Over the last two weeks the forest outside my window has turned from green to gold with colorful splotches of red and orange. Shorter days have triggered the annual show of fall colors. And weather forecasts call for a hard frost this weekend. It's time to get serious about feeding backyard birds.
Right now I've got ten feeders filled with sunflower seeds, nuts and suet. By Christmas, my feeding station will include more than 30 feeders. Whether you are just getting started, or like me, you've been feeding wild birds for years, here are some tips to make your experience even more enjoyable.
First, make sure you have taken care of the late summer tasks. If you haven't seen any hummingbirds for at least two weeks, take down nectar feeders, clean them thoroughly and box them until spring. This will ensure that northern birds have passed through, and you won't be shortchanging any late migrants. Or, if you'd like a chance to see a wandering rufous hummingbird, keep one nectar feeder up until January. The odds of seeing a rufous hummer are slim, but if you take all the feeders down, those chances drop to zero.
Next, visit all your nest boxes one last time and remove any remaining nesting material. Do this for all boxes, large and small, including purple martin apartment houses. After this final cleaning, cavity-nesting birds may use some nest boxes as winter roosting quarters and deer mice and flying squirrels can use others as winter dens. After cleaning the martin house, take it down or plug the holes so house sparrows and starling can't roost in it during the winter months.
Now you're ready to prepare the feeding station. Beginners often wonder which feeders work best. Many people start with an open platform feeder or a traditional hopper-style feeder. These simple, nonexclusive feeders permit access to all birds. Because they are nonexclusive, however, larger birds such as blue jays, grackles, mourning doves and pigeons often dominate these feeders.
To accommodate a larger variety of birds, use a variety of feeders.
A tube feeder filled with oil sunflower seeds attracts everything from cardinals and chickadees to nuthatches and woodpeckers. Nyjer tubes attract finches. Remove the tray at the base of tube feeders to prevent larger birds from monopolizing them. Be sure tube feeders have metal-reinforced feeding ports to prevent squirrels from enlarging the openings.
A bowl-style feeder covered with a plastic dome to deter squirrels permits only clinging birds such as finches, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches and woodpeckers to feed. Larger birds such as grackles, pigeons and doves require perches and are physically unable to use bowl feeders.
High in fat
Suet offered in plastic-coated wire baskets appeals to those birds that like a diet high in animal fat -- woodpeckers, chickadees and nuthatches.
The single best food for wild birds is black oil sunflowers seeds. Virtually all seed-eating birds prefer it, and it's relatively inexpensive. Other good seeds include striped sunflower seeds, nyjer (often incorrectly called thistle), white and red millet, nuts and cracked corn.
Backyard birders must also deal with the problem of handling and storing large quantities of seed. Seed is cheaper when bought in 50-pound bags, but large quantities are difficult to store and even harder to carry. Some wild bird stores and nature centers offer customers a seed storage program. You order and pre-pay seed in advance, but pick it up at the store only as you need it. A seed storage program, an ingenious innovation in customer service, also simplifies planning and ordering for store owners, so both buyer and seller win. Ask your seed supplier to provide a similar arrangement.
Finally, remember the importance of water. Birds drink water whenever it's available, though standing water is not essential. Birds can extract water from all the foods they eat. But if you fill a small saucer with warm water every morning or install a bird bath heater to keep water from freezing during cold weather, you'll be amazed by the number of birds that use winter water.
Send questions and comments to Dr. Scott Shalaway, R.D. 5, Cameron, W.Va. 26033 or via e-mail to sshalaway @aol.com.