We’ve all been there, meandering around the local hardware store when we spot a barn shaped bird feeder. We think to ourselves “how adorable is that thing! I need one of those to hang from the Shepherd’s Hook that my kids bought me for Mother’s Day a few years ago. It’ll be so much prettier than the dead hanging basket I usually hang there”. Okay, maybe you don’t suffer from the “petunias hate my guts” syndrome that I seem to be afflicted with, but many of us have definitely fallen prey to the impulse buy of the adorable bird feeder. But what do you do with that feeder once you get it home?
Well to begin, different birds like different foods. What birds are you trying to draw to your yard? My favorite go-to seed is the Black Oil Sunflower seed. It’s an extremely nutritious seed and it draws my favorite Cardinals, Blue Jays, Nuthatches and Titmice to the feeder. Cracked corn will bring in Mourning Doves, Sparrows and Blackbirds. Clinging birds like Finches tend to prefer small seeds like Nyjer Seed. Peanuts are a popular offering for Woodpeckers, Crows, Jays and Grackles. The Mourning Doves are happy to pick through anything that the messier of the birds throw to the ground and all birds benefit from suet cakes. Suet is made using animal fat and a variety of seeds to offer wintering birds a high energy meal that keeps them healthy and active during the cold of winter. Some folks also offer peanut butter and fruit to their winter birds but note that suet, peanut butter and fruit can quickly turn rancid in the summer heat.
“Alright” you say, “I hung my bird feeder out and I’ve been watching it for 15 minutes now. Where are the birds?” I’ve been there too. The first time I hung a feeder in my yard, it stayed full for three weeks. Not a single bird. As I stood in the yard, puzzled and staring at that feeder, I realized that the bench it looked so lovely hanging next to was a perfect place for my cat to lay and watch for birds. Location is important. A nearby tree gives the birds someplace to stage while they’re using the feeder and the higher the feeder hangs, the less likely your kitty will use it as a personal hunting ground. Unfortunately, patience is also of the essence here. Birds are creatures of habit. Why else would they fly thousands of miles to the same place every year for vacation? They need to start seeing your feeder as a reliable food source. It takes some time. You’ll know when you’ve reached your goal. Your feeder will be emptied in a day and when you trudge out in the snow to fill it, there will be a Nuthatch in a tree nearby giving you loads of grief for daring to take so long. Have I mentioned that I have a very cheeky resident Nuthatch? Don’t forget to try to offer a winter water source as well. Birds often suffer from a lack of good water during the winter, even more than a lack of good food.
The last step is making sure your feeders stay relatively clean. Birds get sick too. Seed gets moldy. Feeders can be covered in bird droppings. Make sure that you are diligent about your bird feeder hygiene and regular cleanings are a necessity. And last but definitely not least, wash your hands well when you clean your feeders as bird droppings can be a potential health hazard for you as well. For those of you thinking about purchasing feeders this year, we happen to carry some of the nicest feeders I’ve ever seen for sale. Made locally here in Ohio from kiln dried cedar, these feeders are built to last. Stop by the District office and check them out. It’s a good way to know that your dollars are staying here in Ohio and it’s a bonus that you’re helping to support your Muskingum Soil and Water Conservation District so we can continue our conservation education efforts in Muskingum County.
If you want to draw in lots of birds, spend some time installing bird houses too. If you have a reliable food source and shelter, you’ll be running a bird B&B in no time. They’re pretty opportunistic little critters and they will reward you for your winter diligence by eating unbelievable amounts of plant destroying bugs during the summer. It’s estimated that a single Carolina Chickadee nest can consume 6000 caterpillars in a single season. That’s a lot of produce destroying caterpillars going into baby bird bellies and for me, a bit of sweet retribution for all the heads of cabbage and tomato plants those caterpillars have destroyed over the years.
Worried about the birds picking your berries and destroying your crops? For those of us with crops that birds find tasty, it’s a well-founded fear. The research is ongoing but is ever expanding. However, research studies over the years have found that birds vastly prefer bugs over berries, with a particular study group from the University of Basel in Switzerland releasing a report in 2017 that birds eat between 400 and 500 million tons of bugs worldwide annually. In fact, the vast majority of farmers worldwide who have engaged in professional studies report better yields with resident birds. A vineyard manager in Napa Valley, Ron Rosenbrand installed 1000 bluebird boxes at the Spring Mountain Vineyard based on university research being done at UC Berkley by Ornithologist Julie Jedlicka. His results? The vineyard has seen the near eradication of the Pierce Disease Blight since 2006, a deadly grape blight that had once caused vast damage in that very vineyard. The bluebirds eat the insects that infect the plants and their grape yield has seen a significant annual increase. Similar research is being done in the Missouri Ozarks to try to eradicate pests killing the state’s White Oak trees. Add to that the number of mosquitoes and other disease carrying insects that birds consume, which directly impact human health and contagious disease outbreaks, and you can see how critical healthy bird populations can be to our existence. In the late 1940s, the island nation of Guam saw the accidental introduction of a non-native brown tree snake. That snake thrived in Guam’s climate and the island experienced a significant decline in native bird populations over the next six decades, resulting in the ultimate extinction of all but two of their native bird species. The outcome? A 40 fold increase in the island’s spider population. I simply cannot think of a better reason to support your local bird population. Birds are great allies in the fight against bugs and seriously, who needs more spiders? So out to my feeders I go, rain or shine. My little Nuthatch neighbor will be expecting me.