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!


Kai Jones said...

We have a hummingbird feeder on our apartment balcony--three floors up from ground level, and effectively about 6 floors up since there's a drop-off at ground level and the houses below the terrace are 2 floors plus. We look through the top of one tree and over the tops of a dozen more; actually it's a lot like your back deck with the slope below it. We empty, clean, and refill the feeder with fresh sugar water once a week year round. It's frozen solid only once (we brought it inside to warm it, then left the porch light on--that was enough to keep it slushy instead of solid). There's one regular and he fights off intruders daily. Hummers are very territorial!

Kami said...

They are territorial, aren't they! In my experience the Rufous are the worst for that. Do you know what kind you have?