birds: in our case, the juncos, cardinals, bluejays, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, goldfinches, house finches, wrens, and purple finches. We long for towhees, cedar waxwings, flickers, and rose-breasted grosbeaks. We wish the snow geese would choose to spend the entire year in the fields behind our house, rather than just two weeks every spring and fall, and that more wild turkeys and pheasants would decide to turn up here.

But there’s one special group of birds we always are thrilled to see: the woodpeckers. Typically, here at our rustic home in Pennsylvania, we attract downy, hairy, and red-bellied woodpeckers, along with both white- and red-breasted nuthatches (which are sort of woodpeckerlike). We’d love to see red-headed woodpeckers, flickers, and pileated woodpeckers join them here, but so far, no luck.

Still, anytime a woodpecker does show up, it’s a huge thrill for us. The first red-bellied woodpecker (which has red down the back of its head, not on its belly, what were those idiot taxonomists thinking) showed up at our cabin feeder this morning. Welcome, redbelly! You and all your kind are what helps us get through the winter. Looking at you, your kin, and all feeder birds, we can appreciate the brevity and uncertainty of all life and of our lives. But if you hang on, grab the rope of human connection and hang on for dear life, we may yet pull through and rise above me and mine to find ours and everyone’s. Let’s please at least give it a try.

The birds are back in town. November 5, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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With all due apologies to Thin Lizzy and “The Boys Are Back in Town,” our friend Ben and Silence Dogood have been enjoying the return of our winter birds here at our cottage home, Hawk’s Haven, located in the precise middle of nowhere, PA. We’d kept up three tube feeders through the summer, enjoying the goldfinches and occasional chickadee who came around to sample our black oil sunflower seeds. But with the advent of truly cold nights, we set out five additional feeders and added mixed birdseed and suet cakes to the black oil sunflower seeds.

This morning, our friend Ben was looking at our cabin feeder through one of the living room windows and one of our tube feeders over the deck bridge, and I realized that the birds were back. There were the titmice, the chickadees, the nuthatches, the house finches. There were still the resident flocks of goldfinches and cardinals, who live here throughout the year, as well as one bold little wren that’s called our backyard home this past year. Not everyone is here yet—the increasing cold will draw juncos and woodpeckers, bluejays, purple finches, and sparrows. We always hope for rose-breasted grosbeaks and cedar waxwings, but have yet to see them. Maybe this year!

Meanwhile, our friend Ben noticed some distinct oddities in our autumn guests. Typically, our titmice are the same size as the black-capped chickadees, but this year, they’re noticeably larger. The black-caps and Carolina chickadees are here together this year so it’s easy to tell them apart, since the Carolinas are considerably smaller than the black-caps. And lo and behold, there was a mockingbird, state bird of our friend Ben’s and Silence’s home state of Tennessee, all puffed up but clearly ready to stick it out here at our Pennsylvania feeders.

Because we’re down to two outdoor cats, we also have a very fat family of squirrels enjoying our cabin feeder. We wish they’d settled for caching our shagbark hickory nuts, butternuts, and black walnuts instead!

Gack, that reminds me, I’d better get out there and refill those feeders. The birds are back in town!

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.