Monday, December 14, 2009

Winter Bird Feeding...Enhancing your Feeding Station

A great winter bird feeding station consists of more than just a few feeders and food.  Like all animals, birds need food, water and shelter to sucessfully survive.  All feeding stations provide food, but the best ones offer an appropriate amount of shelter and a source of water.  A great feeding station combines all three essential elements birds need to thrive, and it will encourage birds to frequently visit your backyard.

Shelter is more than just a safe place to sleep or take refuge from the weather.  Shelter also offers safety from predators, a safe approach to the feeders, a place to wait for access to a busy feeder, and a safe place to eat the seeds and other foods you are providing for your birds.  Ground feeding birds like juncos and sparrows especially appreciate nearby cover. 

Safety can come in many forms. The most obvious choice is vegetation like tall grass, bushes, or trees nearby.  Many of these items are already present in many backyards, but often they're not in close enough proximity to the feeding station.  Ideally, a source of cover should be within 10-20 feet of the feeding station.  This is just close enough to provide a safe escape in case of danger and far enough away to keep squirrels from accessing your feeders.

If live or standing vegetation is unavailable near your feeders, there are other things that can work just as well during the winter months.  One of my favorite things to do is create a temporary brush pile near my feeders.  I start in late fall, once the mowing season is over, and begin to collect and pile the sticks that fall in my yard on the ground near the feeders.  All winter long, juncos and sparrows congregate in and around the stick pile while visiting the feeding station, just the way they would do in their natural habitat.  Another simple trick is to place your live Christmas tree in the yard after the holiday season.  Birds flock to these discarded evergreens all winter long while visiting the feeders as well.

Discarded Christmas trees in my yard - Winter 2008/2009

Not a fan of leaving sticks or dead Christmas trees on your lawn for the winter?  Try making a manger decorated with evergreen boughs, place an outdoor table, bench, or chair nearby, or come up with another appropriate arrangement that provides shelter for the birds without compromising the aesthetics of your lawn.

Winter is an extremely difficult time of year for birds and other wildlife to access water.  Though its cold with plenty of precipitation, winter outdoors is very similar to a desert.  The air is dry, winter winds accelerate evaporation, and typical sources of water are usually frozen during the coldest periods of winter. 

So where do birds find a drink in nature?  To some extent birds will eat snow when necessary, but they'll usually seek out sources of liquid water like snowmelt along roads and on rooftops as well as any unfrozen moving water present in rivers and streams.  Because natural sources of liquid water can be few and far between in winter, providing water at your feeding station can dramatically increase the abundance of species and number of birds visiting your yard. 

Goldfinch enjoying a refreshing sip of water from my heated birdbath

A heated bird bath is the most common method for offering winter water.  Some bird baths have heaters built into them.  Bird bath heaters can also be purchased separately for other bird baths.  Other options include heated pet bowls or heated buckets.  If the depth of the container holding water is greater than 3 inches, be sure to place rocks, bricks, or another material in the bottom of the container to keep birds from "swimming" or potentially drowning in the deep water.  Be sure to change/refill bird bath water regularly all throughout the winter to keep things clean.

Other enhancements
There are a couple of other things to do to make your yard more inviting and create a more natural environment for the birds to feed. 

1.) One of the best tricks is to plant flowers, bushes, and trees that provide seeds and fruits for the birds in the fall and winter months.  Leaving seed heads on flowers in the garden and planting holly and winterberry bushes and crabapple trees are a couple of options.

2.) Making your own birdfeeder gives you the flexibility to establish a feeding station that fits into your landscape and can provide a more natural feeding experience for the birds.  Feeders made or adorned with natural materials also make for great photo opportunities showing the bird in a more natural environment.

3.) Make your own bird food.  There are plenty of possibilities here.  Make a string of garland out of natural popcorn and cranberries.  Create edible ornaments with pinecones, peanut butter, and mixed seed.  My favorite thing to do is to make my own suet.  Don't know how?  Here's my recipe:
Ingredients: 1 cup of lard or vegetable shortening, 1 cup of crunchy peanut butter, 2 cups of quick cook oats, 2 cups of cornmeal, 1 cup of flour, and 1/4 cup of sugar. 
Directions: Melt the lard and peanut butter together, mix the dry ingredients, and then mix everything together until thoroughly mixed.  Make cakes from the mixture by pouring the fresh suet into empty suet containers or leave it cool in the bowl to scoop onto a plate, dish, or into a suet log as shown above.
Try one or two of the above suggestions and see if you don't attract more birds to your backyard.

Happy bird feeding,

-Adam Zorn, Naturalist

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Winter Bird Feeding...Solutions for Squirrels

Its inevitable.  Once you begin feeding birds, you've unintentionally sent an invitation to the local squirrel population.  The party starts small and everyone's getting along, but eventually your furry guests and their "bad manners" wear out their welcome.  When your birdfeeding station becomes a squirrel feeding station, things aren't fun any more.

