Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Bird Feeding Tips: Beyond what most folks tell you

I like to feed wild birds. It's like having a giant aquarium, with aerial battles and better sound effects than an aquarium pump and bubbler. I haven't fed wild birds in a long time. Setting up my feeders reminded me of a bunch of stuff:

When you start out, don't expect a lot of birds, even if you see them all over the place. They not only need to find the feeder, but learn to trust it. If you think about it, a bird feeder is a very weird, unnatural thing. Give them time to figure it out and learn that it's not evil or some sort of bizarre trap.

When you first put out the bird feeder, don't fill it all the way, and prepare yourself for the possibility that the seed may go bad before enough birds come in to finish it. Always clean out the feeder if seeds have gotten moldy inside, and dry it out with a hairdryer before putting in more seed, or the mold will just come back and spoil seed that might have lasted much longer if you'd cleaned out the feeder well in the first place. Not only will birds avoid spoiled seed, but if they're desperate enough to eat it, they can get sick, possibly die, and it can cause problems that prevent them from raising chicks, or kill chicks that they're trying to keep fed. Anyway, unless you have someone else close by who is also feeding birds, the local birds may visit it only sporadically while they figure out if this is going to be okay and safe. Braver, bully birds may be your main customers early on. Plan for that, and increase the amounts you place in the feeder only when there are enough birds to finish it before it goes bad.

About millet: Although a lot of birds love millet, a ton of it ends up on the ground, which gives it a bad reputation among bird lovers. If you watch the birds feeding, you'll find there's usually a good explanation. In my experience the main reason millet ends up all over the ground is because they're part of a mix and jays are sweeping through the tray with their beaks to get to the sunflower seeds. Juncos and other birds that like feeding from the ground can do an all right job of picking up these sweepings off the ground, but the jays can be so messy that they simply can't keep up. My solution? I rarely buy mixed seed. In my experience, if you feed mixed seed then the birds will always keep dumping stuff to get to the stuff they see just out of reach through the feeding port. My chickens are the same way. I feed them a uniform layer pellet in their feeder, and mixed seed (the scratch) is distributed only on clean ground or in small enough amounts in a heavy pan that it'll be all gone in a few minutes. To attract different birds, I put thistle in one feeder, sunflower in another, and peanuts in the shell in a feeder that's a bit tough to get them out of to keep my jays busy and entertained. Seed is relatively cheap, but why waste money by feeding stuff that mostly ends up on the ground?

Speaking of stuff on the ground: it will happen. There are parts of the seed, usually hulls but also bits of seed that escape the birds when they sit and crack them before swallowing, that will end up all over under the feeder. Birds also poop while they eat. Even the mixes that have been shelled will not have pristine ground underneath. If you're fastidious, you don't want a deck feeder, nor do you want a feeder stuck to a window with a suction cup with your favorite lawn chair sitting underneath. I recommend siting your feeder in a sweet spot where you can both see the feeder, but where the debris will serve a valuable service: namely, fertilizer and mulch. I have feeders on and among a grove of deciduous trees beside my house. The trees were struggling along until we came along and pruned off dead and crossing branches, and set up a feeding area under them. To us, those small birds don't seem to produce significant amounts of fertilizer, but that little bit made a huge difference to our trees. The hulls and broken bits of seed provide valuable mulch, contain organics that help loosen and condition soil, and the whole mix of debris attracts earthworms and other organisms that enrich the soil. Alas, it's not worth it to plant pretty flowers around the base of a feeder unless it's a big enough one that they're somewhat protected from all the falling stuff. But, if you have a moveable feeder, you might consider changing the placement by a few feet each year and plant annuals where the feeder was before. Turn what a lot of people consider a disadvantage into an advantage!

A special note about hummingbirds: sugar water can spoil rapidly in warm weather, which will harm the little jeweled jerks. My answer is to feed in fall and spring, when flowers are scarce, and wean them off when the garden begins to flourish through the summer. I have a lot of plants that are great for keeping our hummingbirds well-supplied with nectar, and natural nectar is better for them anyway. Yes, it's nice to have them humming around your window where you can enjoy them, but you can also plant something like a honeysuckle, train it over an arch set over a bench, and voila! Perfect place to read in summer. Not as convenient, yes, but these days we need all the excuses we can get to go outside.

