The Gardener Within: Master gardener and author Joe Lamp'l offers tips on attracting birds to your landscape.
Not all birds fly south for the winter. Some hardy souls tough out the cold, gray months, making them a bit brighter for the rest of us. Here are some tips to help show your appreciation to the winged wildlife of winter while making their stay a bit more pleasant.
Who’s coming to dinner? Which guests you’ll entertain depends on where you live in the country. The more common winter birds include black-capped chickadees, house finches, tufted titmice, downy woodpeckers, northern cardinals, American goldfinches, dark-eyed juncos, robins and the ubiquitous house sparrows. To attract the broadest number of species, have several different feeding stations.
Feeders. Platform feeders are flat shelves that hang from cords or chains, rest on elevated poles or attach to structures. They tend to attract the widest variety, from perching birds to ground feeders. Hopper and fly-through models with wide, overhanging covers are better in the winter because the landing areas and dispensers won’t be buried by snow. Choose large capacity feeders; they don’t need to be refilled as frequently.
Location. Shelter your feeders from severe winds, near protective hedges or brush piles, where the birds will have a place to fly for safety from predators. Putting feeders close to the house will make them more convenient to refill and will put the birds in view of indoor birdwatchers. To prevent collisions with the glass, keep feeders close to the windows — no more than five feet or so — and apply decorative window stickers as an added precaution.
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Cleanliness. Clean feeders are more attractive, and they help prevent disease. Large capacity feeders are more convenient; but must be protected from moisture to prevent mold and mildew from growing on the food. Exposed platform feeders should be emptied daily to prevent spoilage. Toss out seed that’s soggy or encased in ice, and allow the feeders to dry before refilling.
What’s on the menu? Insects and fruits are scarce, naturally, so most snowbirds subsist on seeds in the winter. They need extra-high-calorie seeds rich with fats to keep warm. Don’t bother with the bargain bags of mixed birdseed. They contain a lot of red millet, split peas, beans and sometimes even green and pink lumps of dog biscuit crumbs and other fillers only suitable for larger birds like pheasants and pigeons. Instead, buy individual types of birdseed in bulk and mix your own custom blends for your backyard flocks.
When it comes to seed, black oil sunflower seeds are popular with cardinals, purple finches, chickadees and nuthatches; but squirrels and raccoons love them, too.
Get good, squirrel-proof feeders that tip, spin or have baffles to keep the mammals off. Nyjer is a favorite of goldfinches and siskins. It’s diminutive and light, like a poppy seed, and works best in a special feeder made with minuscule holes to dispense the tiny seeds. White millet is probably the least expensive seed you can provide. Sparrows, juncos and mourning doves appreciate white millet. Hulled, salt-free peanuts are rich in fat. Great spotted woodpeckers love them, but they should be crushed into smaller bits for robins, nuthatches and house sparrows. Peanuts can be high in a natural toxin called aflatoxin, so buy safe nuts from a reputable bird food dealer.
Alternatively, suet balls are a concentrated source of energy. They come ready made in wire feeders, or make your own by melting suet into a mix of seeds and nuts, oatmeal, dried fruits and even grated cheese. Pour the mixture into a plastic butter tub or other disposable container, allow to harden and place at the feeding station. Or, slather peanut butter mixed with dried fruit directly onto tree bark for an easy alternative. Avoid using cooking fats or drippings — they don’t harden and can smear on birds’ feathers, and promote bacterial growth. Cooked brown and white rice is OK, but not cooked oats. Serve those uncooked. Sticky oatmeal can harden around a bird’s beak.
Laying out a buffet for winter birds not only provides gardeners another form of “winter interest,” it flags your garden as a safe and friendly place for wildlife to return to. It’s a simple act of caring that won’t be forgotten come spring.
Joe Lamp’l, host of “GardenSMART”on PBS, is a master gardener and author. For more information, visit www.joegardener.com.