THE MERRY GARDENER
What a snow bound, icy winter we are having. It’s hard on everyone but especially hard on our winter birds. Snow has covered the ground since late December and it just keeps getting deeper and deeper. The chickadees, titmice, blue jays, nuthatches, downy woodpeckers, cardinals and, yes, even the crows and the starlings are locked out of their normal food supplies. The ground, leaf litter and anyplace normally exposed that might allow a bird to scratch around for insect eggs or cocoons is covered with a foot of snow and ice.
If you already have a bird feeder, you have probably noticed how crowded it is. If you haven’t fed the birds before, start now so they can survive the winter and delight you with bird song in the spring. It is easiest and best if you have a squirrel proof feeder. That means it is made out of metal so the squirrels can’t gnaw through the container and spill out all of the seed. To be thoroughly squirrel proof, it needs to have a spring weighted perch that closes over the opening where the seeds are when anything heavier than a cardinal lands on it. I’ve used an Absolute II hopper type feeder for years. While it was not cheap, it has lasted a long time and is still going strong. It holds a lot of seed so I don’t have to refill it very often, keeps the seed dry, the birds happy and the squirrels locked out. You can find new and used ones on sale at Amozon.com. If you are going to feed the birds on a regular basis it is well worth the investment. Fill your feeder with black oil sunflower seed. It has a thin shell that is easy for small birds to crack and is a favorite of almost all of our native birds. It is not worth it to buy the cheaper grocery store mix filled with millet seeds. Many birds reject millet and will scatter it while picking out the sunflower seeds. Not only does this make a mess, it can attract mice. Millet will sprout and you will end up with unsightly mounds around your feeder in the spring.
This year I put out a sock feeder for the first time. These feeders are designed for birds with “tree feet,” birds that cling to the bark of trees looking for food and frequently eat upside down. Normally this type of feeder is filled with Nyger seed, which is a type of thistle. Nyjer is tiny, black and very expensive. Look for a mix of Nyger seed and sunflower seed chips. It works just as well for half the price. Petsmart usually carries it. You don’t have to worry about the Nyger sprouting because it is imported from Africa and must be sterilized before it is shipped, otherwise, the plant could become invasive. Gold finches love it as do juncos which prefer to eat what the finches spill rather than cling to the sock and pull out their own seeds. Pine warblers quickly found the sock feeder and showed up in my yard for the first time. I didn’t know what they were, so it was a delight to discover them in Sibleys, the best bird book there is for my money. Warblers are small birds, slimmer and more elegant than sparrows, with a greenish brown back and flashy black and white barred wings. It was astonishing to find so many varieties listed. Like sparrows, it is large family and it can be hard to tell the different species apart.
If you just want to help out during this difficult winter you really don’t need to spend any money for bird food or feeders at all. You do need to clear a place in the snow so that the ground feeders can land and hop around. If you are not using a feeder, put out a small amount of food at one time, as early in the morning as possible. That way it will be gone by nightfall and you won’t have to worry about who might be eating it after dark. If you put out something regularly, don’t suddenly stop and abandoned the birds who count on what you have been giving them.
What can you feed your backyard birds without buying something extra? Left over bread, cake cookies of any kind, of course. Break it up in small pieces so that the bigger birds don’t fly away with it all. More importantly, birds need fat in this cold weather to replace the insect eggs and berries that are an important part of their winter diet. Fat is a dense, high calorie food that supports their high metabolism. Chicken fat, beef fat, anything left over from your dinner table including small pieces of meat that would normally be thrown away is a welcome addition to a bird’s menu. If the fat is still liquid, pour it over the bread, if not, just mix everything all together. A chicken carcass that might go in the soup pot is a rare treat for woodpeckers, jays, crows and even starlings. So, instead of throwing your unwanted fat in the garbage, put it out in a shallow, wide container tree and watch the birds flock to it. Just be sure to put it up high enough so the neighbor’s dog doesn’t gobble it all up.
If you want to go a step farther and try a little cooking for the birds it’s easy. Stir some cornmeal into boiling water, cook until it’s thick and then throw in the fat and chopped up leftovers. Once it cools you have your own homemade suet cakes. Not all birds are ground feeders, so look around for a way to hang a container four or five feet off the ground but still within easy reach. You can also spread your fatty mixture directly on the bark of a nearby tree. If you place your feeding area near your kitchen window you will be rewarded with a good look at the birds whose lives you are saving.
Marilyn Elie is a member of the national Garden Writers Association