Another note about hummingbirds: they are fast but unfortunately cats can catch hummingbirds. When planting for hummingbirds or when feeding them, consider height. You can't control all the predation that goes on. Cats will get the adorable little hummingbirds and it's sad, but not technically your fault. To keep yourself as guilt-free as possible, place hummingbird feeders very high and prune up plants that produce attractive flowers, or put plants meant for hummingbirds in hanging baskets or in tall containers. The death zone for hummers can be quite high for a skilled cat that has decided that hummingbirds are favorite prey, but it seems to me the worst area for them is at ground level up to about three feet. At that height range even a cat that's not that into birds may be tempted to give it a go. To be safe, try to get feeders and plants up above five feet whenever possible. Lastly, although male hummingbirds will sometimes make attractive nests quite high up, often the females, after choosing that male to be their beloved, will nest much lower and that's where they'll raise their chicks. In fact, many birds nest much lower than you'd expect. So be careful when you're gardening!

There are lots and lots of reasons why you want to do your main pruning, plant moving, etc. in late winter or mid-to-late fall, but one of them is that you may inadvertently destroy a nest full of chicks, or expose them to the weather and predators. Also, beware of disposing of debris piles that have sat around a long time. A random summer day may not be the best time to light that baby up. Quite a few birds like nesting in what they see as a nice, undisturbed debris pile where large predators will have a hard time finding them, if they even bother to look in such a place. The birds don't know it's slated for burning at your next convenience. Thank you for checking or simply waiting until after the nesting season before you dispose of that loose pile of branches from the wind storm a while back. Conversely, if you want to create an odd but often attractive nesting site for birds that like to nest close to ground level, you can build a debris pile for them, and make it quite attractive with complementary plantings and found art. They may or may not use it, and eventually decay will make it flat, but a debris pile can be attractive for quite some time and if you do get some nesting birds there, it's super fun to watch them dash back and forth while they're raising their babies.

Thank you for reading!

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Transitioning into Full Time Writing, Pt 2

I've now been a full time writer for a little over three weeks, if you ignore my son's wedding and then going to Canada for a week.

Weird incidentals:
The indoor dog, Chase, is flipping out. She's now realizing that I'm going to be home all day (for the most part, except shopping excursions), every day, and it's turning her into a hyperactive maniac who now races back and forth wherever we go. Going to the garden? She runs the ever-shortening distance a dozen times to my one, ears laid back for extra streamlining, mouth open for more air, tongue inside mouth to reduce drag. Going back in the house? It's up and down the stairs and then back and forth across the deck and then she leaps and bangs her feet against the sliding door because it needs to be opened! Oh, and she scratches at the door not only to be let out, but to let me know that one or both of the cats need to be let in.
Because apparently that's why I'm staying home. To play with her and the cats and to let everyone in and out. It's Chase's job to make sure I stay on top of that.

I'm organizing stuff at home to make things more efficient so I can maximize my writing time. It's true! Weird example: now that I'm home I scoop the litter boxes at least once, if not twice a day. It makes the house more pleasant and makes the litter last longer. (I have decided this is true. Don't burst my bubble!) I realized it would be so much less tedious if I had one of those flip-top garbage cans, just a wee one, right next to the litter box. Then when it's full, I can take the used litter out. Found one with a little bucket inside, handle and all. Mine! Litter stays clean, and I can scoop right after I feed the chickens (and steal their eggs) without having to hunt for a garbage bag. Now I know why some housewives are so organized. It's not necessarily because they're OCD or obsessed with cleanliness. It's because having things unorganized is super, super annoying when you have a lot of things to do.

When our kids were little and I was a stay-at-home mom, I didn't have a lot of things to do except keep up on laundry and make sure that there was food, a lack of medical emergencies, and minimal squalor (was not super good about that last part.) Now that I no longer have a day job and I have no kids, my expectation is that I'll have all kinds of time to write, right? Well, except that clutter is distracting, and dealing inefficiently with the clutter is annoying, and laundry and dishes still need to happen, as does shopping and cooking, and I have to feed the farm animals and get the garden ready for spring and all at once I became aware that TIME IS LIMITED, even when, in theory and barring accidents or illness, you have lots of it. And when it comes to chores, I want to minimize them to maximize this work time thing, and you know, we all know, that if I let things pile up deeper and deeper I won't write, I'll dabble at writing and fret and putter. Which is awful and inefficient. Besides, if I ignore chores too long, suddenly I'm looking at six weeks of solid cleaning and zero writing time to get my environment to the point where I stop looking over my shoulder to see if the laundry is sneaking up on me, preparing to leap and then smother me. This versus an hour or two each day for a couple of chores, which I rotate through, and maybe I can squeeze in a little extra once a week so that you make overall headway (it can be done! I'm proving it to myself!)

