Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Upper South
December, 2008
Regional Report

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Having a number of different feeders and types of feed may seem extravagant, but it will bring in the greatest number of different birds.

Gifts All Around

How delightful to give a gift that benefits yourself! For me, that's what winter bird feeding amounts to because a steady supply of food makes their lives easier and mine so much more enjoyable. I cannot imagine making it through winter in some semblance of good cheer without being able to watch the birds from my office desk or a comfortable chair in the sunroom. In these lean economic times, feeding the birds may seem an easily dismissed luxury, but the benefits to both you and the birds means you should strongly consider keeping it in the budget. Fortunately, there are ways to get the most benefit from your expenditures.

Seeds and Fruit
Although it may be tempting to choose a seed mix that seems inexpensive, it can turn out to be costly if the birds won't eat much of it. The reason? Many bird-seed mixtures contain seeds the birds won't eat. Since the greatest number of bird species prefer black-oil sunflower seed, buy that instead, and you'll get more return for your money. Granted, there are some birds that prefer other seeds, especially white proso millet and cracked corn, so consider making your own mixture by combining 25 pounds of black-oil sunflower with 10 pounds each of white proso millet and cracked corn.

Goldfinch, siskins, and redpolls are drawn to nyger seed, a tiny, oil-rich seed from Asia and Africa. Because of its size, nyger is offered separately from other seeds, in feeders specifically designed for them. If purple finch become too numerous at your nyger feeders, beating out the other birds, select a feeder with the holes below the perches, as only goldfinch can eat upside down.

Seeds are not a major component of the diet of robins, thrushes, bluebirds, and waxwings. To draw them near your home, offer soaked and drained dried raisins. Mockingbirds, catbirds, tanager, and orioles are attracted to sliced fresh fruit, such as apples and oranges. Simply place them on an old plate on the ground. Remember, though, that these attract the beasties, too.

Suet and Peanuts
High-calorie, high-fat foods help birds survive the winter. To stay warm, birds expend energy very quickly, sometimes losing up to 10 percent of their body weight on a cold night. Obviously, an ample supply of high-calorie foods are critical to a bird's survival. In addition to the seeds already discussed, suet and peanuts are two other important sources.

Suet is a high-energy, pure-fat substance particularly helpful in winter when many birds have a hard time finding the insects they normally eat. Sometimes you can find a butcher who still sells hunks of beef suet, but finding pre-formed cakes is much easier. Woodpeckers, nuthatches, chickadees, and titmice are especially fond of suet.

Peanuts are also a high-fat food that a variety of birds will eat for an energy-filled treat. Serve them in the shell or out, in specialized feeders.

Start shopping for bird feeders, and your credit card will begin dancing in your wallet. Other than the fact that winter bird feeding is one of the most popular pastimes, I can't figure out why they have to be so expensive yet so fragile. I have shelves filled with ones that need repair -- or pitching out. Learning to tell which feeders will hold up and which ones won't is a slowly acquired skill.

Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology suggests, "The ideal bird feeder is sturdy enough to withstand winter weather, tight enough to keep seeds dry, large enough that you don't have to refill it constantly, and easy to assemble and keep clean."

Metal and plastic feeders usually work better than wooden ones. Be sure to check out the new ones made of "plastic wood," made of recycled milk jugs, as they seem like they will be long-lasting. The feeder that I use for black-oil sunflower seed is a large metal, squirrel-proof hopper one. For both shelled peanuts and suet, I use plastic-covered metal mesh feeders. My nyger feeder is cheap plastic; maybe when the economy turns up I'll invest in a better one. I also look longingly at the covered tray feeders placed close to the ground. Meanwhile, I scatter seed on the ground, changing areas frequently to prevent disease problems.

Feeding the birds will be most enjoyed if feeders are placed where they are easy to see and convenient to refill. Ideally, there will be trees and shrubs 10 feet or so away, providing natural shelter for the birds. My favorite method of hanging feeders is the Advanced Pole System from Wild Birds Unlimited, but National Gardening Association has a very good, less expensive system available.

It's also important to clean feeders at least once every two weeks, scrubbing with soap and water, dipping into a solution of one part bleach to nine parts water, then rinsing well and drying thoroughly before refilling and putting back outside.

Birds need a source of water year-round, not only to drink but also for bathing. A shallow, easy-to-clean birdbath is your best choice. If you don't want to manually provide this every day, then consider an immersion heater that is thermostatically controlled. Clean the bird bath when you clean the feeders.

Battling the Beasties
Squirrels, opossums, raccoons, and mice can all wreak havoc in a number of ways on the investment in bird seed and bird feeders. It's best to keep bird seed in metal containers indoors or in a garage where critters can't get to them. If squirrel-proof feeders haven't lived up to their billing for you, try placing the feeder 10 feet away from any other object. This distance keeps squirrels from jumping on top of or onto the feeders. It's also imperative to install strong, sturdy baffles below the feeders to limit squirrel, raccoon, and opossum damage. Of course, some of us decide to place corn and peanuts in another part of the yard for the squirrels.

As you celebrate the holiday season, remember to consider the creatures that surround us, as well as each other.

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