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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.


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?

Sweet Home Pennsylvania June 7, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, critters, gardening, pets, wit and wisdom.
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Here at Hawk’s Haven, located in the precise middle of nowhere in scenic rural Pennsylvania, we are having a very premature heatwave. This weekend, the temperatures are pushing 100, with the humidity close behind. Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood, who fled the beloved South of our birth to escape unbearable heat and humidity, are now reduced to holing up in our little cottage and cursing. Maybe it’s finally time to move to Nova Scotia.

But wait. Our friend Ben was just looking out the sliding glass doors leading out onto our deck. And this is what I saw:

Our resident female feral cat, Kittenous, chose today to bring her kittens up onto the deck and introduce them to us. One by one, she deposited a white kitten with grey blotches, a beautiful little black-and-white boy, a female with dilute calico markings (grey and reddish-cream), an all-black kitten, and a huge brown tabby boy on the doormat. Then she looked on with quiet pride as our friend Ben stroked and picked up each kitten in turn. Meanwhile, our ratty old tom, Danticat, watched over the proceedings with a benevolently protective air.

While this little cat drama was playing out, the brilliant goldfinches visited the Nyjer feeder under our largest maple tree. In the yard, a male bluebird repeatedly flew to the ground, presumably spotting tasty bugs, then returned to the maple. A tanager flashed its scarlet plumage as it flew past. A chipmunk scooted down a tree trunk, only to be chased off by a male cardinal once it reached the ground. A ruby-throated hummingbird buzzed past in search of nectar. Our two surviving goldfish swam lazily in the deck water garden, while water iris bloomed like purple fireworks in the shallow container water garden under the trees. 

Meanwhile, zebra swallowtails and mourning cloaks floated dreamily through the open air between trees. The ancient beauty bush (Kolkwitzia amabilis) dripped pink blooms in pendant sprays, a waterfall of bloom. And behind it all, a haze of abundant purple and pink and blue and gold and orange and red-violet blooms covered the perennial beds and the cultivated wild garden in front of the Pullet Palace. I could hear the chickens’ contented cackling mingling with the kittens’ mewing, the omnipresent birdsong, and, nearby, a frog’s insistent croak.

Reluctantly bringing my gaze back to the deck, I couldn’t help but smile at the abundance of colorful foliage and flowers Silence and I had combined into the deck plantings. Everywhere was color, scent, and bloom. And beyond, the burbling of our little stream, Hawk Run, as it splashed over the pebbles just beyond the deck.

This was just one view out the deck door. One view, one precious moment captured in the heart. “An instant, a second unchangeable,” as the Swedish poet Gunnar Ekelof says, “something that shall never turn to summer.” But it is summer, birth and rebirth, the old, lush story. Something, perhaps, that shall never turn to autumn. “Fish, flesh, and fowl commend all summer long/Whatever is begotten, born, and dies,” says Mr. Yeats in his poem “Sailing to Byzantium.”  Commend the beauty of creation, he means, transient as it may be. But surely, surely, our friend Ben thinks, surely it is, in itself, enough. For outside that deck door is more than any heart can hold. Rejoice, and be glad in it.           

Why won’t they just stay?! April 9, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, homesteading, Uncategorized.
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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame. I was just looking out the window of my Pennsylvania home and enjoying the sight of a little flock of juncos at my feeder. Dark-eyed juncos are also known as “snow birds” because they appear at feeders in the winter and have white bellies, which seem to disappear in snowy landscapes, leaving only their slate-colored backs and wings, and their beautiful grey-black eyes and beaks, visible against the snow.

Spring is bittersweet to me as a bird lover, because it brings the return of robins and grackles, but signals the departure of my adored juncos and snow geese, as they take wing for their far north breeding grounds, abandoning me until next autumn brings them down again in search of food and more temperate wintering grounds.

I confess, I’d trade a lifetime of robins just to have my juncos here year ’round. I’m not a fanatic collector like our friend Ben, but I did save up and buy one first-edition (the quarto, not the huge Elephant Folio, no room or funds for that) Audubon print of the darling little juncos, called “common snow bird” on the print, though they’re anything but “common” to me.

Like us, backyard birds are adaptable and peripatetic. We both enjoy stretching our boundaries. As a result, cardinals and mockingbirds, once residents of the South, now delight us Pennsylvanians year-round. But my beloved juncos have, so far, insisted on heading off to the boreal forests of the Far North to court and raise their young. Any day now, I expect to see the last junco depart for its breeding grounds, but so far, a small group of males has remained faithful. Oh please, oh please, I think each day as I fill my feeders, won’t you stay?

Not likely. If you enjoy feeding birds and want to know more about them, I recommend the Cornell Lab of Ornithology site on our blogroll. But you can also get a lot of great information on backyard feeder birds from a book, Birds at Your Feeder by Erica H. Dunn and Diane L. Tessaglia-Hymes. It’s a summary of Project FeederWatch findings by species, and I’ve found it invaluable as I try to entice more birds to my backyard. Yes, ruby-throated hummingbirds, purple martins, bluebirds, and goldfinches are delightful. But I have just one plea.

Juncos, please: Won’t you stay this year?!       

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.