When I started this journey I thought I'd be writing all day and writing all night with the occasional foray into book and cover design. Then I ran out of underwear. Which might not have mattered except that all my most comfortable jeans were also dirty. And I ran out of bowls. And suddenly taking a break to have a meal turned into a travesty, and showering in the morning and getting into real clothes turned into a chore, and so I wore pajamas until I had to feed the farm animals and I did that in sweats with a sweater over my sleeping shirt and I thought this is not what I envisioned my dream job to be, where I have to take over an hour for lunch because I have to clear the counters and wash a bowl first. People posted that image of a writing nook with the huge windows looking out at a winter scene, with the comfy chair and the floor lamp aimed just right, and a tidy bookshelf and I thought there is no reason why I have to put up with drifts of dog hair on the floor and stacks of papers that need to be filed all around my computer that I have to shove aside (guiltily, worrying that I might forget to pay that bill there) so I can take some quick notes which I'll immediately lose. No more! No more. I will take time to tidy. I will have my desk set up so I can find things. I will.

I'm getting there. Happily, more writing is getting done. And happily, my house is cleaner. Except I have no bowls again, but that's okay. I'll take care of it tomorrow before I start to write. Easy peasy.

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Transitioning into Full Time Writing, Pt. 1 (sort of)

I'm waiting for the ferry at Tsawwassen, on my way to Victoria, on Vancouver Island, BC. I'm feeling the Vancouver going on. Coming from east of Vancouver, WA, not going to Vancouver, BC but to Vancouver Island. It's weirdly like I'm not actually going anywhere, even though I'm no longer in the same country as I was when I started my journey this morning.

Abandoning a perfectly good day job and writing full time feels like that too. I'm not on anyone's payroll anymore, yet I'm doing most of the things I've always done. It's been six days and I still have the same to-do list as before. I have a series to finish, an outline to finish, emails to go through, etc.

Just a couple of things got added on, and those derailed any sense of actually having nine more hours a day to work.

First off, my son got married. (Yay!) That translated to quite a few hours on facebook coordinating with everyone. Also, that made January 6 and today, January 7, completely disappear from the writing schedule. I might sneak in a few paragraphs tonight after we've settled into our new environment, but making serious progress is not going to happen. So of the (almost, the day is not done yet) six days I've had since my last day of work on January 1, I've had four actual work days. One of those was spent cleaning. One I spent catching up with email and communicating with writers, convention organizers, as well as doing some business stuff.

What kind of business stuff? Writers contemplating full time writing for-reals might want to know!

I had to finalize health insurance stuff. We actually started the process in December, with a landing date of January 1 for our insurance to begin. Well, that worked out, but after they approve you in Washington they want proof, including former tax returns. So about the time we thought we were all set, we had more to do.

•  I had to start a new, fresh action list and prioritize it.

•  I had to clean up a backlog of paperwork and file a large to-be-filed pile that I'd allow to build up for too long because I felt like I never had time to work on it. Found bills. Paid bills.

•  I had to update my freshly-written action list and reprioritize it as I discovered notes buried in the to-be filed pile.

•  I had to go through my business email file to make sure I hadn't promised anyone any stories 'as soon as I retired'.

•  And I had to update my freshly-written action list *again* and reprioritize it as I added stuff I found from my emails.

That ate, as you can imagine, a huge amount of time. I'm still sifting through emails, though most of them are older now.

An immediate pitfall I found with being home all day was that now that I *could* be on Facebook and check my email all day long, I did. In lieu of writing. "I would never do that," you might think. "I'd have my designated time during which I'd be online, and the rest of the time I'd be putting sell-able words on the page." I thought so too. The temptation isn't to socialize, but to hunt down business and networking opportunities. Danger! Danger! When I get back from vacation I'll have designated online hours for real. There's no other way to manage it. With Facebook sending little notifications all the time, it's almost impossible not to check in for 'just a minute.' I have to be able to tolerate those missed opportunities, the ones I'd been missing all along because I was at a day job, and get the real job of writing done. Which is writing.

So this is day six. I'll keep reporting on this process as I sink deeper into writerly despair. Joy. Whichever comes first. Both at the same time, I'm sure.