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Winter birdfeeding basics. September 29, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, homesteading.
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When our friend Ben and Silence Dogood go out to buy our monthly big bag of birdseed, we’re always amazed by the variety of birdfeeding products available. There are elaborate feeders, special seed mixes, specialty seeds, dried mealworms, literally hundreds of products. Books on birdfeeding are just as bad, making it seem like you need a special seed or seed mix for every single winter feeder. What’s someone who just wants to feed birds in winter supposed to do?

Actually, the answer’s simple. SO simple, it’s ridiculous. All you really need to feed birds in winter is a bag of black-oil sunflower seeds and a squirrel-proof tube feeder. That would be one, such as a Droll Yankees feeder, with a metal top, bottom, hanger, and feeder perches so squirrels can’t gnaw their way in. Hang it from a metal shepherd’s crook or from a branch where you can see and enjoy it, fill it up, and watch as the birds fly in. When you fill it up, don’t forget to scatter seed beneath it for ground-feeders like cardinals, juncos, and mourning doves, and you’re all set.

Sure, birds will eat other seeds. Cardinals will eat safflower seeds, goldfinches will eat nyger thistle seed. You can buy the most expensive custom blend of seeds, nuts and dried fruits imaginable and you’ll get an appreciative audience of birds. But for a fraction of the cost, you’ll attract all the same birds with plain black oil sunflower seeds.

Here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage garden OFB and Silence share in the precise middle of nowhere, PA, we love sitting out on our back deck in the lazy summer mornings and evenings and beautiful autumn evenings, so we keep one tube feeder up and running all year. Most birds are busy eating bugs and berries then, but they’ll still come up to the feeder where we can see them from the deck.

Once the cold weather arrives and supplies of bugs and berries thin out, we up the ante. (Pun about ants suppressed.) First, we put away our windchimes until spring and hang more tube feeders on the windchime hooks, except for the windchime directly in back, er, front, er,?! of our deck. Years ago, someone gave us one of those cylindrical suet feeders that holds a block of suet inside and cages squirrels out. Our woodpeckers and nuthatches very happily eat black oil sunflower seed from our tube feeders, but they (and our chickadees, titmice, and so on) love the hi-cal, pre-formed blocks of suet stuffed with peanut butter, nuts, seeds, dried fruits, and so on, and we can buy a six-pack at our local hardware store for less than a dollar a block, so we indulge them, and ourselves, by hanging that feeder right next to the deck.

We also have what we call a cabin feeder, a wooden feeder shaped sort of like a log cabin with a “roof” that lifts up for filling and long, shallow troughs for eating, plus glass sides so you can see when it needs refilling. It’s attached to a tree by our front door so we can check its progress by looking out the front windows. Ground-feeding birds like cardinals, bluejays, and juncos are willing to eat on its platform, so it brings them closer to eye level.

So here’s the bottom line: Feed black oil sunflower seed; everybody likes it. Hang a tube feeder where you can see and enjoy the birds (and see when the feeder’s empty). You’ll need a vermin-proof container for your seed (we have a wonderful bird-themed canister we got years ago at a wild bird store, but a small tin garbage can with a tight-fitting lid would do), plus a scoop for your seed and a way to pour it into your tube feeder. (We bought a big plastic bottle with a long nose from a wild bird store, like a giant ketchup dispenser.) If you don’t want to set up a cabin feeder, just toss some seed around on the ground (or snow) under your tube feeder for the ground-feeders. The end.

Buying a guide to winter birds in your area will certainly increase your pleasure as you watch your little visitors enjoy your offerings. The guide will provide tips you’ll want to know, such as that the olive-colored birds at your feeder in the winter are the goldfinches that lit up your garden all summer (they’ve just shed their brilliant yellow breeding plumage). Happy birdfeeding!

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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?

Finally, flickers. April 5, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, homesteading, Uncategorized.
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Or at least, one flicker. As winter finally transitions into spring—something Silence Dogood and I had begun to think would never happen—our friend Ben is seeing the birds of winter that fill our landscape here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home Silence and I share in the precise middle of nowhere, PA, start to give way to the birds of spring.

Amazingly, there are still juncos here, the first time I can remember them being here this late. I blame the ongoing frigid temperatures, which are supposed to dip into the teens again tonight, for keeping the juncos from their northward path. Just yesterday, I saw snow geese still passing over, again to my astonishment. Global warming, where art thou?!

Nonetheless, the birds of summer have begun their annual arrival. I saw our first robin of spring this past weekend, and there was a goldfinch—not yet in bright yellow breeding plumage but still recognizable—on one of our tube feeders just yesterday.

But happiest of all our returning visitors was the Northern flicker we saw flying through the backyard en route to our suet feeder. When Silence and I first bought Hawk’s Haven, flickers were a constant sight. The big, colorful woodpecker relatives cheered us up no end with their entertaining antics.

Not that you’d necessarily recognize the handsome birds as woodpeckers, since they look and act more like big songbirds, sweeping over the lawn rather than hanging out on trees and hammering away. And unlike most woodpeckers, rather than sporting mostly black-and-white plumage, often with red on the head and sometimes with a crest (as in the case of pileated woodpeckers), flickers for the most part are a soft mourning-dove brown, with discreet yellow and red markings. The easiest way to recognize a flicker is to see its white rump-patch flashing as it flies by.

For the first few years, Silence and I delighted in our flickers. Then, about three years later, they disappeared. And not just from our backyard, but from all the yards, parks, and other landscapes in our part of PA. What had happened? Where had they gone?!

One of my favorite backyard birding references, Birds at Your Feeder (Erica H. Dunn and Diana L. Tessaglia-Hymes, Norton, 1999), which summarizes data from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Project FeederWatch, suggests the answer: Flickers are ant-eaters. That’s why they tend to hang out on lawns, searching out ant colonies in the ground and in fallen branches that have decayed and invited ants to make their homes. This of course makes them allies in our war against pests. But unfortunately, it also makes them susceptible to our shortsightedness.

Our ever-increasing use of chemical pesticides on lawns has wiped out the flickers’ food source. And in the South, where flickers feed on fire ants while overwintering, the battle against the nightmarish fire ants has made the flickers an inadvertent casualty of war. According to Birds at Your Feeder, their numbers have declined steadily for thirty years.

So how did it happen that Silence and I saw one in our yard this weekend? Well, maybe the organic lawn-care movement is helping the birds recover. We’re not sure what else to think. But Birds at Your Feeder offers a few tips if you’d like to encourage these delightful birds to visit your own yard: Setting out suet, especially in suet logs (logs with round holes drilled into them that are filled with suet) rather than suet cakes, is the best way to attract them. A large, open yard with a few trees and lots of fruiting shrubs provides their favored habitat. Flickers may eat mixed seed, millet, sunflower seed, corn, peanuts, niger, peanut butter mixes, baked goods, oats, dried fruit, and, of course, water, but are more likely to eat them when spread on the ground than to take them from a feeder.

When Birds at Your Feeder was published, the latest trend in birdfeeding—setting out live, freeze-dried, roasted, and canned mealworms, fly larvae, waxworm larvae, mealworm-suet pellets, mealworm-infused suet cakes, and the like had not caught on. (For a representative sample, check out the selection at Duncraft, http://www.duncraft.com/.) But our friend Ben is willing to bet that the ant-loving flickers would enjoy this fatty, protein-rich fare as well.

Whatever the case, welcome back, flickers! We’re so happy to see you.

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!

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!