So what are you going to do?  In a faceoff with your opponent, is it fight or flight?  Well, I'm going to encourage you to not give up.  There are some simple things that you can do to make the relationship between you and the squirrels a little less tense.

Baffle them
The first course of action should be to place a baffle below feeders placed on a pole or post or above feeders that hang from tree branches or roofs.  Baffles are designed to do just that...baffle and confuse the furry marauders about how to reach your birdfeeder.  A baffle comes in many shapes and sizes, but they are all designed to do the same thing.  They can even be made from a piece of sheet metal, an aluminun pie plate, a garbage can lid or other similar items.  Many look like funnels or domes while other are barrel-shaped and also work well for folks who have issues with raccoons.  No matter its shape, it should work properly.  Place baffles on posts and poles 5 feet from the ground with the feeder another 12 inches above the baffle, and hanging feeders should be placed directly under the baffle as shown in the photos.

Create some space
Squirrels are highly athletic, acrobatic, and somewhat fearless in their pursuit to gain access to a fully stocked bird feeder.  Feeder placement in relation to other surfaces and objects is critically important to reduce a squirrel's ability to reach the feeder.  The general rule of distance is 5-7-9.  A birdfeeder placed at least 5 feet above the ground, 7 feet from trees, bushes, or other elevated surfaces, and 9 feet below overhanging roofs or tree branches will greatly reduce the likelihood of an aerial attack.

Squirrel-proof feeders
There are a number of "squirrel-proof" feeders available on the market today.  If the above two tactics have proven uneffective, it may be wise to invest in a new feeder designed to keep the squirrels from helping themselves to all of the seed you intended for the birds.  Many of the newest designs incorporate some sort of mechanism that closes the feeding ports of the bird feeder when critters of a certain weight land on the feeder.  These can be effective as long as the squirrels don't figure out how to reach the seed without place weight on the triggering mechanism. 

Feeding ports stay open when small birds land to feed

When squirrels place their weight on the feeding ring, their weight closes the feeding ports

How do they figure it out?  Well, they've got all day every day to come up with a solution while we're at work or doing other daily tasks.  Their job is to figure out how to acquire food from readily available sources, so often times they eventually figure things out.  So actually, there are  a lot of squirrel-resistant feeders and very few squirrel-proof ones.  One of the best I've personally seen is the WBU Eliminator from Wild Birds Unlimited (picture above).  We've had one at the museum for three years and have yet to see a squirrel successfully remove one seed.  Its even placed intentionally so the squirrels can have access to it.

Change the buffet menu
Squirrels love sunflower seeds, peanuts, corn, and, in some instances, suet.  All of these items are precious treats well worth any squirrel's effort.  Changing to foods that are less desireable to squirrels can have a dramatic effect for many people.  Feeding thistle and safflower, both of which are eaten by numerous bird species, may reduce your squirrel problems since both seed types are less desireable.

Cayenne pepper mixed into bird seed can be effective in some circumstances.  Cayenne additives can be purchased at some retailers, but should be used with caution.  Birds will not be effected by the hot pepper flavor, but squirrels and other mammals like you certainly will.  Caution should be taken to keep the cayenne powder away from your eyes and nose.  Be sure to wash your hands immediately after filling feeders so you don't inadvertently get cayenne in your eyes or nose later.  The same burning sensation is what the squirrels will experience when they eat some of the seed, potentially leading them to avoid the seed altogether.

If you can't beat them, feed them
A favorite tactic for many bird feeding enthusiasts is to offer the squirrels a place to feed all to themselves.  There are a lot of options that can be entertaining for you and your squirrels.  A platform feeder near the ground is one choice.  At the museum, we use the benches of our amphitheater as feeders by spreading seed on top of them.  This makes the squirrels and ground-feeding birds happy.  At my house, I place cobs of corn out for the squirrels.  One is attached to a log, the other from a length of chain just out of reach from the ground so that the squirrels really have to work to get it.  If they're working to solve the corn problem, they're not solving the birdfeeder problem.  And we both get what we want in the end.

Check out these retailers for other squirrel feeders that occupy and entertain:

Happy bird feeding,

-Adam Zorn, Naturalist

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Winter Bird Feeding...Getting Started

House Finch and Tufted Titmouse enjoying black oil sunflower seeds

Birdwatching and bird feeding are one of my favorite hobbies.  For me, and millions of Americans, they are one in the same.  Various reports claim that as many as 65 million people in the United States feed backyard birds.  Our collective interest in wild birds and attracting them to our yards has spawned an industry that contributes billions of dollars toward the purchase of seed, feeders, baths, and other related items. 

