An American Goldfinch (left) and a Lesser Goldfinch (right) share a thistle feeder on a snowy day in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Photo by Barb Gorges.
Published Dec. 6, 2015, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Feed winter birds for fun.”
By Barb Gorges
Feeding birds in your backyard is a time-honored tradition. It makes a great gateway to building your interest in birds. But there are a few things you should keep in mind if you decide to put up a feeder.
Birds don’t need our food. They are good at finding natural food. Don’t worry if you don’t have food out for them every day, although being consistent means you are more likely to see interesting birds.
Bird feeding is really about enjoying the birds, so put your feeders close to windows you look out of often. Be sure to put them close so that birds won’t hit your windows at high speed when leaving your feeder.
Keep your feeding operation affordable. I’ve had people complain bird seed is expensive. But it’s up to you how much seed to put out and how often. Fill feeders at the time of day you can enjoy watching the birds.
Never put out more feeders than you can keep clean, or clean up after. Feeders can get gunky and can spread diseases. Every couple weeks, clean them with soap and water, maybe a little bleach, and rinse well. If you see a sick bird, don’t put the feeders back up for a week. We usually don’t feed in the summer because even more disgusting stuff grows in feeder debris.
Be sure to keep the seed hulls swept up every few days, or think about feeding hulled sunflower seeds.
Don’t be cheap. Rather than the bags of mixed seed, go for the black-oil sunflower seed. Seed mixes often contain filler seed—or at least seed that birds around here won’t eat—and you’ll just be sweeping it up anyway. Black oil sunflower seed attracts a wide variety of seed-eating birds. Buy the 40-pound sack at the feed store for a better price per pound. If it still seems too expensive, feed only the amount you can afford each day.
Leave the cats indoors. There are many reasons cats should live indoors fulltime, including their health and safety, but really, is it fair to invite birds to your yard where a predator lurks? The feeder may be on a pole or hanging above the cat, but certain birds prefer to feed on the spilled seed on the ground.
On the other hand, if a neighbor cat stakes out your yard, you can make sure the area around the feeder has no place for a cat to hide. I’ve also heard of putting up a 2-foot high wire fence around the feeder, maybe at a radius of about 6 feet. The time it takes the predator to jump the fence gives the birds enough advanced warning to get out of the way.
Offer variety. Some birds like tube-style and hopper feeders. Others that prefer feeding on the ground can learn to use a shelf feeder. Consider nyjer thistle, which is expensive, but use a special feeder for it designed with smaller seed ports or ports that are below the perches, something goldfinches and chickadees can handle but others can’t. Add a suet or seed cake. It may help draw in woodpeckers and chickadees. Offer peanuts and you may get blue jays—and squirrels.
Don’t clean up your flowerbeds in the fall. The seed-eating birds attracted to your feeders will enjoy the seed heads. Plus, tree leaves, while providing mulch, may also provide a variety of eggs of insects (many beneficial) that the birds enjoy picking over.
On a frigid day, have open water in a birdbath. It is almost more attractive than food. Find some kind of shallow bowl, preferably with sloping sides, which won’t break if the water freezes. It should be easy to bring in the house to thaw out. Or get an electric heater designed for birdbaths or dog water dishes.
For more detailed feeding information, go to my archives at www.CheyenneBirdBanter.wordpress.com. Look for “Bird feeding” in the list of topics.
Study your visitors. From your feeder-watching window, scan your trees and shrubs and garden beds to see if you can get a glimpse of more than house finches and house sparrows, especially in the spring. Of the 85 species I’ve seen in or above our yard, I’ve recorded 27 from November through March, prime feeder season.
Share your bird sightings at www.eBird.org, or for $18, this winter you can take part in Project FeederWatch, www.feederwatch.org. It isn’t too late to sign up. You get a nifty bird calendar poster and a handbook. Even if you don’t participate, the website is full of information about bird feeding and feeder birds.
Have fun. However, if you find it isn’t fun, take down the feeders. Reduce your stress by going for a walk and enjoy the birds along the way.