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

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