Nowadays, bird feeding products can be found in supermarkets, department stores, big box stores, specialty retailers, and a whole host of websites devoted specifically to bird feeding products.  With so many items  (foods, feeders, and other accessories) available for purchase, it can be both exciting and overwhelming for families and individuals to begin feeding birds and attain the entertainment and aesthetic qualities they expect.

How to get started:
An elaborate bird feeding station like those seen in magazines, online, or at your nearby nature center (read Westmoreland Sanctuary) is enviable, but often not the best way to start if you're just beginning your adventures in bird feeding.  A collection of feeders, and the food to fill them, can be an expensive investment with no guarantee on its returns.  This is when people become disappointed, unhappy, and upset, which leads to a bad experience and the desire to just give up.

Start small.  Try one feeder and one food choice when first beginning.  Most sources agree that one tube feeder or hopper ("house") feeder filled with black oil sunflower seed is a great way to begin.  The tube and hopper style feeders are readily available in a variety of colors and sizes, and the black oil seed is preferred by a great number of birdfeeder birds.  Tube feeders (right) work well when suspended from a hook or chain from above.  Hopper feeders (below) work best when attached to the top of a post or pole.  In either scenario, a squirrel baffle will usually be necessary to prevent squirrels from devouring all the seed before the birds get a chance to eat it (I'll discuss squirrel-proofing in another post).
Don't be disappointed if you don't see birds at your new feeder right away.  It may take a few days before the birds find your offerings.  It will take some time for the birds to feel comfortable feeding in a new location as well, so be sure to watch the feeders throughout the day.  Often times new feeders are visited very quickly and infrequently until the birds become comfortable around you and your home.  Birds may be visiting, but you may not be noticing them right away.

Placing your feeder in a location where you can easily observe the feeder and birds from your home is an important consideration.  Think about what room of your home you spend the most time in, or where you're usually most likely to look out the window.  For me, my feeders are placed where I can see them while eating breakfast in the morning out my dining room window.  They're also observable from the kitchen so I can see while cooking or washing dishes.  Optimal placement for viewing will enhance your enjoyment and allow you to see all the birds that are visiting.

Once you've established a regular crowd at your feeder, you may be ready to offer additional types of feeders and food.  The variety of food and feeder styles often leads to an increase in the diversity of bird species visiting your feeding station.  Simple additions to your new feeding station may include a different feeder offering the same black oil sunflower seeds.  Larger species often prefer the hopper feeders because they are easier to perch on while feeding.  Smaller species typically prefer the tube feeders which alleviates competition and bullying from the bigger birds.

Probably the best choice for a second food option at your feeding station is suet.  This high energy food typically consists of rendered beef fat combined with seeds, peanut butter, or fruit flavoring.  Whole suet or processed cakes placed in a simple suet cage (right) delights a number of the same species that enjoy black oil sunflower seeds, in addition to woodpeckers, wrens, bluebirds, and, in some areas, warblers.  Suet can also be provided in small hanging logs or other types of feeders that offer a more natural feeding experience.

For more advanced bird feeding stations, thistle feeders and platform feeders filled with the appropriate seed caters to even more species of birds.  Thistle feeders (left) are specifically designed to hold the tiny seeds or seed mixtures usually referred to as Nyjer.  These feeders and their seed require a little more care, but they are well worth the effort if you have a number of goldfinches, pine siskins or other species visiting that prefer these tiny seeds.

Platform feeders (right) placed near the ground and filled with a seed mixture will satisfy the needs of sparrows, juncos, doves, and other ground feeding species in addition to larger birds like jays and cardinals.  This method often satiates the desire of squirrels to consume seed and may serve as a diversion to keep them away from other feeders filled with black oil sunflower seed.  If feeding the squirrels is out of the question, platform feeders can be placed high above the ground on top of a post or pole.

Time to enjoy:
Now that you've got your new feeder(s) up and the birds have begun to visit, its time to enjoy the fruits of your "labor".  The most enjoyable feeding stations are those that actually require very little labor.  Bird feeding is supposed to be fun.  Make it a fun activity by including others and watching the birds together. 

Let young kids help fill the feeders and enjoy the sight of the birds and all of their activity.  Allow indoor pets, like house cats, to observe the flurry of activity outside a window.  My cat loves to watch the chickadees and titmice visit "her" feeder hung right outside her favorite window.  Keep a list of the different species of birds that visit your feeders each week, month, or year.  Even non-birdfeeder birds are often attracted to the feeding activity.  Share and compare your yard list with someone else. 

Learning to identify birds and understand some of their behaviors is easy to do in this "controlled" environment.  Soon you'll be able to recognize the feeding behaviors and flock dynamics of the various species of birds that visit most often.  If you chose to feed into the spring and summer, adult birds will bring their young to the feeders as well.

White-breasted Nuthatch (aka the upside-down bird) preparing to visit the suet log

For more information on starting your bird feeding station, check out the following resources:
Happy bird feeding!

-Adam Zorn, Naturalist